Video games–if you’re one of our regular readers chances are you’re also a fairly consistent gamer. Though, technically, nearly everyone falls into that category now. Thanks to the boost in mobile games and console emulators people have access to a wide range of gaming options regardless of their mobile device, making sure they never miss an opportunity to plug in and play. And with difficulty curves no longer a limiting factor video games enjoy an unprecedented appeal that is on a steady climb to rival our consumption of movies and music. With this pastime becoming integral to our daily routine Black Mirror wants to make sure we know what we’re missing when we lock eyes with in-game characters and not other people.
After Alzheimer’s claims his father, Cooper (Wyatt Russell) leaves his grieving mother behind to find himself while traveling the world. Luckily all that time spent en route to the next destination allows him to catch up on his gaming, something he shares with Sonja, a fellow gamer and tech journalist he hooks up with in London on the last leg of his trip. When identity theft strips Cooper of his last dollars, keeping him from returning home, he looks for work through the Oddjob app to make up some of his lost cash. Sonja points to a playtester position with Shou Saito, a celebrated yet enigmatic games developer behind a popular survival horror series.
Behind contracts and locked doors, Cooper joins the ranks of SaitoGemu as a beta tester for their new BCI (brain-computer interface) implant, which promises immersive gaming unlike any console or device before it. Locked inside a mansion to test its full effects, Cooper is forced to wrestle with the haunting projections of his mind and confront the real horrors of his personal life.
While I don’t want to make light of this serious, debilitating disease, there is a point where video games and Alzheimer’s overlap that make it an effective metaphor for what Cooper, and many people, have to deal with at some point in their lives.
The fear over losing one’s memory, or save files, is something gamers of a certain age are familiar with. Prior to hard drives in consoles and cloud storage, corrupted saves and failed loads were something that happened sooner or later, making an afternoon of beating levels a waste of time. This pushed most gamers of the NES, N64 and PS1 eras to develop rituals like blowing into cartridges or brushing discs with cotton swabs in hopes to get the console to cooperate and maintain the functionality of their save files. It didn’t work, none of those methods did, no matter how much we believed in them. Even I was guilty of bargaining with a machine that was simply imperfect in design and went to absurd lengths to keep the smallest specs of dust from invading the underside of my copy of Ocarina of Time. Seems childish now, but those game worlds were places a lot of kids never wanted to leave, and not without reason.
Cooper hasn’t moved away from that frame of thinking, at least not very far. In many ways he’s an amalgam of several millennial stereotypes that make some damning accusations of an entire generation: Cooper is a guy in his late twenties to early thirties with no structured work or family life; he’s boomeranged back to his parents home; prioritizes freedom and leisure over career ambitions; he is financially strapped, and so emotionally underdeveloped he can’t handle complicated conversations with his family. And to really drive home that these charges of immaturity are defining characteristics, Cooper acknowledges them with the reticence and shame millennials have long been told they should feel by older generations for how they’ve turned out.
In one character we have a collection of negative traits that have been observed and cataloged by sociologists, psychologists, and parents of men and women between the ages of 16 and 36.
Whether or not it’s true by an empirical measure, there are quite a few examinations that speak to the immaturity of millennials when interacting with the general workforce. It could have something to do with attention spans for this generation dropping dramatically compared to older groups of people, which may correlate with our need to be constantly entertained by anyone or thing trying to interact with us, giving a reason as to why video games are a bigger business now than ever before. Or perhaps the changing economic landscape has pushed more millennials towards making a job rather than finding one in order to achieve the same milestones as their parents, resulting in a different developmental track on the path to adulthood.
Regardless of the reasons for our seeming inability to cope with the world left behind for us, I think many of us will agree that handling stress seems to be a skill that we or any number of our friends may lack. Many millennials make it a priority to find ways to consistently realign their heads and their hearts before confronting challenges that perhaps our parents or grandparents would’ve been able to handle with ease. And until those coping tools are developed, if they develop at all, we’ve all got methods of escape right at our fingertips.
While Cooper is still able to function socially, he exhibits many symptoms of reality detachment in “Playtest” that are on the rise in the real world. Recognized throughout Asia, though most prominently in South Korea and Japan, people who classify as NEET and hikikomori are set apart from any generation before it due to their removal from the greater population, limiting or removing human interaction entirely to instead slip into an otakuism that replaces the stimulation of the world with video games, movies, pornography or even military statistics. Any number of things can become an intense interest for NEET and hikikomori; all that matters is that the substitution fills the vacuum of experience and interaction that develops the social and interpersonal skills necessary for contending with life’s challenges.
Even Saito is guilty of this; the Japanese games designer is a clear nod to Hideo Kojima, a secretive yet adored games director who’s known for his solipsistic lifestyle, proudly boasting an encyclopedic knowledge of music and movies and the dream world they’ve built for him.
While Cooper isn’t as far gone, he is part of the same generation as either group and has the same ineptitude when it comes to dealing with the difficult possibilities anyone can face. Though frightened, Cooper’s able to face monstrous spiders and face-tearing, knife-wielding, skinless hook-ups, but is unable to deal with the realistic fears of losing his health to a potential hereditary disease and the eventual loss of a parent.
Saito’s BCI forced Cooper to face what he avoided by bringing his fears in life into the realm he used to escape them. That encountering both of his greatest fears in quick succession killed him just punctuates what he knew and avoided, that real life was too much for him and without the experience necessary to deal with those things he forfeited his life.
Media consumption is now at its highest point in history. There was a time that seeing movies and reading novels were seen as leisure activities, now we watch TV while we work, play games on our way to work, and binge entire seasons of shows on Netflix over the weekend. The availability to avoid anything through escapism will only be more accessible as we progress technology and entertainment, but in the meantime, there is no shortage of recommendations for things we need to watch, read and play from friends and sites that see no point in halting our media consumption. So is it any wonder that the generation raised with open access to unlimited media and the technological aptitude to access it on any platform of their choosing would feel so attached to it and grow less impressed with the physical world?
Not all millennials prefer escapism to the reality, and that’s important to highlight. For example, a high-profile one, journalist Glenn Greenwald has pointed out that Edward Snowden’s time as a gamer informed his moral compass and pushed him to blow the whistle on the NSA’s practices. Rather than retreat into games and ignore the things going on in the government that people needed to know. In the case of Kojima, a love of movies made for a better understanding of how to tell stories in games. Instead of escaping, he returned with something that he could apply to his mounting life experience.
While it’s unrealistic to expect anyone to abstain from video games (I’m not gonna do it) it’s important, I think, to be a little discerning in determining what’s escapism and what’s relaxation, and how not to let the former substitute our actual lives. The media we consume, regardless of how much, can be used to better refine our understanding of the world around us and provide us with tools for interaction rather than give us a reason to runaway from our lives.