OWN isn't just four-for-four with its Documentary Club offerings — they're getting better as time goes on. With Life 2.0 (premiering Thursday at 9/8c), director Jason Spingarn-Koff explores Linden Lab's virtual world Second Life, in which people explore and interact in an online universe via avatars of their choice.
It's not quite a game, but how the documentary subjects negotiate the computer world and the real one makes for gripping dramatic tension.
Spingarn-Koff weaves together three stories of people who are mostly identified through their avatars. Aimee Goode and Bluntly Berblinger (real name: Steven) are a couple who met on Second Life, where they engaged in "emotional adultery." That is to say, while they were bumping avatars and doing weird pre-virtual sex meditation on giant floating lotuses, their real-life partners thought they were just playing some game. Their cheating is presented in detail at the film's start and it is luridly fascinating. Asri Falcone is the avatar of a Detroit woman who spends her nights (she keeps a nocturnal schedule to keep her from real-life distractions like phone calls) designing houses and outfits for virtual-world residents. And then, there's Ayya Aabye, an 11-year-old female avatar controlled by a grown man whose identity is revealed gradually during Life 2.0. It's not that when you finally see his face, it's some big reveal (you won't recognize him), it's just that his arc is all about coming to terms with his own identity and so it's an artistic decision (and a wise one at that) to trickle his image in.
That these people are almost entirely lacking self-awareness is a plus to the entertainment quotient. We're treated to a really ridiculous sex scene between Aimee and Bluntly (Aimee: "I feel very naked." Bluntly: "You are."). Dipping out of Second Life and into online communication that's somewhat less removed, they purposely fall asleep together while Skyping, making due within their long-distance relationship (Bluntly: "I'm gonna turn off my light, but I'm gonna leave it on so that you're there and I can hear you breathing." Aimee: "OK. Thank you for sleeping with me. Makes me feel so close to you.").
Asri says her avatar is a "mirror image" but anyone with working eyes can see that's untrue. At one point, it's claimed that she takes in six figures as a result of her Second Life work, but this makes no sense unless she's counting the decimal points. (As revealed late in the film, a class-action copyright lawsuit regarding items constructed on and for Second Life — the first of its kind — nets its six plaintiffs, including Asri, less than $600 in total.) She says she'll work for five or six months, eight hours a day to construct a house, but considering that castles go for 4.200 Lindens (the Second Life currency), which is equal to $15.61 in real dollars, it means that Asri's controller works for less than 2 cents an hour. She'd be better off investing in a metal detector.
Meanwhile, Ayya Aabye's guy talks about his avatar as though she is a separate entity with a will of her own ("One of the things that I've learned from her is that nothing is ever enough").
Second Life seems to loosen these people's grasp on the real world or attract those who never really had it in the first place. One of Ayya's online friends, another female child, is interviewed and she reveals, "I could not believe that we are both males in real life!" But why is that so unbelievable? The concept of a dude at his keyboard pretending to be female for whatever reason is as old as the concept of online social networking. When Linden Lab CEO Philip Rosedale is interviewed, he proclaims: "Things are real because they're there with us and we believe in them. And if they're simulated on digital computer versus sort of simulated by atoms and molecules, it doesn't make any difference to us."
It's a nice theory, and certainly perception can be what you make it, but there is a fundamental difference between what's in one's head and what's in the real world. Case in point: Homeless people. Case in point relevant to the movie at hand: Asri's proclamation that "you can have the house of your dreams within Second Life without the real-life price" is just talk, considering that she's caring for her avatar's mansion in the basement of her parents' house.
While sad things happen to these people, their general demeanor does not suggest tragedy. They seem, for better or worse, happy with the decisions they've made and the way they've elected to complicate their real lives with Second Life.
A portrait of these complications, Life 2.0 is strange and hilarious, just like life. It's virtually real.