So how was your 2016? Yeah, I know. Worst year ever. America is living out its Idiocracy fantasies by electing loudmouthed reality television stars on the premise that racism and sexism can make a country great again and beloved timeless artists were dropping dead left and right while the worst crop in memory ruled the charts and box offices. And to top it all off, the video games have been merely good instead of the avalanche of great we’ve become accustomed to. Basically, we’ve been ready for 2016 to shove off for months now and now that it’s gone, I don’t miss it a bit.
But one thing that was great last year was the quality of television. That’s the bright, shiny beacon of hope. As if to illustrate that point, Netflix brought back the amazing Charlie Brooker’s UK science fiction anthology series Black Mirror just to make the year more bearable for us, even while Gamemoir was in its months-long coma. And not only did it meet my extremely high expectations, it surpassed them by doubling up on the typically truncate seasonal episode number from three to six, making it my favorite thing on television in a year that was pretty jam packed with awesome shows both new and returning.
HBO’s Westworld seems to have stolen all of the headlines, even dominating video game discussions for a time as gaming journalists scrambled to find some way to hitch their wagons to the next big thing. But open world gaming comparisons aside, the third season of Black Mirror produced much more relevant food for thought and intriguing possibilities regarding possible applications of technologies that gaming is already neck deep in. The show’s socially savvy near-future cyberpunk horror shows us things that are potentially right around the corner and perhaps already in our living room. If the season had a theme, it was definitely video game technology becoming a part of our lives for better and worse. Especially worse.
There will be thematic spoilers throughout this article. Nothing super specific, but you will miss out on some pretty amazing twist moments if you haven’t seen the last six episodes, so I really recommend you do that before you proceed. Yeah? Ready, steady go, then.
In the season three premiere, “Nosedive” we entered a world where social media determines a person’s social class and the resulting privileges they are allowed. Their accounts are linked directly to contact lenses so we can see their status as quickly as we see their face in order to judge them and rate them and their behavior almost instantly. This may not seem related to video games, but gaming companies have been progressing with ways to punish socially unacceptable in-game behavior in recent years that could lead to this sort of thing becoming reality.
Grand Theft Auto Online segregated its most destructive players into griefer servers, where they are welcome to destroy each other to their heart’s content, leaving more cooperative players in relative peace. In most online games and communities, you have the option to rate players, report bad behavior, and block and mute repeat offenders. Ratings are publicly viewable and accounts who are reported repeatedly can be suspended and banned. But while the idea is a good one in theory, it also opens up plenty of possibilities for abuse. Black Mirror took this concept and transplanted it into the real world with some interesting results.
The second episode, “Playtest”, was directly video game themed as it dealt with an experimental augmented reality device implanted into the player’s head, at first allowing him to play a cutesy 3D Whack-a-Mole game. But the device’s true job is to read the host’s mind and bring their worst fears to life for a true hardcore horror experience. This ain’t Pokemon Go. You’d think the obvious would be monsters and zombies and whatnot jump-scaring the guy, but the truth of the human brain’s inner workings is much more insidious than that.
Watching a story like that unfold, you realize that this line of technological development is going to have to be capped off at a certain point. I mean, ARK: Survival Evolved was designed to be compatible with virtual reality and I’m scared enough with a tyrannosaurus rex being projected onto my wall. God knows how people would react to a life-sized monster rushing at them in a VR headset, much less seeing it projected through their brain into meatspace. And as far as turning our minds and perception of reality over to an unfeeling machine or computer program? Yeah, that simply cannot happen. If nothing else, “Playtest” makes me wonder might be going on behind the scenes of gaming right this minute as developers attempt to bring horror gaming into virtual reality. Would you sign up to be a part of the experiment to see if humans can die from a heart attack in VR?
“San Junipero” is one of the greatest single episodes of television I’ve ever seen and represents a departure of sorts for the series. Black Mirror’s MO is using technology in its stories for social satire, horror, and sometimes both. But in this episode, we see some of the truly amazing possibilities that could be afforded us by advancing virtual reality tech through the eyes of two women who fall in love in cyberspace. The ending was so out of character, that a lot of fans refused to believe it was true, leading Brooker to publicly state that all of the dark ending theories were false and the ending was indeed a happy and hopeful one. No hidden meanings.
The premise is that the elderly and infirm are afforded a second chance to live their lives by uploading their consciousnesses to a VR program known as San Junipero, which is basically a paradise where they get to relive their youth. And when they pass on, they are uploaded to the cloud. Heaven is a place on Earth? Exactly. Anime like Ghost in the Shell and Sword Art Online introduced these concepts to me, and I thank them for that because otherwise, this episode may have blown my brain out the back of my head.
The concept of a man-made paradise where people don’t have to fade away as their bodies do is a rare hopeful glimpse into a possible future in this increasingly broken world. And if it ever happens, it will have been video games who pioneered that tech. You know, if augmented reality doesn’t destroy our brains first. Speaking of which…
Black Mirror’s exploration of the potential horrors of AR comes back even nastier in “Men Against Fire”, a possible look at the future of racism. The media has done its part to enable a distrust of foreigners ever since 19 of them proved they were bad people on September 11, 2001. Yeah, it’s seriously been more than fifteen years. Never forget and all that. But instead of a fifteen year hate campaign blaming all of the nation’s woes on them, what if we could just make them appear as horrifying creatures deserving of extermination instead? Goebbels would be proud.
The protagonists of the episode are a group of military specialists tasked with hunting down “roaches”, vampire-looking creatures said to be infesting and breeding in their country and threatening its future. Long story short: the soldiers have been implanted with an AR device and it turns out the creatures are really just your tired, poor huddled masses yearning to breathe free made to appear as fierce, snarling beasts by their implants, even as they beg for their lives. This one will make it hard to look at Snapchat the same way again.
Your perception is your reality and with the ability to control what you see and hear, influencing what you believe is a given. What can we trust if not our own eyes and ears? Turning reality into fiction and vice versa isn’t all that hard. If the news only shows you Muslims when they blow something up, having no other experience to weigh against it, your brain will associate them only with that. Or if the president tells you that immigrants are all thieves and rapists and you’re so insulated that you don’t have any personal experience to counteract that claim with, maybe? But getting somebody to pull the trigger on cowering women and children may take some next level stuff, and that’s where conceptual sci-fi comes in to prove the old Picasso adage that art is the lie that allows us to see the truth.
So out of the six episodes of Black Mirror’s third season, four of them directly tie into gaming technology and culture. If that isn’t evidence of the rising influence video games are wielding on the technological and cultural fronts, I don’t know what is. VR and AR are certainly not going anywhere and neither are the baser instincts that will eventually see these incredible technological advances corrupted and turned towards viler purposes. But just like in the show, in gamer culture, and in 2016 itself there’s always a glimmer of hope that -along with the inevitable rampant nastiness- there will be something awesome enough to make it all worthwhile. And this year, Black Mirror tops that list for me.