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Black Mirror season 3, episode 2: “Playtest” is a sinister look at how we treat life like a video game

“Playtest” has a protagonist you can't feel bad for.

Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

This article is a recap of Netflix’s Black Mirror episode “Playtest.” There are spoilers and discussion regarding the episode’s plot.

At the heart of Playtest,” the second episode of the third season of Netflix’s sci-fi horror series Black Mirror, is a grim tale — but in the sneakiest of ways.

Yes, it’s an episode of terror where the protagonist dies after 40 minutes. Yes, there’s a creepy, dick-faced spider that’s one of the most disgusting things that’s ever been on Netflix. And, yes, looming over the entire episode is the threat that the protagonist might dig an implant out of his neck and thrust the episode into gore.

But folded into all of this is the most optimistic view of humankind that Black Mirror has ever shown, featuring humans who actually seem like decent people — something that’s often in short supply on Black Mirror.

Cooper (Wyatt Russell) is a dopey flâneur who travels the world after the death of his father, who Cooper says suffered from Alzheimer’s. He goes to India and Thailand, and skips around the world in an effort, he says, to find himself. Along the way, he meets Sonja (Hannah John-Kamen), a one-night stand he encounters in England, who actually gets to know him and lets Cooper come back and stay with her after he loses his money and gets stranded. And Katie and Shou at the video game company Saito Gamer, whom Cooper hits up for a quick job — testing a video game that manifests your darkest fears — to earn cash for a ticket home, are more than accommodating.

The people Cooper meets, as horror movies and other episodes of Black Mirror have taught us, should be bad people. Throughout the episode, there are flashes where you could swear they’re about to do something nefarious. But it never fully materializes, and they all trust Cooper to a certain degree — much more than he probably warrants and much more than he trusts them.

Unfortunately, like every Black Mirror episode (they can only be so happy, right?), once the episode starts unfurling its evil grin, it turns into a harrowing look at how we live today: how our experiences might just be extensions of our apps, games, and smartphones. How we’ve turned our lives into a giant game. And how our grandest desires, even our most sublime dreams, might just be artificial manifestations of our smartphone dependency.

“Playtest” imagines a world where “stranger danger” doesn’t exist

Back when the world was young, the two biggest warnings my mother instilled in me were to a) not talk to strangers, and b) not get into a stranger’s car. Fast-forward some 25 years later, and here we are conjuring up strangers to drive us places with the touch of the button.

And it isn’t just Uber and Lyft. Strangers, and the way we use our smartphones to get in touch with them, are essential parts of our lives now.

“Playtest” evokes this part of our lives through the manner in which protagonist Cooper travels the world. In the beginning of the episode, the camera follows him as he gathers what’s important to him: his passport and his heaving bag, yes, but really the only thing he needs is his smartphone.

We learn that Cooper’s phone is the source of his income, as the Oddjobs app allows him to make money when his world travel funds are tight. It also finds him companionship, with apps that stand in for Tinder and Bumble setting him up with intriguing strangers. Cooper’s phone also allows him to live in a bubble, keeping people like his mother out and letting other people like Katie and Shou into his life.

What’s most fascinating about “Playtest” isn’t how naturally it treats the apps Cooper uses, but rather a suggestion that turns out to be a red herring: that the strangers Cooper lets into his life might hurt him. The expectation, since Black Mirror is all about tech horror, is that Sonja or Katie and Shou are secretly evil — that the world is full of strangers who want to murder you.

But that never comes to fruition. “Stranger danger” doesn’t exist in this world.

If you look at their behavior, the people Cooper meets are actually all there to help him. The twist is that it’s Cooper himself who turns out to be responsible for his own demise. Had he just followed the rules, he’d still be alive.

For a show that serves as a warning about our dependence on tech, this is a sly little argument: that the greatest threat to yourself isn’t the strangers you meet through your phone, but rather your own dishonesty.

Life’s a game, and we’re all disposable

Some of the most riveting moments in “Playtest” center on the framing of Cooper’s life as a series of games, with the centerpiece of this techno-fable concerning how he volunteers himself to a giant video game company.

But the theme is also present in the way he travels from one country to another, using Oddjobs to find work. That work is judged on a scale, which is relative to its pay — a correlation not unlike the one between difficulty level and point value in video games.

The theme is also echoed in the way he meets Sonja, swiping left and right on a Tinder-like app, which itself turns dating into an exercise in game theory: Both people need to swipe right to get matched. Ergo, on swipeable dating apps, you can improve your outcome by swiping right and then winnowing down your suitors after you’ve both matched.

This focus on game playing even extends to a smirky nod to video games late in the episode, when Cooper blows on his debit card in hopes of getting it to work properly — a classic move likely familiar to those who remember blowing on their malfunctioning Nintendo and Sega Genesis cartridges.

Cooper has turned his entire life into a game, which can make it hard to feel sorry for him.

That’s sort of the point right? There are points in “Playtest” where you almost feel awful for him, like the brief flashes where he talks about his father’s death. But for the most part, the episode leans into his bro humor, his Americanness, to really stoke your dislike. That he doesn’t call his mother is the poetic final strike against his character.

But ultimately — and this what makes this episode so harrowing — we lose compassion for Cooper because he seems more like a video game character than an actual human.

“Playtest” questions whether Cooper’s everyday life is sadder or scarier than his death. Through his phone, he can find love (Sonja), money (the video game company), and enrichment (traveling the world). But there’s a blush of menace to it all, too, an idea that our phones can create soulless simulacrums for these abstract objects, taking away from an actual experience.

If Cooper met Sonja in real life without the app, would his experience with her have changed? Is his trip to India about finding something in India or taking selfies with India in the background? Is he getting real-life experience, or is he just a performer in these experience exercises?

The only time he gets a real-life experience — one that he seems intent on finding — in this episode is when he puts his phone away.

“Playtest” forces you to question your experiences, what they are, how you acquired them, and how they came to be — then forces you to wonder if it’s all just something your smartphone created.

Black Mirror season three is currently streaming on Netflix. Read the rest of our episode reviews and recaps here.