Can you truly find yourself in a video game? Canadian filmmaker and professor Ramona Pringle thinks so. After her mother got sick and she broke up with her New York boyfriend, she spent a year playing World of Warcraft, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game.
During that time, she found many pearls of wisdom, which she’s condensed into 10 “avatar secrets,” which inform her app-based documentary film of the same name.
Video games are an unlikely place to find wisdom, yet, within them, we can find camaraderie, experience the sting of defeat, and help each other become our best selves. Rather than simple time-wasters, social video games like World of Warcraft and Second Life mirror the human condition.
While Pringle doesn’t log in to WoW much these days, the game had an undeniable impact. “This project very much changed my life, my career and my perspective,” she said during a telephone call with Cult of Mac.
The app itself presents a layered approach to telling Pringle’s story, from her mother’s illness to her breakup to her own experiences playing the online game.
Pringle started the project as a way to understand people who have made personal connections and built real communities via the digital world.
She ended up learning much more about herself along the way, coming up with 10 life lessons that apply equally to her life outside the game world. Lessons we can all benefit from, like: “Know yourself,” “ask for help,” “when you fall, get back up,” and the like.
Each avatar secret is presented as its own chapter, complete with footage of Pringle in documentary-style re-enactments, drawn scenes of her in-game avatar adventures (which have been fictionalized), and interviews with people like Nathan Jurgenson, a social media theorist and researcher for Snapchat, and John Seely Brown, director of the Deloitte Center for the Edge.
Sue Johnson, psychologist and author of Hold Me Tight, says, “We are wired for connection, and we’re completely dismissing that. We’re building a life and a society, and beginning to feel that this isolation as normal and healthy.” Those of our ancestors that were wired for self-sufficiency, she argues in the film, ended up dead, while those who cooperated passed that along to their descendants, us.
After working all day, Pringle spent her evenings and free time in-game, searching for connections. Her revelations in the app’s filmed moments can at times seem melodramatic, even schmaltzy, but her emotional honesty rings true in each chapter. Her crush on her in-game guide seems a silly thing — naive, even — but who among us hasn’t had an emotional response to someone we never expected to?
The app offers three ways to experience her story: the film itself, which moves through each chapter at a tap; the Experts interviews, which can be viewed in the film and separately; and Hotspots, which offer extra context to the stories within the film, like the story of Alejandra and Nick surviving a power outage after Hurricane Sandy in Lower Manhattan thanks to their online gaming community.
“Their story was fascinating to me from the very beginning,” Pringle said. “They would talk about their first date where she was throwing a big party and looking for a DJ, and he was a DJ in Second Life. They can’t go dancing in real life, but they love to go dancing inside the digital world.”
Aside from interesting stories about people who met through social games, the main takeaway for me is Pringle’s journey. She starts as a newbie healer seeking help to complete level 2 quests and finally becomes a competent character that can both heal and fight. Pringle attributes some of this to her mother.
“They say we become our mothers,” Pringle notes in the film. “And it’s true — I had her laugh and her smile. If my mom had made an avatar, she would for sure have made a warrior, and I guess I had become one, too. But the real superpower my mom had given me was her kindness.”
Ultimately, Avatar Secrets is the story of one woman searching for a way to cope with the loss of her daily life in New York as well as the fear of losing her mother to illness. What she found in World of Warcraft gave her a new way of looking at the real world, leveling up her skills of camaraderie, empathy, perseverance and reciprocity.
Avatar Secrets is available for free in the Canadian App Store, and is coming soon to the US one.