wyatt russell playtest black mirror

[phone vibrates]

It’s not often that I am thoroughly confused by a movie or television episode. But my brain is stuck on ‘Playtest’ right now.

I don’t know if there is anything new on television. While accessing Western television is possible from China, it isn’t convenient. So I have found myself watching old stuff, like Black Mirror. It’s perfect because my brain loves being occupied by the deeper meanings of its episodes. But ‘Playtest’ is the one episode where I can’t figure out its more basic, surface meaning.

On the surface, I’m struggling with the logistics of what happened to Cooper. The duration of his gaming test was 0.04 seconds, an amount of time too miniscule to comprehend. I know the mind is capable of thinking about and imagining things at break-neck speeds, but damn—0.04 seconds!

Did Cooper imagine and experience everything at an absurdly different rate of time? Was this a part of the planned simulation, or something his brain created to cope with the reality of death or the smorgasbord of thoughts he has? Would he have still been in this imagined world, yelling to his mother if Katie didn’t remove the device? I’m not sure, and that bothers me.

I feel a little more certain about the deeper meaning Charlie Brooker is going for. The narrative of an augmented, holographic reality gaming device is just the backdrop for a deeper conversation about phone usage.

In one of my classes, I talked with my students about older phone technology: a time before we could go on the internet, listen to music, find work, find hookups, or pay for services. The reliance we have created on smartphones is simultaneously amazing, terrifying, and worth analysis. In an attempt to push the boundaries of what a phone can do, we created a living that simply can’t survive without them.

Look at everything Cooper is able to do with his phone. He gets tickets to leave the country, takes photos of his experiences, finds a woman to spend time with, and finds a job to make some quick money. It’s telling that while at the haunted house, he reaches for his phone even though he hasn’t had it the entire time.

I find myself using my phone more in China. Most of this is out of necessity, a need to do things that I didn’t consider a need back in America. I need to reach out to my family and friends. I need to pay for services through WeChat. I need my Western entertainment. There are moments when I need to grab my phone just because.

But watching Cooper exposes the ways we probably should use our phones but don’t. Ironically, those ways relate to the one purpose we had for phones in the past: talking to people. For as many things as Cooper showed he can–and will–do on his phone, the one thing he won’t do is talk to his mother due to his fears of facing reality and the hard conversations that come with it. His phone doesn’t force him to confront anything. Today’s smartphone is supposed to make things easy. What Cooper is trying to put off isn’t easy.

It’s a twist of sad, ironic and funny that the easiest thing he can do to get past this is actually answering the phone. Sonja weirdly serves as this voice of reason for Cooper. We keep putting things off knowing that at some point we will have to deal with it, subsequently creating pressure and stress for ourselves. It’s a shame Cooper’s inability to pick up the phone ultimately played a role in his death.

Considering he didn’t follow Katie’s instructions to turn off the phone before the gaming test, it’s not like Cooper is completely absolved from his own fate. But coming to a needed realization through death is painful. For Cooper to spend his final moments calling for his mom in a simulated world is harsh. Cooper finally sees the pain he caused his mother, finally understands why that phone call is so important, but it’s too late. Instead, the call his mother will get is the news that her son is dead in a world far away from hers. Not just physically far away, but one where she can never understand her son’s decision to leave without saying a word.

The lesson of the episode isn’t to answer your phone when family and friends call (though, the lesson could be that elementary if desired). Instead, ‘Playtest’ shows us how dark and twisted our use of phone technology already is. Yes, the episode shows off how gaming technology can be used in the future, and it’s pretty fucking cool. But for a series that shows the unfortunate ways technology can be used, ‘Playtest’ exposes how this is happening presently.

Cooper was meant to play a game that taps into his basic fears. He’s doesn’t like spiders. He doesn’t like jump scares. He’s uncomfortable with the unknown. These are fears today’s horror video games can already give us. The technology in “Playtest” taps into Cooper’s deepest fears, lodged in corners of his mind that he has tried to close or hide from.

He’s afraid of losing his memories, similar to his father who died from dementia. He’s afraid his mother could suffer the same fate. He’s afraid of the pain only another person can provide. He’s also deeply afraid of what his own actions are causing. While the game he plays offers terrifying visuals to scare him, what’s truly scary is the legitimate fear he expresses the deeper he travels into his own psyche. (Note: And kudos to Wyatt Russell for some amazing acting during those moments.)

But at least we had the adorable gopher. We will always have the adorable gopher.

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