'Black Mirror' Season 5 "Striking Vipers" Has Scary Implications for VR Sex
Many years ago, I was running around a bustling metropolitan city dressed in sleek red and black armor when a physically fit woman in one-piece spandex approached me. She took me to a back alley and we started making out. I don’t remember her name. She then abruptly left, and I was left there wondering what the hell just happened.
I was playing City of Heroes, the now-defunct MMO that was basically World of Warcraft with a superhero spin. I was also 13. To this day, I have no idea who it was that took me for a raunchy rendezvous in a corner of the internet that has now virtually vanished from existence.
I kept thinking about my weird little story while watching the first episode of Black Mirror Season 5 on Netflix, which premiered today. Titled “Striking Vipers,” the episode stars Anthony Mackie, Yahya Abdul Mateen II, Nikki Beharie, Pom Klementieff, and Ludi Lin in yet another episode that reckons with our fragile relationship with technology.
Warning: Spoilers ahead for Black Mirror Season 5, Episode 1 “Striking Vipers.”
In “Striking Vipers,” two best buds, married father Danny (Mackie) and single playboy Karl (Mateen II) reconnect over a remastered edition of their favorite pastime, a Tekken-esque game titled Striking Vipers. They log on using the game’s virtual reality function (somewhat similar, if not exactly the same immersive VR seen in the Season 4 episode “USS Callister”).
Enamored by the game’s sophistication to realism — every punch and Hadouken hurts, every gust of air feels real — the two dudes start having sex as their favorite avatars. Their hard, fit avatar bodies are not unlike the immaculate bods seen in most other popular fighting games like Street Fighter, King of Fighters, Mortal Kombat, and Dead or Alive.
Although (minor spoilers) the episode has something resembling a happy ending, at least compared to the rest of Black Mirror (and nowhere near as emotional as “San Junipero”), there’s a lot of scary implications in “Striking Vipers.” It’s most apparent when, again, minor spoilers, Karl reveals he’s tried having sex with other players, “including one dude from Holland.” But no one else has made it as sublime like his best friend.
Karl basically suggests he and Danny aren’t alone. There’s a thriving sex community in Striking Vipers. Many online games, especially those that came up in the 2000s, reckoned with what it meant to live a “second life” in a space where there were seemingly no consequences. Games like Second Life and Final Fantasy XIV have etched out kink and BDSM communities where players strive to satisfy a need sex in the real world can’t fulfill.
That’s great — I’m happy there are healthy, if unexpected spaces people have found to explore their identities. But there’s plenty of questions those games didn’t have to solve that Black Mirror, by necessity, avoids exploring. I think back to my little escapade, how I was just an adolescent hoping to kick ass fighting supervillains. Instead, one day, I wound up typing “kiss kiss kiss” in a chat window on my family’s Dell computer.
With “Striking Vipers,” I’m curious if Karl and Danny’s specific world of consumer technology has worked out the more difficult and/or deeply discomforting areas regarding its immersive spaces. What of underage players? Is it incest if it’s between family? Could such a space enable safer sex work? And in Danny’s case: Is it actually cheating?
Games like Second Life still have, ahem, life in them; some 60,000 people reportedly logged on to Second Life every day throughout 2018. Due to the niche size, it’s unlikely Second Life will ever have to deal with questions about sex that this episode of Black Mirror asks. In fact, Black Mirror portrays gaming a touch outdated; there’s more pressing questions regarding the economics of loot boxes and livestreamers flirting with alt-right ideologies than games that promise a limitless sandbox playground.
We know just one thing about this world: Karl and Danny can’t translate their sexual, gaming relationship into their real lives. Their attempt to kiss IRL is passionless. For whatever reason, it’s their avatars that do the trick. But that still doesn’t specify precisely what Danny and Karl have become as lovers. There’s so many questions, but then again, it wouldn’t be Black Mirror if we weren’t asking.
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Black Mirror Season 5 is streaming now.