When Jason Spingarn-Koff appears in his documentary Life 2.0, he wears a striped sweater and knit cap. He carries his camera on his shoulder. And on occasion, he turns to look at you. These moments are fleeting and few, and disconcerting. They indicate perfectly the illogic and appeal of the documentary’s focus, Second Life. A virtual world with millions of residents, SL lets users interact with one another — or more precisely, with each other’s avatars — as well as watch themselves interacting. Sometimes, as when Spingarn-Koff looks out from SL, they also seem to watch watchers watching.
Premiering 11 May at Stranger Than Fiction, Life 2.0 is aptly full of such disjunctive images. Repeatedly, Spingarn-Koff (or, SL Documentary Filmmaker, his avatar’s name), points his camera in the direction of interview subjects in SL, as they describe their experiences, in both Second Life and what they call First Life, that is, Real Life. A question that comes up again and again is just how real any of these lives might be. “Things are real because they’re there with us and we believe in them,” says Philip Rosedale. “If they’re simulated on a digital computer versus sort of simulated by atoms and molecules, it doesn’t make any difference.” The founder and CEO of Linden Lab, Rosedale appears in the film as a conventional talking head — tanned, composed, and plainly used to describing his product. “We simply built a technology platform,” he says.
Think of it as being much like the web, you know, we created the server space and the software running on the servers that will allow you to go in there and basically make web pages, except you’re not making web pages, you’re making reality.
Rosedale has an obvious — material as well as philosophical — interest in what his clients see, feel, and pay for, what they understand as real. The clients interviewed in Life 2.0 offer their own views of the realities they make. As they appear in both SL and First Life (or more quaintly, Real Life), these talking heads invite Spingarn-Koff and his camera (crew) into their homes. Asri Falcone, a web developer who lives in a small room in Detroit and has worked for Microsoft, makes her living in and off SL. Asri’s flesh-and-blood version smiles as she explains, “Asri Falcone is a mirror image. I don’t role-play Asri. Asri is me.”
A content creator in SL, Asri has a store space that she fills with clothing, shoes, jewelry, and skins. She also designs and sells fully furnished homes. “You can move right into your new home,” she says as you watch her avatar walk through a model hallway into a model bathroom. “You can actually have the home of your dreams in Second Life,” she says, “Without the real life price.”
You might wonder about definitions of “actually.” Asri does not. She supports her ailing parents with the income she makes in SL. (She says she’s done as well as six figures.) She spends 15 to 20 hours a day at her computer, Asri says, fueled by cigarettes and, apparently, chicken nuggets. She’s been sick on and off over the past year too, she adds, as she also worries over her lagging income in SL. It appears that someone else, an avatar named Rase Kenzo, has been stealing her designs (as well as those of other vendors) and selling them. She and several other designers hire a lawyer, Frank Taney, to gain control of their properties in RL. When the judge rules in favor of his clients, Taney asserts the ramifications of the decision: “Virtual worlds are governed by the laws of the real world. There is not this separation from the real world that people might think.”
Even as you might be wondering about these “people,” who might think such a thing, the film interviews other SL residents with questions about boundaries. These include a couple who meet in SL, Amie and Steve. Their romance feels so complete and so real that they decide to meet in RL. With cameras in tow, they see each other for the first time in an airport (he travels from Calgary to Westchester, NY, where she lives with her husband and daughter). They’re like giddy school kids, holding hands and scampering across the parking lot, thrilled at last to be kissing in their (actual?) bodies. As the shot of this embrace in Life 2.0 rather eerily resembles images of them kissing as avatars in SL, you’re left to contemplate how the “mirror” that Asri mentions might function, say, emotionally. If you’ve seen yourself on a park bench or walking along a perfect beach or having sex in a “private room” in SL, then how do you imagine it looks in a frame made by a filmmaking crew?
The avatar Ayya Aabye embodies another sort of border crossing. She’s an 11-year-old girl created by an unnamed young man whose fiancée is increasingly troubled by his immersion in SL. “He used to be able to work in his office with the door open,” says the fiancée. The documentary camera shows her from a distance in a long hallway, knocking on a closed door. Now he spends his time in SL, and, she adds, “Chances are he is with the female avatar.” She adds, “He says he’s getting something out of having a female child avatar. I’m not certain what that is.”
Ayya’s creator talks about her as having her own life and will: she takes him places, she dances, she DJs, and when she gets depressed, she contemplates a strikingly violent suicide. “I think of myself as an observer,” he says, “Maybe a driver, because she knows what she wants to do.” As Ayya shows her creator/observer/driver some things he hasn’t quite seen about himself, she serves an oddly therapeutic function, at least in this version of the reality he’s making… for the film… made by Spingarn-Koff… watched by you. As Life 2.0 reveals these layers of life and experience, you realize that they are not confined to SL. And as you realize, you’re making another.