“My avatar is a 12 year old girl,” says the 30ish-year-old man in Life 2.0, a documentary by director Jason Spingarn-Koff that opens tonight at O Cinema in Wynwood. The film explores the real lives of several adults who are each living active — disturbingly, fascinatingly active — lives online through Second Life, self-described as the “internet’s largest 3-D virtual world community.”
That bland description doesn’t do much justice to Second Life, a Linden Lab product with 15 million users, its own currency (the “Linden”), a $500 million economy of virtual goods and services, its own tabloid (AvaStar), and adoption agencies. (More on those below.) Spingarn-Koff’s film, however, does do “SL” justice in its captivating, “no effing way” portrayal of how the relentlessly addictive “game” can destroy and/or save its users’ first lives. Two of the Second Lifers in Life 2.0 find love, first “in avatar” and then in person; another earns a six-figure salary designing virtual homes and clothing; and yet another finds solace from childhood trauma while putting his relationship with his fiancée at risk.
If you are largely ignorant of virtual worlds like Second Life (as I was), Life 2.0 will blow you away, possibly even frighten you. The film elicits a range of reactions, from fear to inspiration, according to Spingarn-Koff, who I spoke to by phone Wednesday as he pushed his infant in a stroller through the traffic-clogged streets of New York City. Here’s an excerpt of our conversation.
How did you decide to do a film on Second Life?
JS-K: Close to five years ago was the first time I went into Second Life. I went in for fun, I think like most people, out of curiosity. I tried out different avatars and immediately though it was so strange and interesting and funny and psychologically complex — someone had to make a film about it. I thought it would be good for someone to try to approach the virtual world like the real world. You see me, my avatar, in the film, holding my camera. I wanted to focus on the story that wasn’t being covered in the press, which is the affect on people. Why are people doing this and how does it affect their sense of themselves and their relationships to other people and their concept of reality? That wasn’t something being covered much when I went in in 2006. There was a huge amount of press, but mostly focused on the novelty, basically tours of Second Life.
How would you describe Second Life to someone who’s never heard of it?
I would define it as a virtual world created by its users. Or you could say an online virtual world populated by avatars where everything in it is created by its users.
How does it work?
I tried to show a lot of how it worked in bits and pieces without being a full-on exposition. Often what happens is you search and find stores or some exotic place and you teleport there and you roam around and find other people. Or people can invite you to certain places. They’re all on different islands, virtual parcels of land, which are also called “sims”. It’s a mix of public space and quasi-private space. These are kinda philosophical questions, like, who owns this stuff? Basically, you explore, you meet people, they take you to places.
The most interesting things in Second Life are things you’re not going to find easily. I spent hundreds of hours on Second Life, meeting avatars and having them take me places. That’s how I found out about the world of child avatars and adoption agencies. That stuff is very much a subculture, one of many. There’s subcultures for just about anything you can think of. And they get more and more bizarre.
Can you describe the Second Life adoption agencies?
Keep in mind everyone on Second Life is 18 and over. Well, now they’ve lowered the age to 16, but at the time of the film everyone had to be 18 and over. It’s supposed to be — there are basic age verifications — but kids find a way to get on younger. It’s the internet, right? No one knows who you really are.
So, adoption agencies. Some people role play children and some people roll play adults. On the wall [of the adoption agency], there’s a wall of picture of kids who want to be adopted by families, and adult avatars can go in there and choose them and make them part of the family. And there’s also walls for parents, for children who want to find parents.
The parents often have houses … and if you join a family, you can be in the house with them and they might give you a bedroom. All of this was created by the users, not by Linden Lab. People just had a human desire to have parents or to have children and they found a way to express that within Second Life. So it’s really a kinda cultural or sociological phenomenon that grew out of Second Life.
One of the people in Life 2.0 roll plays an avatar who is a clothing and home designer, and she says that she makes six figures selling her products. How does money change hands in Second Life?
It’s kinda like PayPal where you put in a credit card and then you can buy Linden dollars. And you can cash out Linden dollars onto your credit card or PayPal. It’s very straight forward. They allow you to use any currency. There used to be banks, private banks, but they were banned after someone ran away with everyone’s money. [Laughs] So, yeah, there’s a lot of money changing hands. There used to be about $1.5 million changing hands everyday.
What was your experience on Second Life? Did you get addicted?
I definitely got obsessed with it because I spent more than three years in Second Life making the film. I’m not the best judge of whether I was spending too much time in Second Life or not. It became more time than I expected for sure. It’s pretty addictive, I do have to say. Certain people get really hooked on it. There’s a physical feeling in there, and you lose sense of time, and you can be totally immersed. Even though it’s not that realistic visually, it can feel very real. So I feel that I’ve experienced some of the experiences and emotions that some of the characters in the film had.
Did any of your relationships suffer as they the Second Lifers’ do in the film?
Me, personally, no. But the film was the hardest project I’ve ever worked on. At a certain point it became hard to separate the two [first life and Second Life]. I made a conscious effort to not use Second Life past 10 p.m. because I felt if I was on it past then I would lose all sense of time and it would be too dangerous. Especially after all these stories of people in the film, I was always a little cautious about it.
As someone who is wary of getting sucked into computer life, I viewed Life 2.0 as almost a scary film. I imagine other people perceive it differently depending on who they are. Were you consciously pushing a particular message?
I’ve had all kinds of reactions to the film. A lot of people are inspired and want to go into Second Life, and other people are afraid. So I do think it depends on the perspective you’re coming at it with.
I would say that I do not intend a message or pass judgment on Second Life. I’ve seen how for some people it can be an amazingly positive experience; they make great friendships; have creative outlets; derive therapeutic benefits from it. I’ve met a lot of people going to Second Life conferences who are really devoted to Second Life, and I have a lot of respect for the Second Life community. But I did want to show in the film that it’s more complicated than the digital utopia that it was initially promoted as. And that, in general, beyond Second Life, people need to approach the internet with a degree of caution and, you know, work to shape these technologies for social good … These are still early days in the development of virtual worlds and the internet, and we shouldn’t assume that everything online is going to be perfect for us.
Life 2.0 is playing Thursday through Sunday at O Cinema. Tickets are available on Eventbrite, and the discount code “Beached” gets you $1.50 off any screening.