Gamified Dystopias III – Nerve

My previous two blogs looked at dystopian depictions of gamification on the small screen via Charlie Brooker’s TV series Black Mirror and the likely even smaller screen via the short film Sight. It’s now time to turn to an example that brought gamified processes and practices to the big screen: Henry Joost and Ariel Schumann’s 2016 feature film Nerve. Portraying a spectrum of all the bad to worse things that seem to happen when young people’s everyday lives are played out on their smartphones, the film garnered reasonable box office success by at least quadrupuling its estimated $20 million budget. Needless to say there will be spoilers ahead, but if you’re keen get a sense of what Nerve entails before reading on check out the trailer below:

Nerve‘s damning condemnation of online behaviour is hardly surprising given the film’s co-directors first rose to prominence with the release of their critically-acclaimed documentary Catfish (2010), yet the moral ambivalence embedded within that film is nowhere to be found in their more recent production. The film’s main character, Venus ‘Vee’ Delmonico, is a studious and impressionable young woman with a latent rebellious streak – not exactly an uncommon figure in contemporary coming-of-age, teenage angst-filled cinema. Desperate to leave home, too shy to communicate with the school footballer she idolises, and generally dissatisfied with her life (despite the prolific Apple product placement surrounding her), things are bound to change for Vee when she’s introduced to ‘Nerve’, which is first explained through an online video:

Welcome to Nerve, New York City. Nerve is a 24 hour game like ‘Truth or Dare’, minus the truth. Watchers pay to watch. Players play to win. Cash and glory. Are you a watcher or a player? Are you a watcher or a player? Are you a watcher or a player?

These words accompany a hastily edited montage of images ranging from Richard Nixon to popular viral videos, foreshadowing a combination of entertainment, illegality, and danger. A first person shot of someone being offered a choice between a red and blue pill à la The Matrix (1999) gestures to the imminent (and apparently harmful) blurring of the virtual and the ‘real’ at the heart of so many similar films set in the digital age. The video’s narration is tellingly spoken in the robotic voice of the online activist/hacktivist network ‘Anonymous’, giving the Nerve community’s monetised system a sinister edge right from the beginning. Meanwhile, the sole focus of Vee’s best friend Sydney – a self-described ‘adrenaline junkie’ – seems to be the growth of her ‘celebrity’ via the fame and finances her involvement in Nerve bring her. Indeed, the number of online views a fulfilled dare attracts appear to be an even more valued currency than the actual cash prizes won.

Silhouette of Person in Hoodie on Boardwalk at Night by Image Catalog (CC0 1.0)

With ‘Nerve’ explicitly positioned as a ‘game’ within the film (and through the film’s marketing), the connections to gamification as such are less clear than in Sight or ‘Fifteen Million Merits‘. The film hinges on an apparent binary opposition between the ‘Watchers’ and the ‘Players’ – a distinction that is not broken down until the film’s climax when it’s revealed some of the latter actually belong to a third category, ‘Prisoners’. The lives of those who attempt to fulfil the community’s crowdsourced dares are subsumed by Nerve. In one sense, there is no clear ‘non-gaming context’ in which game elements are being applied: the Players come to live the ‘game’, and for those who have tried to subvert and escape it by contacting the authorities (only to have their identities stolen and bank accounts emptied), the ‘game’ quickly becomes their life. Frequent wide shots of New York’s skyline are littered with geo-located pins to Player usernames, identifying their exact location so they can be stalked by a city of Watchers.

New York by Raido (CC BY 2.0)

As the film’s dystopian vision unravels though, the entire Nerve system is exposed as a metaphor for online user-generated content and consumption – and what apparently happens when this is gamified. The seemingly passive Watchers are actually the ones in control, setting the challenges (or ‘dares’) and manipulating both the currency and leaderboard that governs the actions of the increasingly powerless Players. Potential participants are told by an instructional video that ‘Watchers can watch from anywhere, but they are encouraged to film live so don’t be alarmed’. The widespread obsession with filming provocative footage – a much-criticised element of youth behaviour in recent years – is as intrinsic to the ‘game’ as the footage the Players themselves record. Drawing on long-standing stereotypes of gaming and gamers, Nerve declares that when life becomes gamified the world goes to hell.

The moral decay that governs the actions of the anonymous Watchers is gestured to at multiple turns, from their voyeuristic treatment of women to the growing number of balaclavas worn amidst the mass of hoodies. The film’s depiction of the dares that Players are set suggests that unchecked youth behaviour can only grow increasingly severe and harmful. Instances of public nudity and theft give way to more dangerous antics at great heights or amidst heavy traffic, before culminating in kidnapping, physical assault, and attempted murder. Rumours circulating of a boy’s death resulting from a failed dare in Seattle are confirmed late in the plot. All privacy is eroded as the unethical data-gathering practices of those in control, who populate Player profiles with details from other social media sites, quickly transform into outright identity theft. When protagonist Vee eventually realises the malicious underpinnings of Nerve and tries to inform the police, she is knocked unconscious and left in a shipping container with an ultimatum: win or remain a Prisoner.

Moonlit Colosseum by air babble (CC BY 2.0)

The climactic scene shows hundreds of masked youths (and thousands more online) actively encouraging the finalists to shoot each other, revealing that in contrast to the lack of agency available to the Players, it is actually the Watchers who are ‘playing’ with their victims’ lives. Vee declares to her masked persecutors who scream for blood as if watching gladiators at Rome’s Colosseum: ‘It’s easy for you to be brave in a crowd, hiding behind your screen names! Don’t you see that you’re all still responsible for what happens tonight, even if you are just watching?!’ In contrast to the mysterious unseen powers that govern the characters’ mundane existence in Black Mirror‘s ‘Fifteen Million Merits’, Nerve‘s suggestion that gamifying everyday life can only bring out the very worst human qualities – particularly of young people – paints playful behaviour with a considerably darker shade than Charlie Brooker’s skepticism ever has. Nerve cashes in on widespread negative preconceptions of adolescent (ir)responsibility and risk, apparently exacerbated by an obsession with celebrity culture and the untamed possibilities of online anonymity. Despite the film’s cathartic conclusion, which sees Vee and her friends take down the system, Nerve savages online youth culture as harshly as any other film that has sought to do so.

Ironically, much of the drama, humour, tension, and hence entertainment of Nerve relies inextricably on the gamified media practices being represented, with everything from the film’s camerawork to its soundtrack linked to the characters’ adventurous behaviour. When Vee and her companion Ian race out of a department store in their underwear, and later ride a motorcycle blindfolded through the city streets at 60mph, the film cuts between camera angles that simulate the selfies and video footage of anonymous Watchers capturing them on their iPhones. In this way, the film’s aesthetics contribute to its wide-ranging critique of gamified processes and youth (mis)behaviour, but at the same time position these as titillating. Underlining this contradiction (if not hypocrisy) further, the special features contained in Nerve‘s commercial Blu-ray/DVD release include an interactive game that encourage users to film dares and share them with a #Nerve hashtag – not to mention the Nerve – Do You Dare? app (no longer available), which allowed users ‘to put yourself inside VR depictions of the crazy dares from the film’.

The film’s oft-repeated question ‘Are you a watcher or a player?’ might therefore take on a wider significance than within the film’s narrative alone. There are a few (and only a few) ‘Nerve in Real Life’ themed videos created for YouTube by fans of the movie, which present some dares that unsurprisingly don’t resemble the deadly ones portrayed in the film. In fact, this user-generated content may actually respond to Nerve‘s dystopian critique without intending to do so. To take one example, the ‘NERVE reallife’ channel includes the first completed dare from September 2016 of drinking Kool-aid from a shoe, followed by a promise to complete a weekly dare thereafter. The video obtained over 1500 views but only two further dares were suggested in the comments; one user noted that ‘I watched nerve and it was dangerous but I dare you to put powder on you while doing the lean and dabb’. At the time of writing, there are no further videos on the channel. Perhaps in the dystopian society the film creates, most people would be neither Watchers nor Players?

Maybe young people aren’t that dangerous after all? Maybe gamification isn’t either…

Group of Anonymous by Brieuc Saffré (CC BY 2.0)

Featured image: anonymous by Poster Boy (CC BY 2.0)

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