Filmmaker Jason Spingarn-Koff has made a documentary about the online virtual world Second Life. His film follows people who've gotten hooked on the game, people who use it to make a living, to escape themselves, and to commit infidelity. Bob talks to Spingarn-Koff about his film.
BOB GARFIELD: Right now thousands of people are logged in to a virtual world called Second Life. It's not quite a video game. There aren't any fixed goals or enemies, and you can't really lose. It's more like playing make believe, but plugged in, online and with adults dressed up digitally as avatars of their own creation. In Second Life's virtual world people reinvent themselves, age, race, body type, gender, and then they build virtual cities, create virtual goods and forge relationships which, though interlaced with fantasy, are nonetheless real.
Filmmaker Jason Spingarn-Koff spent years inside Second Life, as he attempted to understand how time spent in the virtual world shapes our life in the flesh and blood one. His documentary follows three remarkable stories of life in the virtual world. You see infidelity in progress, gender confusion, theft, litigation, even a virtual shooting spree.
JASON SPINGARN-KOFF: She would go in with the tag that says "Suicide Bomber," with the explosive vest on and got a few weapons, all of the gadgets she had that could do the most damage to other residents.
[SOUND OF TYPING, GUNFIRE]
BOB GARFIELD: What the film attempts to show is that virtual life, just like real life, can be complicated. It can be rewarding and it can be heartbreaking. I asked Jason Spingarn-Koff why people go into Second Life.
JASON SPINGARN-KOFF: The promise is pretty amazing. This is a world on the computer where you can be whoever you want to be. You can construct a whole new identity, and then you can travel to all these fantastic places, like tropical beaches or snow-covered mountains.
Anything you can imagine people have built within Second Life. And then there's an economy which uses real money. Also, no one knows who you really are in Second Life, so there's a chance to have this alternate identity, where you can express things that you may not be able to express in your day-to-life.
BOB GARFIELD: So it's Tabula Rasa. You get to start from scratch and build your life exactly as you wish for it to be constructed, right?
JASON SPINGARN-KOFF: Yeah exactly, and then you meet other people and you forge friendships and, if you're a creative person, you can start building things. You can build houses or clothes. You can even rent a piece of land and get your little virtual seaside cottage or seaside mansion and feel that you have everything you always dreamed that you had in your real life, maybe things you could never attain.
BOB GARFIELD: Which is swell but, as your film explores, you can't help but have your Second Life intrude, to one degree or another, in your first life. You had three sets of characters, a couple named Amy and Steven, who we see in the presses of forging an extramarital affair, a woman named as Asri who actually earns her livelihood in Second Life by designing clothes and, and houses and other things that are actually sold for cash dollars on Second Life, and a guy who I think of as Mr. X, who is a young man whose avatar on Second Life is a little girl named Ayya.
BOB GARFIELD: How did you come upon this cast of characters?
JASON SPINGARN-KOFF: Well, I spent hundreds of hours in Second Life meeting avatars, exploring. Everywhere I looked, I just found more and more fascinating little islands and subcultures. And my avatar is a cameraman avatar named Jay Spire, and I would go around and meet people, like a journalist might in the real world. And other people found me, once they learned about what I was doing. And then I also want to conferences where Second Life people would gather. And that's a great opportunity because at least you know the people behind the avatar.
One of the greatest challenges in making the film is that people guard their real life identity so much in Second Life, and often they don't want to reveal who they are.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, that would certainly apply to Mr. X, the guy whose avatar is a — an 11-year-old girl named Ayya. Here is him talking about that.
[VIDEO CLIP FROM LIFE 2.0]:
MR. X: She loves to dance. That's been sort of her calling in life, and Second Life is a great place for dancing I think of myself as an observer, maybe sort of a driver because she's guiding me and she's — she knows what she wants me to do, and I do it.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, we come to discover that, while this guy articulates a reason that this isn't creepy, that his life, his real life is very complicated and maybe even pathological, but — you were satisfied from the beginning I gather, that he wasn't some sort of Internet predator who is disguising himself as an 11-year-old girl in order to meet other 11-year-old girls online, right?
JASON SPINGARN-KOFF: I was confident he was not a predator. In talking with him, he really wanted to share his story for two reasons, one because he was trying to understand Internet addiction. He contacted me only a — about a week after he first went into Second Life and was very frightened about what was going on with him.
And the second part was to show me what this world is all about, of adults who have child avatars and that there was a lot of misconception in the media that this was largely a sexual subculture, but it's really so much more complicated than that.
Most of the adults who role play children are doing it for reasons such as there a, a lost childhood, or things that they may not understand, and this particular man would up discovering something about himself that he could never talk about to anyone else. And he credits Second Life with helping him deal with this incredible trauma he experienced.
BOB GARFIELD: But in the process he spends 14, 16, 18, 20 hours a day on Second Life, forsaking the real world in the process.
Another character was so immersed in Second Life that she seems, at least based on your film, to scarcely have had a flesh and blood one. That's Asri. I assume these are not the norm.
JASON SPINGARN-KOFF: Well, Second Life has about 800,000 users a month right now. And of those, most of the people are not on it 24 hours a day. But there is a subset of that — there was a study that about 44,000 users spend 50 hours a week or more in Second Life, and half of them are spending 10 hours a day or more. So that's — you know, you've got more than 20,000 people were in there full time.
BOB GARFIELD: Let's talk about Asri for a moment. She is the woman who actually built a business there. And on one level she is charming and poised and witty and in many ways has it together, as she [LAUGHS] figures out a way to sell virtual stuff to real people inhabiting a virtual world.
But she's all-in, in Second Life. It's her social life, it's her business. All her eggs are in the Second Life basket, which, at the risk of being a spoiler here, winds up causing a great deal of grief. Tell me a bit about Asri.
JASON SPINGARN-KOFF: Well, Asri is, I think, a really terrific, charismatic creative person who happens to live with her parents in Detroit, working out of the basement, at least when I was filming her. She was pretty much in Second Life every waking hour. Second Life was just a dream for her when she discovered it. She could play a video game, and she could design and she could get paid for it. And she made at one point six figures a year, and that's in real dollars.
BOB GARFIELD: Wow, until something bad happens, a kind of mundane earthly sort of rip-off crime, right?
JASON SPINGARN-KOFF: [LAUGHS] Yeah, well the virtual world is such a mirror of the real world that human nature runs its course, and there is crime in the virtual world. And Asri becomes the victim of a crime. It's a fascinating case, actually, which resulted in the first lawsuit where avatars sued other avatars for intellectual property theft.
BOB GARFIELD: On the subject of the overlap between flesh and blood behaviors and in Second Life, there is the story of Amy and Steven whose avatars met and whose avatars fell in love, and next thing you know Steven is leaving his real life in Canada to join Amy in New York. And —you know, and they're both married people. There's one sequence, Jason, where we see Amy and Steven on Second Life talking to one another. And Amy is interrupted by her husband. She goes to the door of her study to talk to him and then comes back and says, that was my husband. He's suspicious of what I'm up to.
At that stage I'm a little suspicious too, on the grounds of too good to be true for a documentarian [LAUGHS] to be present for this exchange. How did you score that sequence?
JASON SPINGARN-KOFF: Well, one of the beauties of filming people in Second Life is it's really not that hard to be there often. All I would need to do was be in my apartment in New York, logged into Second Life and then Amy could be logged in from New York and Steven could be logged in from Canada. And we would need and we would have interviews together.
And, you know, when people are engaged in a very high risk activity like having an affair, I think there's lots of dramatic moments probably all the time. So if you're kind of in the right place at the right time, interesting things will happen.
BOB GARFIELD: I was stunned at how they'd expose themselves. I don't know if it's exhibitionism or what. There's another scene later when they've already left their respective spouses where Steven's still in Canada, Amy is in her place in New York and they're speaking sort of halfway between Second Life and the real world, digitally via Skype. They're both in bed saying goodnight to each other.
AMY: Hello. Where are you?
STEVEN: Here. Hi, sweetheart.
AMY: [ ? ] Hi.
STEVEN: How are you? [ ? ]
AMY: I'm good. How are you? How's your day?
BOB GARFIELD: Do you have any insight as to what would motivate them to open up their lives at such grave risk to themselves?
JASON SPINGARN-KOFF: Well, at this point in the relationship things are going really well. They were really excited to be sharing with the world this virtual love story. And there are many people out there who are having these types of relationships, whether it's in Second Life or other online worlds, or in FaceBook. Apparently, now FaceBook is one of the leading sources of evidence in divorce proceedings right now because they are so many online affairs through FaceBook.
Amy was also thinking that if things don't turn out well, this would be an important cautionary story for other people.
BOB GARFIELD: So now that you've documented these, all of which resulted in one level or another of extreme real world unhappiness, if you were write a disclaimer that was to appear on the screen for everyone signing up for Second Life, for their blank slate to begin, what would the disclaimer say?
JASON SPINGARN-KOFF: Warning: Second Life is real. Because it is real. It's not physical, but it's real. What makes the virtual world real is that the people are real and the relationships are real and the emotions are real. And some people may not realize that going in, but that's what makes Second Life so powerful. And that's why people stay there and why some people get hooked.
BOB GARFIELD: Jason, thank you so much.
JASON SPINGARN-KOFF: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Jason Spingarn-Koff is the creator of Life 2.0, which will appear on Oprah Winfrey's OWN Channel in August.