SXSW Review: Life 2.0

By  · Published on March 29th, 2010

Do you remember a time during your childhood when all you wanted to do was run away and hide? Maybe you had done something wrong, maybe your parents or siblings were mad at you for something, or maybe you were mad at them, but no matter what the reason, it seemed like running away would solve everything. Even as an adult, the responsibilities of life can weigh on you so much that you feel like running away is the only way to be rid of your problems. You can start a new life, a new family, and despite the lessons of the past, you still think that if you could just do it all over again you could somehow avoid the traps and pitfalls that you fell prey to the first time around.

Life 2.0 is a fascinating documentary about the world of Second Life. For those who may not be familiar with it, Second Life is a virtual world. The easiest description would be to call it a video game, and while it shares many characteristics with video games, it’s not really a game. There are no goals or quests, no achievements or scores kept. It is very literally a world where you can establish a Second Life. You create an avatar, a graphical representation of yourself and you go about the normal things that people do in life. You can buy things, homes, clothes, cars, anything you can imagine. You can bowl or swim or dance. It’s a way to escape, to start again, to have a life in a world without responsibility or outside pressure. It’s like a glossy, digital clean slate.

Second Life is the creation of San Francisco-based company Linden Lab. Linden Lab CEO, Philip Rosedale pops up from time to time in the film to impart information from the company’s point of view. He shares that Second Life’s world is virtually entirely user-generated. Second Life started as a small island with a few trees. As more and more residents came in, they developed and created the world that exists in Second Life, or SL, the acronym by which users refer to it. And the users certainly did come in, by the truckload. Launched in 2003, SL hit 100,000 users in just 2 short years. After just 2 more years in existence, the user count had swelled to 7 million people in 2007. It more than doubled the next year to 15 million and by 2009 boasted a whopping 19 million users.

The documentary could have easily been overwhelming, but director Jason Spingarn-Koff shows a steady hand and focuses his film about a huge world encompassing millions of lives, both real and virtual, down to three stories. The first story we’re introduced to is that of a couple in love. These are two middle-aged people living hundreds of miles apart with completely separate lives. Both are married with their own families, but after meeting in Second Life, they start to wonder if there might be something better out there for them.

The second story follows a woman who makes her living in Second Life. Going by the name Asri Falcone, she wakes up around 6pm each night and works through until 10 or 11 the next morning. She’s a designer, creating everything from her own clothing line to custom-built, fully furnished high-end luxury homes. SL has it’s own currency, called Lindens or Linden dollars. You can buy and sell Linden dollars. For comparison, $1 US dollar is equal to about $260 Linden dollars. So as a creator and designer, Asri is paid in Linden dollars for her clothing, or her homes and those Linden dollars can be turned into actual money here in the real world. You may wonder how much money is really out there to be made, and while the films is careful to focus specifically on Asri and her situation, it sure seems like she’s making enough money to survive, leaning on her work in Second Life as her primary and possibly only source of income.

The last and most disturbing story centers on a young man who created an 11-year-old girl as his avatar for Second Life. As the film introduces his story, his interviews are done in shadow, obscuring his face. His fiancée, who he was living with at the time, is also interviewed to get her side of the story. This guy dove into Second Life to an unhealthy degree, immersed in the world for every waking second, sleeping only when his body essentially crashed from lack of rest, neglecting all other responsibilities including his job and ignoring his fiancée. And that’s to say nothing of the way in which he was interacting within that virtual world that was monopolizing his time and energy. He talks about his avatar, named Ayya, in a way that suggests that she is a sentient being of her own, that he is simply a conduit or a driver through which she can express herself. While he insists that his choice of an opposite-gendered child to represent himself in Second Life is nothing of a sexual nature and while nothing occurs during the interviews to contradict that statement, it still seems clear that there are some deep-seeded psychological issues at work in his mind that he should really address with a professional.

Despite some controversial and polarizing issues that come up during the course of the film, the filmmakers are very careful not to pass judgment on anyone, forgoing any kind of voice over narration, and allowing the participants to speak for themselves, to tell their own stories in their own words. Mixing footage from Second Life as well as real world interviews, Life 2.0 is a riveting look into a virtual world that seems to bleed over into real life for some of its users. I can’t say I went into this with any interest in Second Life whatsoever, but I still found the film enthralling and consistently interesting to watch. Life 2.0 is a film worth your time.

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