Tuesday, April 19, 2011

4/19 essay on Second Skins

The real world is far from fair, right from the moment of conception. One's parents' lives deeply affect how one begins one's existence, from general situation to behavior. Infants are born into poverty, war, or oppression every day. Heredity can predispose one to autism, dwarfism, or countless other mental, physical, or immune disabilities (immune disabilities is here defined as an inherited predisposition towards cancer, glaucoma, or other diseases). Everyone is born with a fixed ethnicity and gender, and attempts to change these are met with ostracizing and violence. In a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), these cruelties of chance have little to no hold.

When someone logs onto World of Warcraft, Guild Wars, EVE Online, RuneScape, or any other MMORPG and creates a character, it's a blank slate. Zsiarudael the Dragon-Slayer can never have the fetal alcohol syndrome that his hypothetical player has. Siren347 will not bear the bruises and scars inflicted upon her transgendered player. While a human may suffer a long, slow death from Huntington's Chorea, a Klingon avatar will simply cease to log in. No matter what the player's background in real life, their avatar is what and who they choose to make it. Undesirable, unchangeable conditions can be fled with ease in the digital realm of the player's choice.

As the film mentioned, for a level zero player, the field is open. All of these fixed initial conditions are set upon character creation to the player's tastes. Everyone starts out with either the same statistics or the freedom to adjust starting statistics within even parameters. Marx spoke of an ideal world where every infant is born into equality, but even socialism/communism could never eliminate hereditary disabilities.

Digital realms of MMORPGs are not only a Marxist's dream, but an existentialist's dream as well. Some games have “core plotlines,” but these can be ignored. Quests and similar activities have goals, but starting a quest is optional too. A player can decide to dance for tips, or to farm, or anything allowed within the game engine. Anything that the game engine allows can be turned into a primary means of activity. It's a world with implicit goals, much like real life (money, fame, family, etc.), but those are only suggestions, far less ingrained than the suggested goals of real life. All of this freedom is a powerful tonic for escapists everywhere.

Worth mentioning, though, is Second Skins's depiction of this escapism. Most of the players shown are not escaping crippling diseases or unchangeable conditions; the gamers shown are escaping conditions that could be changed with effort. Bad skin can be medicated, obesity can be controlled with diet and exercise, and dead-end jobs can be replaced with more satisfying work. While the world of 1s and 0s has provided refuge for those stricken by chance, the film has depicted those who choose to leave the fleshly world behind.

Self-improvement, in the fleshly world, is difficult. Junk food habits are hard to break, getting into shape takes determination, and the medical procedures required to fix bad teeth or eyesight are expensive. In a game, grinding to improve stats or gain items is tedious, but the quantified nature of stats or items in video games makes rewards more tangible and regular. Seeing one's constitution stat go up in-game is less satisfying than a compliment to one's figure from someone attractive, but it's easier to see how close one is to the numerical goal. Quantifiable progress has less potential for frustration and imagined impotence than the unquantifiable, non-linear progress of real-world improvement.

Interesting is the film's mention of many big MMORPG players being in what they feel are “dead-end office jobs.” It's very understandable that the tiny cog doesn't appreciate its part in the greater machinations it's involved in, but the effectiveness in placating the dissatisfaction of said tiny cogs is astounding. It's not too far a stretch to suggest that MMORPGs are, to paraphrase Lenin, the opiate of the working class. Instead of devouring each other in the quest for upward mobility, these office drones vent their frustrations and slake their aspirations in computerized realms, leaving them to quietly keep the wheels of society turning.

Admittedly, the film was not explicitly drawing these conclusions, merely implying them. Second Skins doesn't actively advocate meat-space over cyber-space, but the only benefits of MMORPGs they've shown so far apply to networking in the real world. An examination of the relative philosophical value of “reality” in the face of this idealized digital world remains untouched. Still, the film is not yet done, and there is hope for this question to be asked yet.

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