Playtest: Black Mirror, Can It Happen?

Before we discuss Playtest, let’s look back to when this episode was first released: October 21, 2016. 

A couple of weeks earlier, on October 2, HBO released their genre-bending television series, Westworld. Although fiction, this show had us all thinking: Where will we draw the line for technology and entertainment? 

When we talk about tech and entertainment, we have to talk about video games. While conventional favorites like Overwatch, Fallout, and Uncharted were the most popular, we will forever remember 2016 as the year of PokemonGo. Regional-exclusive Pokemon, enabled by GPS, allowed people to interact with gaming in a new physical way. People used to travel for culture; now they travel to catch Pokemon

Augmented reality was a fun novel concept for the general public. And thanks to photo-sharing apps like Snapchat, people picked it up pretty quickly, and just as quickly, filters and lenses became excessive and overused. 

Another technology gaining momentum in 2016 was virtual reality. VR was in its infancy in 2016. Nothing exemplified that more than Google’s Cardboard VR headset, which resembled something a high school student would’ve handed in for a homework assignment. While 360 VR content was available, there just wasn’t enough for people to take action. 

But the opportunity couldn’t be ignored. Businesses took advantage of this trendy technology as a promotional add-on. In 2015, Marriot Hotels offered VR as a room service item, aka VRoom Service, where their guests could rent an Oculus Rift VR headset for 24 hours. 

Now you may be thinking: VR on vacation? Well, in 2016, there was a heightened awareness of the damage tourism had on vulnerable ecosystems. When Thailand discovered that their coral reefs and marine life in the Phi Phi archipelago were being battered by boats and people, they closed off a bunch of islands. One of these islands was Maya Bay, made famous by the Leonard DiCaprio movie The Beach. This small island, which saw 4,000 tourists a day, was suddenly off-limits to the public. 

While we were trying to protect the natural world, Apple was trying to protect the reveal of their newest iPhone, the iPhone 7, set to release in September 2016. Through the summer months leading up to the annual keynote, images and videos of the latest device were leaked on the Chinese social media platform, Weibo. This leak was so controversial because the iPhone 7 was the first iPhone without a headphone jack, and you best believe people were upset to discover that change. 

2016 was indeed a year where tech was front and center. There were a lot of new ideas and opportunities flying around. There was a general sense of optimism, even for the devices that will soon eat away at our attention span. We were relying on it more, not only for entertainment but with the hope that it would heal us and optimize our lives. Oh, we were so naive in 2016. We could’ve been fooled by anything. And trickery is what leads us to this episode of Black Mirror, episode 2 of season 3: Playtest. 

In this article, I will explore three themes of the episode and discuss whether such events or concepts have happened in some form in the last few years and, if they haven’t, whether or not they’re still plausible. 

The Dangers of Escapism

The episode begins with Cooper sneaking out of his house and traveling the world, from Australia to Asia to Europe. We see him taking pictures, having a great time, and asking touristy questions, but what we don’t see is the darkness that lies layers and layers beneath, the darkness that surfaces each time his mother calls.

His father recently died of Alzheimer’s. As the one taking care of him, Cooper feels guilty for the death, and inadvertently, creates this narrative in his mind that his mother blames him as well. 

According to the World Health Organization, approximately 280 million people worldwide suffer from depression, which is usually triggered by some life-altering event such as unemployment or the death of a loved one.

In a survey by the American Psychiatric Association, out of 2,200 participants, 37% rated their mental health as fair or poor, with relationships with family and friends being a common cause for stress. 

Moreover, research shows that 27% of Americans are estranged from a member of their own family, often initiated by adult children. When these scenarios occur, the parents are often confused by the cause and blame their children for “rewriting their childhood.” Meanwhile, the adult children feel their parents are “out to get them.” 

Whether it’s mental health or the state of our relationships, we are led by the stories we tell ourselves. While his father lost his memories through a disease, Cooper was losing his memory through his own design. 

To reboot his life, Cooper seeks new experiences—new memories. There was a time when traveling was a benefit for mental health, and booking a flight led to a lot of excitement. But since the pandemic, travel has caused a lot of stress. As of 2022, 92% of Americans find travel to be “nerve-racking.” Passports, bad weather, and the unpredictability of airlines have made journeying around the world harder for many, especially for those already dealing with anxiety. Don’t even get me started about the panic of running out of money in a foreign country. Could there be anything more stressful? 

We relate to Cooper because we see him escaping from one uncomfortable situation to another uncomfortable situation throughout this whole episode. But we can also learn something from his impulsiveness. When things are not right, we may want to escape physically. We perceive the cause of our anxiety, depression, and stress as external causes: our jobs, our families, or our friends. However, the struggle is internal, and there is no escape. On one hand, you can go too far and never return, or on the other hand, when you do return, you’re flooded with all the emotions you thought you’d escape from. 

Communication has become instantaneous and invasive. Pings, calls, and notifications all day long. We want to escape those as well. I believe Cooper is a millennial, and as millennials, phone calls have become the most demanding form of communication. Unlike a direct message, where you can respond at your own pace, a phone call is an interruption. 

The phone call is one of the few tethers left connecting the aging generations of Boomers and their millennial children. And it’s not a strong one, because the intimacy of a phone call has been stolen from us by all the spam calls we get daily.   

When it comes to escaping problems, this episode of Black Mirror shows us what travel and technology are unable to do. And that’s where we are today, still desperately trying to explore those avenues and creating more problems along the way. 

The Dominance of Games 

As of 2020, the global video game industry was valued at $159.3 billion, far surpassing other entertainment industries, including music at $19.1 billion and movies at $41.7 billion. 

In 2016, 4,315 games were released compared to 2022, where a whopping 10,963 games were released. By 2024, the number of worldwide gamers is set to reach 3.32 billion people. That is just over 40% of the entire world! Yes, games are popular, and companies are investing more and more in them. 

The term playtest refers to a quality assurance session where a person plays the game to find design flaws and bugs before it is sold to the public. After Cooper had his bank account hacked and was desperate to get a flight back home, he signed on to be a playtester for a high-profile yet secretive gaming company, SaitoGemu. 

Game studios spend years and years conceiving, designing, and testing their games before they hit the shelves. So the idea of having trade secrets leaked out is a big deal. The leak of any popular franchises will undoubtedly draw attention. For example, in 2022, Rockstar Games was hacked and had numerous video files containing testing builds of GTA VI shared on the Internet. 

While most games have a shelf life of a couple of years, we are seeing games embedded into people’s lives. Fortnite was released in 2017, and as of this video, six years later, the game continues to see a steady rise in popularity with 236 million active monthly players. Even a game that is over a decade old like Minecraft continues to grow. As of the start of 2023, there are 176 million players. 

That’s what the gaming industry wants. While they want to tell great stories, they also want to create a world where the players can live in, coming back hours after hours and exploring for years and years. 

We see this everywhere. Nearly every piece of software we own uses gamification to get us to log back in. Teams of the world’s smartest people are all trying to hook us with their products. The tactics are different, but the idea is the same. They want to create a sense of accomplishment, whether by offering us badges for completing a task, building communities for us to engage in, or keeping us challenged in just the right way. 

In the past years, we have seen leaps in two categories: artificial intelligence and the metaverse. The metaverse and Web3 market is far less bullish since 2021, when Facebook changed its name to Meta, while AI technology is having a huge surge recently, becoming more prevalent and even winning an art contest.

As AI starts understanding us better, it doesn’t only learn what hooks us but what scares us as well. In 2016, MIT developed a deep learning project called Nightmare Machine, where users feed the algorithm insights into which images scare them. 

When we create games, we are also collecting data. And while it might not be tech companies’ main priority to identify our fears—by subjecting people to hours and hours of scary immersive VR video games—technology companies will accumulate a lot of information regardless. How much do we want Amazon to know about our traumas? How much do we want Google to know about our repressed memories? 

In life, we fear many things, but confronting them can lead us to danger or societal disapproval. That’s why horror video games offer us one of the greatest feelings of being alive: fear quickly followed by a sense of relief. 

A few things happen in our brains when we play scary video games. First, our amygdala processes the fear, and then the hippocampus associates the fear with a memory. It is the latter that allows us to fill in the gaps. When that imaginative part of our brains projects the traumatic experience into a reality, such as VR, then even the most courageous thrill-seekers will face their worst fears. The technology, a digital boggart monster, will know exactly what shakes them.

When people say technology is getting scary, they mean that technology is knowing more and more about you. And what’s scarier than technology knowing your exact fear? It’s not the tech industry’s main focus. They are trying to spin it in an unscary way, but knowing our fears is unavoidable when it attempts to keep us coming back to their product as a place for salvation.

The Implantation of Microchips

As a part of the test, Cooper had a device embedded into the back of his neck called a “mushroom”. This device manipulated his mind, allowing the game makers to generate augmented reality through his own senses. But neurologically, the device dug deeper. In milliseconds, it accessed his memories to create haunting scenarios beyond the operator’s control. 

The first microchip embedded into someone dates back to 1998, and even then, the proposal was clear: convenience. We will no longer need to click a mouse or type on a keyboard. Additionally, having all our critical data implanted into our body ensures we don’t lose it. We don’t have to worry about losing our credit cards, train tickets, or phones ever again. 

In 2018, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded the development of a technology at MIT that allows people to store medical information inside their bodies by injecting a dye under the skin. This project sparked many conspiracy theories about how Radio Frequency Identity (RFID) microchips were secretly included in vaccinations. This is not true. But it highlighted the fear many had that medical innovation could be used to track us. 

In 2021, a company called Dsruptive Subdermals was testing a Covid-19 passport that could be implanted beneath the skin. The objective was to use an NFC microchip—the same type of technology in your credit card and smartphone—to share vaccination data. 

Whenever we have a conversation about technology implantation, we have to also talk about privacy. And what is more private than our memories? 

The technology of Elon Musk’s Neuralink is designed to help those who don’t have the full function of their bodies but still have a mind worth saving. Think of the potential if we could tap into those people’s brains and allow them to continue living fulfilling lives. 

Much like drugs, video games—including VR games—have served as therapy for veterans who’ve been in battle. These games offer them an experience of eudaimonia, which is a feeling of psychological well-being that comes when someone does something good. Allowing a veteran to play a first-person shooter helps them recognize what’s good and evil. In the real world, it’s hard to process what’s good or evil. But in a game, it’s obvious.

The challenge for engineers and practitioners is balancing the benefits with the addictive properties of those treatments. 

Could we see the same potential when using implanted microchips to cure neurological disorders such as dementia? Will we dare to dig further, relying more on technology to solve deeper problems, or will the unknown cause us to pull back due to privacy concerns? Will we delay progress by raging a war—like the war on drugs that persisted for decades—and thus slowing down the potential of medical advances? 

Playtest is a story about escape and discovery, confidence and fears, regrets and guilt. It reminds us of the dangers of concealing secrets and repressing traumatic events. We are not machines but put under the pressure of bottling up our feelings, we too can short circuit. Like a computer crashing, one second we’re working, the next, the screen is blank. All it takes is one interfering signal, a trigger to make us snap. 

We have all gone through a lot in the past few years. Alone in the haunted mansion of our minds, we can find ourselves layer and layer deep into a tale we tell ourselves. Like a character in an Edgar Allen Poe story, we hide all the most terrible parts in an unvisited room. 

A troubled mind is a home where we can’t walk freely. Therefore, we must open the doors, face each challenge, unleash the worms, and accept that this mess is ours, and we must clean it up. There are solutions to the woes of life, and like a game, we could even make it fun. 

But the question remains, can the events in Playtest happen? Well, sacrifices have to be made in experimenting with technology, just like how people have to die to figure out which food is edible and which drugs are effective. Are we willing to do the same for video games that have the potential to nourish us and repair our minds—without frying them? I believe the answer is yes because whether it cures us or not, it’s gonna too much fun not to try. 

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