Real Fake Rules of Games
Real Fake Rules of Games
Black Mirror’s season five premiere Striking Vipers has an oddly coincidental connection to games and the “lusory agreement” the players follow when playing them.
If you haven’t see the episode yet, please note there are spoilers ahead (as well as sexually explicit content from the episode).
Striking Vipers Episode Summary
First we’re greeted by then 27 year old Danny Parker (Anthony Mackie) and his girlfriend Theo (Nicole Beharie). The episode opens with an interesting dialogue between them. When we are first introduced to them they appear to be strangers. But are then revealed to have been with each other for some time.
The couple leaves to return to their home to have sex. Afterwards, Danny is awoken by his roommate Karl Houghton (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) to play a console fighting game called Striking Vipers as their characters of choice Lance and Roxette.
The episode then time jumps to 11 years in the future where Danny is hosting a BBQ at his home with Theo. The couple has a 5 year old child now and they have fallen out of contact with Karl. When Karl arrives he gifts Danny a birthday present: Striking Vipers X along with a virtual reality adapter to play the game.
The pair play the game online that night. In the virtual world they fight one match where they experience all of their character’s pain. Both Karl and Danny’s character’s fall into each other and they both kiss. Both are distraught and then immediately exit the game.
Over the course of the next few weeks, both Karl and Danny have sex with one another inside the game through their characters Lance and Roxette. Progressively, Danny becomes more withdrawn from this relationship with Theo.
Danny and Theo argue during their wedding anniversary. Theo shares she’s still considered attractive by other men, but that she’s dedicated to her relationship with Danny. Theo insists on wanting to know what’s happening with Danny, but he refuses to tell.
Danny locks away the game in a cabinet and tells Karl that they need to stop their virtual rendezvous. The pair don’t see each other again until Danny’s next birthday when Karl arrives at their home as a surprise.
Karl reveals that he hasn’t been able to recreate the feelings he’s had for Danny during the game. He effectively convinces Danny to rejoin him playing Striking Vipers X and they have sex once again. Danny decides that the two need to meet up again in real life.
During their in-person meetup, Danny asks Karl to kiss in their normal bodies to determine if there is any connection between them. They go through with it, but both feel nothing. The pair becomes angry with each other and begin to fight just when a police car passes.
Theo arrives to collect Danny from the police station. She’s frustrated and asks Danny what caused the fight. Danny reveals his story off-screen.
In the final scenes from the episode, it is revealed on their next wedding anniversary, Karl and Theo meetup online in Striking Vipers X while Theo goes to a bar to meet up with a stranger.
While a work of fiction, Black Mirror’s Striking Vipers episode reveals the lusory agreement of gaming. Also known as the “magic circle,” this is a place where players interact with each other and the medium of the game in a place where normal rules, behaviors, and actions don’t exist. Rather, they have been replaced or augmented with new rules that are present only in the game.
The first time both Danny and Karl play Striking Vipers X they try out moves in their new bodies. Yes, they can walk, punch, and kick in real life. But they can also perform super moves and combos that they would have been impossible to do in real life. This is further outlined by the fact that Danny suffers from actual physical ailments in real life such as lethargy and a bad knee.
For Danny there is no “magic circle” in his real life. Rather, his exuberant life in his 20’s has been replaced by more mundane adult responsibilities of his 30’s. His connection with Karl is a remnant of those good times that he hopes to rekindle when playing Striking Vipers X.
The episode’s writer Charlie Brooker cites his own experience playing fighting games as fictional interactive worlds. Such a connection is common for me and my peers who grew up playing video games. But with the advent of VR in this episode, the experience has gone even further.
When the pair discover that they can have sex in the game, they both give into their passions for one another. They continue to have rendezvous in the virtual world for weeks while they are both in relationships. As I viewer I had to ask myself “is this cheating?” Danny’s character also had a similar moral dilemma:
Can you have a romantic relationship with someone in a virtual world?
Intimate Relationships in Gaming
Emotional impulses and connections are one of the hallmarks that makes games so engaging, addictive, and connective. Combined with expansive social circles, those emotional connections can link more two people together as well.
Think about World of Warcraft and all of the connections and relationships built in that game. It is not uncommon for players’ characters to marry one another and establish virtual relationships in Azeroth.
These virtual relationships are especially compounded by Danny and Karl. Their avatars in Striking Vipers X are highly sexualized characters. A trend in games that has been cited and debated before.
The extent of Danny and Karl’s hypersexual relationship in the game is foreshadowed in the opening scene in the episode. Here, Danny and Theo pretend to have only met each other at the club. Even their roleplaying there involves a lusory agreement of “pretending not to know one another.”
That version of Danny is what feels most forgone and lost for him as the next act of the episode includes an 11 year time jump. Danny is an older and decidedly less virile version of his younger self.
But perhaps the most indicative question of this episode is: can two heterosexual men have an intimate relationship with one another in a virtual world? Does doing so change their character? Their orientation? Their sexuality?
Games as Relationships
Games will forever be a tool for relationship building. That relationship is an experiential one between the player, the game, and sometimes other players. You’d be hard pressed to find some other dedicated gamers that don’t have significant memories playing their favorite titles around a table, computer, or console.
But the way that relationships are formed in this episode are different. The relationships that we form with our games, and those that play them, are different. Yes, they are part of the magic circle of gaming. But what happens when there is incongruence between who we are online versus who we are in person?
Which rules are the REAL rules?
Real vs. Fake
Before we consider what rules we decide to adhere to versus those that we choose to ignore, we have think about what is considered real? In the real world it’s easy to see that gravity is a rule that affects us all. But in the game world, those rules can be augmented, changed, or thrown out completely.
The same goes for relationships. As Karl and Danny find out in this episode: the societal expectations that bind them in person aren’t the same as within the game. Instead, they can explore deeper avenues of their relationship playing Striking Vipers X that they couldn’t otherwise do in person.
In this venue, the game has become the surrogate to take their experiential relationship further than they could do in the real world.
Games and gamers are bound by their lusory agreements. The lusory agreement is the consideration that there are different rules and expectations within the game than there are in the real world. The same can be applied to classroom and experiential learning. The relationships that we keep outside of the classroom don’t have to be the same as the ones that we keep inside the classroom.
Instead, we can use games to endeavor and explore who we are and what we can become. Learning becomes another game for us to role-play someone (or something) that we couldn’t be in real life.
And that is the real fake rule of game design: we can make up the rules.
Dave Eng, EdD