In Love in the Time of Tamagotchi, Darren Pettman writes lucidly on the Western idealism of Romanticism, a vision that elevates love as a fixed expression between human beings. Relationships that question or problematise this notion, such as virtual courtships with avatars, dating simulation games or even the ‘love algorithms’ used on sites such as eHarmony or OKCupid, are at once belittled and feared. Such relationships, the argument goes, signal the end of intimacy and a closing down of ‘natural’ interactions. In fact, as Pettman illuminates throughout his essay, technology has allowed for the emergence of something far more subtle and complex, something that, at its very limits, could be defined as post-human (1).
Contemporary anxieties around intimacy in the virtual realm are neatly depicted in Striking Vipers, the first episode of the 5th season of dystopian TV series Black Mirror. The episode centres on two friends, Danny and Karl, who have an “affair” within the Virtual Reality fighting game that gives the episode its title. The sex scenes between the two characters that Danny and Karl inhabit (Danny as male character Lance, and Karl as female character Roxette) are split between the virtual world and the real world (2).
In the virtual world, figured within a classic fighting game aesthetic (think Mortal Combat, Street Fighter or Tekken) Danny and Karl, as Roxette and Lance, share their first kiss under perfectly rendered cherry blossom. The artificiality of the landscape is coupled with its clear representation as video game – the rocky outpost against the sea, the neon covered city skyline – these are traditional fighting rings, not the soft furnished boudoirs commonly associated with seduction. And yet, the sexual relationship that the friends embark on is passionate in its very virtuality; they are no longer confined to the physical attributes that make them ‘just friends’ in real life. In Karl’s embodiment as Roxette gender becomes muddied, in Danny’s ability to move freely, unhindered by an ongoing knee injury, he is superhuman, no longer held back by the limits of his muscles and bones.
In the real world Danny and Karl are in their separate homes, it isn’t even clear that they are in the same city. They sit, slumped in their chairs, eyes rolled back and milky white, as if technologically blinded. The distance between them is highlighted by the shots of them in their chairs, centrally framed, taken from both low and high angles. Karl sits with his legs splayed and mouth slightly open, you can almost see the spit pooling, the dribble down his chin. It is an image of complete inertia, of a catatonic state, of someone comatose and removed from the physicality of their surroundings, leaving their body behind – an empty vessel – as they metamorphose into a soft machine (4).
It is in the juxtaposition of this image of inertia within the real-world, versus the addictive seductiveness of the virtual-world that highlights societal concern around sex and Virtual Reality. In a society where much of our understanding of sex takes place ‘online’ the virtual world is seen as negatively impacting real life relationships at the same time as it removes us from them. For example, porn addiction and the impact of porn upon sexual relationships is relevant here, but so too are dating simulations such as the famous 90s game TokiMemo, wherein a male student attempts to win the favour of one of twelve virtual schoolgirls.
That said, there is an important distinction to be made between pornography – that is, viewing misogynistic sex scenes that are focused on the male gaze (unless you know where to look) and the actual placement of the self within scenes that constitute a sexual experience. It has been argued, for example, that Virtual Reality porn that allows the viewer to embody a different gender or sexual experience, elicits an empathy and respect that is severely lacking elsewhere within the industry (4). In Striking Vipers, Karl’s use of the avatar Roxette, and how he feels having sex as a woman is, frustratingly, glossed over within a minute or so of dialogue.
In a market driven world it is unsurprising that advertising media has picked up on the cultural anxieties around sex in the virtual realm to sell products. In doing so, they also ensure that their product reestablishes the cultural norms around intimacy and love as exclusively human. The representation of Virtual Reality sex in Striking Vipers has distinct aesthetic similarities with the 2018 campaign by condom manufacturer Skyn. Titled Save Intimacy the campaign focused heavily on the isolating side effects of technology. There were billboard posters (long gone now, sadly) but also a short film, still available on YouTube. Like Striking Vipers, the billboard poster focused on an image of inertia, the ‘real’ body removed from the virtual space. There are snapshots of people sat with virtual reality headsets on, their body language strikingly similar to that of the Black Mirror episode in the softness of limbs, the head lolling against the back of the chair. There is a couple embracing, but each checking their own phones over the others shoulder. In the video advertisement two people sat with VR headsets on accidentally brush fingers, sparking a removal of the shackles of the virtual world into an embrace of the real one, with its foregrounding of the physicality of touch.
Writing is commonly utilised within advertising campaigns to distil the image that accompanies it. In the Skyn billboard advert, wordplay is used to market the condom as a symbol of ‘real’ sex. Bold capital letters over each image state “PRESS ESCAPE”, “COME OFFLINE” and “TOUCH, NOT NEXT”. These short statements play with gaming/virtual language, the online dating scene and pornography. Whilst these are comical, (as in, the conflation of Cum with Come) they also play with the idea of time, namely that virtual time is not the same as real time. And, furthermore, that the real world is at once where the action is but also, ironically, a static space where we should appreciate what we have and settle, rather than pushing our sexual boundaries within the virtual realm or searching for the perfect partner through endless swipes right.
The figuring of time in the Virtual Reality space is closely entwined with narratives around addiction. Back in 1997 Ann Weinstone wrote about how Virtual Reality offered hyper real transcendence through the rhetoric of disembodiment, immortality and extra-human reproductive and generative powers (5). Much like the heroine user is not bound by a societal understanding of time, seeking only another hit, so too does virtual reality take the user out of time, as an electronic rush, through this hyper real transcendence. The statement PRESS ESCAPE encapsulates this fear perfectly, having a nightmarish quality of forcing yourself to wake up and return to the safety of your bedroom.
The irony however is that traditional (and, particularly, ‘Western’) narratives of love and desire actually place undue significance on the fixed fetish of ‘the one’, whilst in virtual reality preconceived notions of jealousy and exclusivity are troubled. In linguistic terms, the very statement “I love you” brings the “I” into being through the act of loving, meaning that we only appear in and through the other. Our subjectivity is fixed, held and inert through this act, whilst Virtual Reality offers an opportunity to explore other worlds, other bodies, other selves, the I split, scattered across code.
The freedom that is afforded by sex in the virtual world is one that works against the traditional narratives of human/machine as depicted with such horror in the Skyn adverts. Each of the short statements, and the image of inertia, is at odds with the playfulness and capacity for movement that Virtual Reality allows. The simulated partner in dating games, or the ‘love algorithms’ on dating sites, allow for more freedom and subversion than the stasis offered through meeting potential partners in closed friendship circles or at work. In 2004 MIT introduced Serendipity, a programme that stores personal information about a user on their phone. If users are within a ten yard radius of each other and are judged to be a good match, then both phones will beep, alerting them to their compatibility. This is only a small extension from the popular dating/hookup app Happn, wherein location technology is used to match users who pass each other but do not meet. In this way technology becomes an active tool, not facilitating hooks ups but causing them.
I wonder, also, whether the fear of technology as something inert and sedentary has to do with a capitalist society that foregrounds productivity at the cost of all else. The repetitive image of the person in the couch, catatonic, has connotations with the assumed perils of technology as engendering laziness. The person sat on their couch, in their house, living in the virtual world, is not consuming in the real one. Rather than this being due to work life wearing us out, until we are unable to do anything in the evening/morning after a shift but flop on the couch, the narrative is instead one around willpower and personal betterment. The tag line for the Skyn campaign was Technology Is Great When It Brings Us Together but depicts a world wherein this technology is only available in the real world as a physical object, in this case condoms, but easily applicable to cars or anti-ageing face cream.
Of course, in Striking Vipers, another layer is added by both Karl and Danny participating in a sexual relationship with each other: through a computer rather than with a computer. It is in this blurring of the real/virtual that the anthropocentrism and humanism that usually reinforces the dichotomy between the biological and the technical is shown to be woefully inadequate. It is also a development of the well-trodden cultural zeitgeist wherein people (usually men) fall in love with/abuse machines (usually women) who then ultimately betray or rise up against them in a way that could perhaps be read as retribution, but ultimately seems to embody a male fear of female independence and intellectual superiority, rendering them useless (Ex Machina and Her, to name just two filmic examples).
There is previous form for this, however, within the established realms of virtual love. Pettman cites the importance of eye contact between potential lovers and how this is undercut by the technological limits of the video chat, wherein the choice is between staring at the image of the interlocutor or straight into the camera, but not both at the same time. In this way, the user is reminded of the absence of their partner. In contrast, Virtual Reality, the embodiment of an avatar, allows for eye contact, complicating and collapsing the distinction between the informational and the biological.
Where then, does this leave Danny and Karl? Their in game experimentation leads them to distraction within the daily reality of their lives. Danny’s relationship with his wife begins to crumble, Karl is unable to maintain his desire for his hot young girlfriend (who, interestingly, is constantly attached to her phone, rolling over in bed to check it immediately after her and Karl stop having sex – the phone becoming a physical barrier to intimacy as much as Striking Vipers is a gateway to one). However, a kiss between the two as ‘themselves’ reveals that the desire they feel for one another is exclusive to their relationship as avatars within Virtual Reality. Their relationship becomes ‘post human’ because, as avatars, they transcend the limited capabilities of human beings, but also the limits of their relationship with each other in the real world.
The sensation of touch is emulated within the game Striking Vipers. In some ways this still foregrounds a very human experience and sensation, one that is unavailable to users of text based technology such as virtual chat room partners. Then again, it also subverts the Logocentrism that has dominated Western philosophical thought. If texting is leading to the death of conversation (as in WhatsApp’s impact on face-to-face exchanges) then perhaps technology can suggest a new form of interaction, one that focuses on an intimacy that many of us still feel too embarrassed to vocalise. Instead of words and language, touch and sensation become a new ontological framework, one wherein it’s not TOUCH, NOT NEXT but TOUCH, NOT TEXT.
1. Dominic Pettman, Love in the Time if Tamagotchi in Theory, Culture and Society 2009 (SAGE, Los Angeles, London, New Dheli and Singapore), Vol.26 – EVERYONE should read this, I use a lot of Pettman’s ideas throughout this piece.
2. A side-note – I am focusing very specifically here on the relationship between sex and Virtual Reality and the notion of Virtual/Real relationships. Whilst I think that Striking Vipers does this well, it is inadequate in many of the other aspects it touches upon but seems unable to expand, namely: gender identity, homoerotic friendship and homosexuality within the black community.
3. David Porush: You can’t wear the thongs of the cybernetic machine mask for long without feeling its seduction, knowing the grace that comes when the cyberlink between cortex and text becomes seamless and complete, feeling the code stamp itself upon the jelly of your flesh so that you metamorphose into a soft machine, knowing that it feels so…so right and hurts so good.
4. Virtual Reality Porn Could Change Your Perception of Sex: Culture Trip, October 2018
5. Ann Weinstone, Welcome to the Pharmacy: Addiciton, Transcendance, and Virtual Reality, 1997