Controller fearlessly dives into the human-robot conundrum

The eccentric play explores technology, ethics, and human action

Three people stand facing different directions with blue code projected onto their bodies, and three shadows looming over them above
Controller was part of rEvolver Festival 2022 at The Cultch. Photo Courtesy of Upintheair Theatre.

By: Pamela Subia, SFU student

Controller was one of the plays included in rEvolver Festival 2022’s programme. Running from May 25–June 5 at The Cultch, this year’s festival explored themes such as gender diversity, minority experiences, and human-technology interdependence. 

Displaying the deep and innovative quality of the local arts and culture scene, Controller overrode all expectations. This interactive piece was produced by the local arts collective, Theatre Conspiracy, and written by BC filmmaker, writer, director, and scientist Mily Mumford. They are also known for their acclaimed plays at the annual Fringe Festival.

The interactive aspect of Controller emotionally guided the audience to dissect human-technology interdependence and examine ethical concerns which have existed since early civilization. With the increasing presence of technology in the lives of individuals, these tensions become more apparent and difficult to ignore. 

The play started by introducing the audience to four characters living in the United States. At different plot points, the lives of these characters were determined by a vote of applause from an external agent (the audience) who has the controller to their lives. We are introduced to the characters in 2016, where two of them are video game actors and the other two work for the US military missile control centre in New York. As a viewer, the occupations of the characters made me deeply interested in the development of the plot. Many questions arose as to what these occupations are like in reality, and what ethical dilemmas they face. 

Throughout the play, the audience is tasked with making decisions for the characters in a world of killer robots, virtual realities, deepfake scandals, and violence. Controller forces the viewer to make ethically difficult decisions: whether or not to protest against a videogame or remotely bomb a group of people who could be civilians. Controller makes us think about how much more convoluted the world could get in the future with the growth of virtual reality technologies and virtually controlled war tactics.

By the end of the play, when the characters sat down to drink wine and reflect upon what had happened and what was to come, one of them giggled and said, “Nihilism is so 2020.” Nihilism is defined as “the belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated.” In other words, it encompasses a general indifference towards existence. This sentence was a shock to me as a part of a generation that is progressively falling into nihilism and doom mentality, but it also felt like a wake up call. After that statement, the audience has no more choices to make and the artist-audience division is replaced. This gave the audience a chance to feel relief and to reflect on the play’s message, which was loud and clear. We need to stop behaving as a spectator and start taking action for our communities and ourselves before someone (or something) else grabs the controller.