Gamified Dystopias II – Black Mirror

There’s something remarkable in the moment when the last frame of a film fades to black, the credits begin to roll, and the audience sits dead silent in the stillness; when there’s no immediate movement for the door as everyone remains in their seats, half-stunned and half-pondering the world they’ve just visited. Not many films achieve this. Mostly, the herd of viewers rustle toward the door, crunching popcorn underfoot that’s soon to be swept up by anonymous, ignored cleaners. The crowd then dissipates, heading for the car or the boutique coffee shop or the nearby store to buy a new hat… maybe a real one, maybe not.

While not taking place in a cinema, every time I’ve screened ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ for students in seminars over the years, it’s produced a similar effect. Confronted with Charlie Brooker’s immensely popular and critically acclaimed TV series Black Mirror, the silence is perhaps predictable given its expert building of tension within tightly wound plots and frequently unsentimental and anti-redemptory lack of closure. ‘Fifteen Million Merits’, the second episode of the series’ first season, is an unquestionably powerful episode, exemplifying the potential that a fictional dystopian vision can have in conveying a wide-ranging critique of, in this case, ubiquitous audio-visual entertainment, celebrity-driven reality TV shows, and the exploitation and sexualisation of women in contemporary screen culture. In case you haven’t seen it – how dare you! – here’s the trailer to give you a taste (and you can access the entire series on Netflix, in case you want to avoid the spoilers that will unapologetically follow):

From the humiliation of people as ‘fake fodder’ in front of massive live audiences; to the apparent absurdity of consuming virtual goods for aesthetic purposes; to the bullying of people with large body sizes who are also the literal targets within violent computer games; to the reinforcement of sexist, racist, and classist ideologies through both online media and longstanding social hierarchies, ‘Fifty Million Merits’ has it all, and then some. In the world conjured in this episode, an individual’s identity construction is heavily reliant on ‘buying shit’, youth celebrity culture blurs disturbingly with the pornography industry, and conventional conceptions of ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ appear to be fundamentally undermined. Entire books could be written on this hour-long episode alone – much less the rest of the Black Mirror series – but here I just want to focus on its representation of gamification.

Struggling with the inescapable structures that govern his life, the protagonist Bing (dynamically played by Daniel Kaluuya, also of the 2010 drama Chatroom) tells his friend/love interest Abi while hundreds, if not thousands, of their peers continue their drone-like existence in the background:

It’s all just stuff… It’s confetti… When I look around here, I just want something real to happen.

The vehicle by which Bing’s ‘reality’ is commodified, filtered, and ultimately rendered meaningless is a gamified one – a virtual currency called ‘merits’ which young people living in the episode’s mysterious prison-like facility ‘earn’ by riding their exercise bikes for what seems to be much of the day. Unlike the depiction of content gamification in the ‘Chef Master’ app found in the short film Sight (which I considered in my last blog) the ‘merits’ of this Black Mirror episode’s title equate to a form of structural gamification. Merits govern the totality of the characters’ lives – at least those privileged enough to be able to ride a bike – and the means for which this currency is sought come to symbolise the emptiness of their lives.

Hibiscus Sports Complex gym by Brisbane City Council (CC BY 2.0)

Everything from Bing’s constantly disinterested body language and facial expression to the uniformly grey outfits of the merit-earners connotes a twin sense of disconnectedness and hopelessness. Merits can be spent on various things, from buying toothpaste and food, to customising one’s virtual avatar, to gaining entry to perform on the American Idol-style show ‘Hot Shot’, to purchasing online pornography to watch. Even skipping the endless advertisements of the ‘Wraith Babes’ app that bombard users on interactive screens installed everywhere from cramped bedrooms to shared bathrooms incurs a reduction in merits. The characters’ everyday lives are thoroughly controlled by the merits system, with any hope of human agency, creativity, and freedom dissipating with Bing’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt to subvert the status quo in the episode’s pessimistic climax.

‘Fifteen Million Merits’ provides a stark condemnation of, among many other things, the appropriation of game elements for consumer capitalist ends. The accumulation of merits serves as the episode’s key thematic element, driving the plot forward to the point that Bing’s feverish commitment to break free of his virtual chains still relies on him accruing sufficient virtual currency to have his voice heard. Abi’s folding of a paper bag into the shape of a bird signifies genuine (non-digital) creativity while even Bing’s generous gift of the merits he inherited to Abi backfires when she is taken away to sexual slavery in the mainstreamed porn industry. The processes underpinning this structurally gamified micro-society lead not to motivation or engagement, but rather results in an isolated community of young people either perversely entertained or devoid of inspiration (if not both at once), and in some cases suffering from depression and even physical breakdowns. Those who are no longer able to directly participate in the system by earning merits are spurned as outcasts and forced to dress in comical yellow outfits and clean the floors. Further to all this, the gamified system itself appears to be rigged when Bing purchases the ‘Hot Shot’ ticket for Abi and is charged more than the usual cost based on his relatively high balance. There is, in the strictest sense, no way for any user to ‘win’…

There is some irony in that I was inspired in part by Black Mirror‘s ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ when I designed my own gamified system to engage students. This system, outlined in the above episode of Our Gamified World, includes the use of a virtual currency or points system called ‘Tiffits’, named after my canine companion Tiffany, but doesn’t force students to ride bikes or watch porn. There are certainly legitimate concerns to be had over the growing adoption of gamification in commercial contexts, but this is only part of the story. The pessimistic perspective is nevertheless a compelling one for film and television makers and audiences, and the demonisation of gamification in Black Mirror is only one of a number of narratives that may well stigmatise gamification at the expense of elucidating its potential. In my next post, I’ll look at an even more recent representation of gamification through Henry Joost and Ariel Schumann’s 2016 feature film Nerve.

Until then, keep riding that bike – and don’t stress too much about the merits! 🙂

Featured image: Photograph by Adam Brown.

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