Black Mirror and Validating Gaming Connections
‘I fucked a polar bear and I still couldn’t get you out of my mind.’
Striking Vipers explores the relationship between the physical and virtual worlds and how the connections we make in the virtual world manifest in the physical. It asks questions about how valid gaming connections are and if we can be complete without them. It may seem strange to write about a TV show for a gaming website but Black Mirror is a show that is in constant communication with other media and technologies. The show deals with creator and writer Charlie Brooker’s thoughts and concerns on the way humans use, and sometimes abuse, technology. It often serves as a warning on the dangers of over dependence on technology but Striking Vipers, the first episode of the new season, offers an optimistic take on gaming and the future of VR.
It follows best friends Danny (Anthony Mackie) and Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), and Danny’s wife, Theo (Nicole Beharie). We first see them young, in the club, back home having sex, and hanging out playing video games. Fast forward eleven years and Theo and Danny are settled, married and living in the suburbs with a kid, while Karl is still living the bachelor lifestyle. Danny seems heavier, as though he’s wilting in the stifling boredom of suburban family life. Karl offers Danny an escape from his boredom, Striking Vipers X, a VR gaming experience beyond our real world technology. It’s the latest instalment of a game they were playing eleven years ago at the beginning of the episode. From here the episode becomes about the affair Karl and Danny start within the virtual reality of the game.
The episode constantly juxtaposes the virtual and non-virtual world and deals with the question of if things experienced in both are as equally valid. Striking Vipers is the Street Fighter-esque game Danny and Karl played when they were younger and lived together. One of the first scenes shows them smoking and shouting at their screen, Karl trying to grab at Danny’s controller while they laugh and play. The shot focuses on the physical reactions to the virtual world within the TV; frantic button presses, loud noises, two friends play fighting in real life as they fight for real in game. The connection they have while playing the game transfers to their real life friendship.
Karl bringing Danny the newest VR version of the game years later offers Danny a chance to escape his boring life and reconnect with Karl. He’s told every physical sensation will be simulated in the new game as he and Karl choose their old favourite characters, Karl as Roxette (Pom Klementieff) and Danny as Lance (Ludi Lin). As they fight Roxette pins Lance to the ground – calling back to the first time we see the pair play the original when Karl jumps on top of Danny on their sofa – and they stare at each other, panting heavily before they kiss passionately. Danny pushes Karl away, saying ‘No, no, no, no, no!’ and the two leave the game.
Although what they just did isn’t “real” it still affects Danny physically. He seems shocked by what he did in the game. Why this act was shocking as opposed to the acts of violence or danger which are commonplace in many video games today is what the episode focuses on. Karl is shown in his bathroom, his face reflected in multiple mirrors suggesting a fracturing of his identity. His real world playboy persona and his virtual trans identity at odds with one another. While most gamers can comfortably run down civilians in GTA we’d never even think of doing it in real life. Striking Vipers blurs the boundary between real and virtual to the point the characters begin to question their real identities due to their virtual actions.
So begins a virtual affair, with Karl and Danny assuming their fighting avatars and fucking across every map in the game, from neon lit streets to sandy beaches. The need for this escape is shown through a montage highlighting the monotony of their lives. For Danny, repeated bedtime stories, a beige city and work space, Theo treating sex as pure reproduction. He barely looks at her or plays with his son; he goes to work, does housework and then plays the game. Karl can’t focus on his dates, he sits bored, thinking of nothing but his time in the game with Danny. The physical world they live in is shown as sterile, softly lit and too clean. In the game they fuck in alleyways, ruined buildings with leaky pipes, and sandy beaches. The aesthetic of the two contrasting worlds couldn’t be further apart. During the montage when I saw Karl slumped in front of his screen, mouth agape and shoulders slumped, I wondered why Charlie Brooker would do a fellow gamer so dirty. The repeated shots of Karl and Danny sat with their eyes glazed over brought back memories of the way people mock and criticise gamers, but I think it was done here to show that while they’re enjoying their virtual time together they’re neglecting others in the physical world.
After Theo becomes upset and suspicious Danny calls off the affair. Months later Theo invites Karl over to dinner and while she’s in the kitchen he tells Danny nothing matches their time in the game. He says it was ‘the best sex of my life. Best of yours too. Fucking transcendent. You know it was.’ He tries to convince Danny to resume the affair by asking him to think about Roxette, not him, but Roxette is him. She’s really him, but virtually she’s Roxi, and even virtually Danny can still feel her ‘warm skin’. He tells Danny other players controlling Lance didn’t get him. They didn’t have the same connection they have. You can play a game with many people but nothing compares to playing with your best friends, because you have a connection.
The pair meet virtually at midnight and after having sex Karl tells Danny he loves him. Danny yells at him their relationship can’t go anywhere, it isn’t real. They meet up in the physical world and kiss to see if their virtual feelings exist outside the game but find they don’t. Karl says their lack of feelings in the physical world doesn’t invalidate how they feel in the virtual world. This is an important point and the main one I think the episode is trying to make. What we experience online is real. What we feel is real. When Karl turned up to Danny’s birthday BBQ the previous year they barely touched, they seemed distant, yet in the game they cuddle, Roxette rests her head in Lance’s lap while he plays with her hair; it allows for an expression of part of their identities they cannot comfortably express outside of it.
The ending of the episode shows Theo and Danny have compromised. They’ve accepted that part of Danny needs the experience he has with Karl in the game; Theo needs passion in her life and Danny can’t give that to her, so once a month he goes online and she goes out. The swapping of wedding ring and VR device is symbolic of the equality of the two acts; Danny and Karl having sex in a game and Theo picking up a man in a bar are given the same amount of legitimacy. What we do in video games is still part of us, it’s something we have to experience because without it we’re miserable, as Karl and Danny were. Gamers are so often told to go outside and play with their friends but we do!
Striking Vipers asks us to consider whether or not we think the physical is equal to the virtual. Some viewers may see what Karl and Danny do as equal to watching porn, some might think it’s gay, some might think it gives Theo no right to sleep with other men. The episode suggests with the advancement of VR technology, gaming will be no different from “real” life. The physical and the virtual could become indistinguishable and if that’s the case our online personas will need to be taken a lot more seriously.
As a bisexual, non-white gamer who’s been in an open relationship, I'm probably reading this in a very specific way, but this episode felt like it was made for me. The fusion of all their separate identities, parts of themselves they had to hide or be ashamed of, is beautiful and freeing. Danny and Theo are still deeply in love, they made a commitment to each other and their family and they intend to honour it, but they were incomplete before they opened their marriage. The inclusion of the validity of their physical and virtual needs allows them to live happily ever after. This episode opens up issues of emotional cheating and online flirting; it makes these things real. No longer is the digital world a total escape, it’s the other side of a coin, part of someone’s identity. It suggests a world where we can be more than one thing, people can be loving parents with cyber avatars or late night personas. We fracture our identity and spread the pieces to multiple spaces where we deem them acceptable, why not accept all those fragments make up our whole?