Sarajevo Film Festival 2024

Life and community in virtual worlds

GAMING / A deep dive into virtual survivalist communities and the blur between reality and gaming.

Gaming is for some more than just occasional entertainment. Beyond entertainment, alternative realities are an escape, one that also builds communities, sometimes across continents, and a sense of identity. The time spent in the game makes this more than a pastime. It is something close to a lifestyle. And understanding such a lifestyle can be done in two ways. One is by meeting the gamers in the real world, speaking to them, understanding their drive and seeing how they live. And another is what Barbier, Causse and l’Helgoualc’h did, spending a total of 963 hours in the survivalist game DayZ, documenting the life that happens inside it, that world many escape in and the communities they build inside it.

Knit's Island Ekiem Barbier, Guilhem Causse & Quentin L'helgoualc'h
Knit’s Island, a film by Ekiem Barbier, Guilhem Causse & Quentin L’helgoualc’h

VR

Knit’s Island is a surprisingly fascinating 95-minute dive into a game’s fiction in which people live another reality and simultaneously bring their own reality. The film won the Burning Lights Prize at Visions du Reel, was recently screened at MajorDocs, and next screens at Romania’s Astra Film Festival. It is entirely shot in VR. It’s hard to imagine how such an approach can tell a story, but it does. It’s all in the interaction between that universe and real life that creeps in through the players, a baby crying in the background, a story told in this world but coming from the outside of this world, from the players’ real-life experience.

The directors started working on the film before the pandemic, but also film during some of the lockdowns, which comes up in some of the avatar conversations. They document this world of this alternative reality ‘on the ground’, simply walking around just like someone would do in a new place they want to learn about, meeting people and those people directing them towards others they interview.

The time spent in the game makes this more than a pastime. It is something close to a lifestyle.

Three avatars

The three directors appear in the film as avatars themselves, exploring that world and going from place to place to meet and interview people, joining different groups, and observing what life inside this world is really like. Life is violent in DayZ, the alternative reality with no consequences offering license for creating personas and indulging in behaviours unthought of in the outside world. An example is the Dark as Midnight group, run by Iris, armed and in her words doing ‘what the fuck we want, when we want, where we want and how we want’ as it is ‘fun killing people’.

But beyond such attitudes and violence, there’s camaraderie, and there are talks and a sense of self-expression in the personas people create through their avatars. And surprisingly, players often come together to do just regular things. Like running through fields, discussing art in an old abandoned church, planting and growing courgettes, and even dancing. There’s something bittersweet in seeing them dance while knowing each one of them sits down somewhere in the world, pressing buttons to create this expression of freedom and a coming together that only happens in this intangible world.

If the directors spend what sounds like many hours inside the game, making this film – one player, Chill Pilgrim, says he has spent some 12,000 hours in it after days’ work, finding it ‘soothing’. That is the equivalent of 500 days. Almost a year and five months of his life were spent inside the game.

Knit's Island Ekiem Barbier, Guilhem Causse & Quentin L'helgoualc'h
Knit’s Island, a film by Ekiem Barbier, Guilhem Causse & Quentin L’helgoualc’h

Real/unreal

The film feels like an exploration of a world of its own, a virtual reality that eventually feels like something you can truly enter and experience. But what is real? Is there a layer between the real and the unreal? And if so, where does the real end? Where does the unreal start? When one of the players stops her interview to tend to her child, who had fallen and could be heard crying, her avatar remains on the screen looking empty and vacant while she returns to her real life before coming back. And then the line between the real and the unreal seems clear. Yet witnessing this alternative world invites deeper reflection into the nature of reality as mind immersion and emotional experience, and on reality as we know – that life eventually each player gets back to, or escapes from, before returning to their avatar.

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Bianca-Olivia Nita
Bianca-Olivia Nita
Bianca is a freelance journalist and documentary critic. She is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

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