More than a horror game, Black Mirror’s Playtest suggests an alternative to psychotherapy
Warning: there are some minor spoilers.
Horror movies trace a history from a subtle play with shadows, like in Nosferatu (1922), to slasher films, trash flicks and other titles which are more interested in turning our personal, (un)conscious fears into images or even using monsters as an allegory to political situations, like in The Host (2006). With time, the red dye blood evolved to computer graphics and low budget dolls became more and more realistic as technology advanced. Now the audience may ask for something more than a frightening creature, loud screams and sudden appearances on the screen.
Today with virtual reality, we have seen that some of strongest (and most popular) pieces are either pornographic simulations or horror stories. In Black Mirror’s episode Playtest, Cooper (Wyatt Russell) is an American guy who decides to travel the world in order to gather experiences, but also to find his own self after losing his father to the disease that made them strangers. Using humor as his armor, the protagonist tells his own story with bitter laughs that keep him distanced from himself. After having his credit card cloned, thus unable to buy a ticket back to the US, Cooper takes a secretive job in a game company in UK.
Leaded by the Japanese tech wizard Shou Saito (Ken Yamamura), the company SaitoGemu feels like an alternate reality in which Hideo Kojima could finish Silent Hills, but then using a technology even more immersive than high quality computer graphics: augmented reality. Cooper is thus subject of an experimental survival horror game in which the player is left alone in the real house where a previous popular title, Harlech Shadow, took place. With augmented reality, the player is therefore able to see more things than the dark scenery carefully projected for a stand alone experience through the night. With the guidance of Katie (Wunmi Mosaku), one of SaitoGemu’s employees, Cooper only needs to spend some time in the Victorian mansion and know that nothing can hurt him, it’s all audio-visual.
After getting some fright after a spider appears to haunt him, Cooper learns the lesson about these simulations. As he confronts several cheap plays to make him scared, he realizes that the game is actually remixing his own memory and making unconscious fears (or annoyances) real again, like when a bully from his school years turns into the face of a huge spider. In this sense, when Saito said that he liked to make players jump, he also meant that the adrenaline rush is good because afterwards “you glow.” What the Japanese developer meant is that, more than the physical reaction that is triggered by horror games, it is the feeling that you are still alive, after facing your greatest fears, that gives you joy. “It is a release of fear. It liberates you.”
And it’s just after this series of arachnophobia plays that Cooper is actually surprised by the comeback of Sonja (Hannah John-Kamen), a girl he met in London days before. In spite of the fact that the scene is also a simulation, the interesting part is that Cooper’s mind was always playing tricks and making Sonja say what he would actually expect of her in a situation of fragility: after all, she was always a stranger and he couldn’t fully trust her, and this is why it would make all sense if she was the one who cloned his credit card and plotted all of that against him.
As the episode goes on, Cooper falls in the classic labyrinth of scary stories about simulated worlds — in the words of Marilyn Manson, “There is a dream inside a dream, I’m wide awake the more I sleep. You’ll understand when I’m dead.” In this game, the protagonist sees himself caged on an ever-ending nightmare that is, ultimately, a meeting with his own fears and shadows. In this sense, more than bringing the reference of darkness and fear in the title Harlech Shadow, the story is mostly about what Carl Gustav Jung called “shadow” when talking about our hidden, dark parts. In a few words, Jung suggested that meeting our own shadow by the means of therapy would enlighten us about what we fear and what should be dealt with — not exactly “cured” or “surpassed,” but understood. In Cooper’s case, his father’s death was a big trauma not only because he lost a parent, but because his dad was his best friend too. Besides, Cooper is not exactly able to talk to his mother, to the point he keeps ignoring her calls after literally running away from her, so that it makes him feel guilty — so guilty that he is afraid to meet her in the simulation, as the game is learning to emulate his mind.
Bringing back the terrors of the mind emulated in virtual reality, like in The Cell (2000), Paprika (2006) and Inception (2010), Black Mirror’s Playtest brings one other message that is also featured, in a different way, in The Babadook (2014). This second episode from the third season is more than the future of games and immersive technologies, but about confronting our shadow, our own fears and repressed feelings, which turns out to be much more frightening than big spiders, shadows and ghosts.
Just like in the previous essay about Nosedive, the idea here is to see beyond the horror and the scary exaggerations of the series to think what could actually be the message and the real use of these technologies. Since the 1990s, virtual reality has been researched for therapeutic ends by Dr. Albert “Skip” Rizzo at the University of Southern California, where he uses virtual reality to treat a range of clinical health conditions, like brain injury, stroke, autism and post-traumatic stress disorder. More recently too, in King’s College London, virtual reality is being used to understand the mechanisms of psychosis and also paranoia.
Like Jennifer Lopez in The Cell and Dr. Atsuko Chiba in Paprika, the idea of using virtual reality as an alternative to traditional psychotherapy could be as scary as our mind could get, and a glimpse is constantly being shown by the means of art, no matter if it’s in music, painting (like this Austrian example or the work of Nise da Silveira in Brazil) or even using the mechanics of theater. In fact, there is even a discussion about using neurotechnology to end mental illness, which brings us back to the point that Playtest shows an unethical way of testing these new technologies that could either be used only for entertainment purposes (like a horror game) or a medical use too. Again, this shows us once more that technology itself is just a neutral medium and that it’s all up to us how we are going to use it.