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Gamers Get Screen Time in "Second Skin"

By Ed Fuentes
Published: Wednesday, August 12, 2009, at 03:39PM
Second Skin

Screenings at the Downtown Independent start Friday for "Second Skin," a documentary about virtual worlds and the lives of online gamers, particularly those addicted to MMORPGs -- massively multiplayer online role-playing games.

The film, which took top documentary honors at the ACE Festival in New York, was directed by Juan Carlos Piñeiro Escoriaza, CEO of Pure West.

We recently caught up with the director to ask a few questions before the screening.

BLOGDOWNTOWN: This screening the last "indie" presentation before its distribution. What does that say about film suits tapping into the gamer audience?

JUAN CARLOS PIÑEIRO ESCORIAZA: This is the last "indie" screening of the film, and I will be there on Friday and Saturday for Q&A's. I think 'film suits' are paying attention to gamers and gaming because it's making more money than films are. Each year we see unbelievable growth in the video game industry, and I think it's something that Hollywood worries about. Video game culture is mainstream, and as such has a built in audience who are interested in it. Hollywood is a business and are looking for ways to generate sales. If tapping into gamer culture is profitable then they will make movies geared towards them.

BD: You knew the culture of gamers rather well before you shot "Second Skin." Was there something you discovered that surprised even you?

I think something the producers and I didn't truly understand was disabled gamers. I had the chance to meet Andrew Monkelban in upstate New York, and he showed me how online games gave him a new life. One was how he was responsible for others. His alter ego was in a sense his true self. He could step out in the world, and be who he could not physically be in the game. The way a game can empower people to be more than what they are was very surprising.

BD: How important are festivals like these? As a filmmaker, is it important to reach a city filled with movie decision makers, or is there something to be said about a film fest in middle America, or outside major cities.

When choosing a film festival the first three (world, international, and European) are unbelievably important. It's not about going to the biggest festival, but rather understanding where your audience exists. In the end it's about creating enough buzz that it sparks people's attention. Apart from being a great film fest SXSW had an incredible interactive fest that occurs around the same time, and that's what drove the choice to submit there first. Getting into a major festival helped my wallet out a lot too because other fests asked to see the movie and so the fee got waived.

Once you build a little cred though I think putting it into absolutely everywhere you can is the next step. Audiences for films are everywhere, and middle America is a great place to generate more interest. "Second Skin" actually toured the gamer conventions in 2008 targeting our core audience, and so it screened in Ohio and Indiana multiple times.

BD: When exploring gamer culture, did you take anything away that may influence your next project: a noirish book for a first time out author?

I think exploring a subculture is a privilege, and one that can't be taken lightly. To say that online gaming is a subculture is a stretch in my mind. It has become quite mainstream in the last few years, and in terms of where it's going the trajectory points to them becoming infinitely more important in our lives. That said, when exploring MMO culture, it was looking for the humanity in everything that was key. We are connected to one another emotionally in the most basic human ways in so far as we feel love, anger, sadness, etc. Searching for universal truths that pave a way for others to peek in and connect with a culture is the pre-eminent goal. In that sense I know it will affect the next film. Diving head first into Hipster culture has been quite interesting so far.

BD: Showing this at the independent theater is a risk. How do the facilities help your particular screening?

Independent theaters help by sending out newsletters, getting the film on event calendars, and most importantly opening their doors to the film itself. We're both taking a big risk, but we also are in it together. Owners need to profit just as much as I do. The important thing is to remember that getting into a theater isn't winning the battle. Getting people to see your movie is.

BD: As a director, can you recall your initial reactions when you saw your name and this project in major publications and reviews?

I definitely remember that the first time I saw my name in a review was absolutely terrifying. The idea of someone talking about you and never having met you is somewhat bizarre. It ended up being positive, and I was really excited about it, but turning the monitor to actually look at it seemed to last forever. After a few months of looking at reviews I had to stop myself from obsessing over it. Now and then I'll look now, but not nearly as much as I used to.

BD: I enjoyed the commitment of AnimExpo goers get into character at conventions. As this film talks about alter ego, is the title "Second Skin" also a commentary on people finding "characters" to escape in?

The idea of having an alter ego is what the title 'Second Skin' refers to. When we enter these virtual spaces we become anonymized. We are no longer a man or woman, we aren't separated by class, we don't have racial heritage. The one thing we do have is a voice. Our words make us who we are in these spaces, and that is very powerful.

BD: Escape isn't really the right word, then.

Many times gamers say they become more themselves in the online space. It allows them to explore facets of their personality that they didn't feel comfortable with doing in reality. Many times it leads to a sea of change in who they are in reality. Some people have even used their leadership experiences in game as a resume piece to help them leverage a job promotion.

BD: What is the toughest question you had to ask yourself during this documentary?

I think an early interview gave me quite an epiphany. I had been asking people why they liked virtual spaces. I was chatting with Edward Castronova, author of Synthetic Worlds and I asked him a similar question. He responded with something I never forgot. I don't remember it verbatim, but I'll try to do it justice.

He said, "The first thing you have to ask yourself is how virtual are our real lives. To get here I went from my house to my car. I got on an airplane, and took a cab here. I'm in an air conditioned room that is created by humans, and the walls that surround me are all man made. The last time I walked on grass was a long time ago, and that's true of a lot of people." I felt like Neo from the Matrix when Morpheus says, "Is that air that your breathing? Hm."

The toughest question is ~ What is so "real" about the reality we have created for ourselves in this world?   "Second Skin" screens at the Downtown Independent, August 14 - 20.


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