Strange things happen in the world of online games. Guilds appear from nowhere, perform gameworld changing events, and then recede back into nothing. Glitches are discovered, exploited, and patched over so that you’d never know they were there. And while there’s plenty of journalism that might tell you that those things happened, there are very few outlets for telling those stories in the way that This American Life or 99% Invisible might do it.
Enter The Secret Lives of Virtual Worlds, a podcast that’s dedicated to telling those video game stories in personal, comprehensive, and engaging ways. Secret Lives is a project from Andrew Groen, who is perhaps best known as the author of Empires of EVE: A History of the Great Wars of EVE Online. The show markets itself as episodic deep dives into very particular stories, and each episode “features an individual telling their own personal story about an experience they had in a virtual place, often an experience that changed their life forever.”
(Disclosure: Here we should acknowledge that Groen and Waypoint Senior Editor Rob Zacny were collaborators on the Esports Today podcast, though that did not factor into Waypoint's decision to cover this project, since apparently nobody else at Waypoint ever listened to Esports Today.)
Ultimately, Groen doesn’t mince words about what the goal of the show is in the writeup on the Patreon page:
There are a lot of people who think spending your life in a virtual place is a waste of time. I want this show to be convincing beyond any doubt that those people are wrong. This is a show about the beauty and humanity of video games and virtual places.
I’ve had the pleasure of listening to the first episode of Secret Lives, titled “The Crate,” which tells the story of Jordan Long’s performance art piece where he played The Lord of the Rings Online in a box while traveling across the United States. Told through Long’s own words, this is undeniably a narrative that would have a hard time finding a place on either a games-focused website or as content on one of the podcasts that Secret Lives pulls inspiration from. It’s heartfelt, well-told, and engaging all the way through.
“The Crate” also reveals several of the pitfalls of the format, however, and it demonstrates some of the limitations that Secret Lives will have to wrangle with in its attempt to cover the breadth and depth of online gaming culture. Groen’s only presence in the show is via his edits, and the choice of music and editing choices are often a little too on the nose. The lack of an editorial voice, an actual voice that speaks rather that simply cutting and pasting the subject’s voice, means that there’s very little room for being critical of the subjects on the show. One gets the sense that The Secret Lives of Virtual Worlds wants to be a show that presents wholly transparent reportage of events that occurred in the world. Anyone who’s even watching a documentary or read journalism knows that that view-from-nowhere is simply impossible, and it’s unclear to me what the show really delivers from its framing of its subject speaking uninterrupted for the full runtime.
These are things that will get reckoned with, however, one way or the other, and “The Crate” is a great introduction to a show that’s creating a unique offering in both the “interesting podcast” and “information about games” spaces.
The Secret Lives of Virtual Worlds is currently available to Patreon subscribers at $3 a month, but the episodes will also eventually become free.