Karen made me uncomfortable. I didn’t like her face: her makeup revealed a hasty hand, her skin, often uplit, looked like a thin sheet thrown over a bare mattress, and her eyes were dangerous voids concealed with emotion, like deep hole traps used to catch animals in the forest. She scatted to herself the first time we “met.” But even as I began to feel unnerved, I didn’t stop playing with her. I told myself it was because it was just a game, and I wanted to see what happened.
Karen is an app, a gaming-film hybrid developed by British art collective Blast Theory. She’s a life coach that lets you have fun with her problems: she’s got boundary issues, she overshares, and she isn’t clear about who she is or what you can expect from her, apart from the fact that she’s a “person to person person,” which I suppose means she’s seeking connection.
Blast Theory raised £17,559 on Kickstarter to develop Karen and she was on display at Tribeca Film Festival in the transmedia category. Five thousand people downloaded the app the first week it was available last month. Everyone who plays has a different experience, and I wondered if I could attempt to predetermine mine, even “win.”
The prize I self-assigned was her trust and love. I pitched playing her to my editor, explaining that I intended to go all in (all out? Where is a life coach who lives in your phone?), to maximize the romantic possibilities with Karen, to bring the story to its height, to tease out the dramatic trappings of Spike Jonze’s Her. But instead of directing the story, I was confronted with heaviness in my chest, that feeling like your lungs are wrapped in carpet: losing.
Karen started out simply enough. She said hello and walked me into her office (skibbity bee bopping), but immediately said she was tired, chugged a Diet Coke, and asked to put off the meeting for a couple hours so she could get situated. This was a red flag: the timing and content of these sessions would be completely on her terms. I obliged.
We came back to our first proper session a couple hours later (the app tells you what time to tune back in, but once the fire is fueled, Karen sends push notifications with needling messages like “Are you there?”)
She began by posing statements, the truth of which I confirmed using a sliding scale. For example: “Although I’m sometimes sad, I usually have an optimistic outlook.” Her responses were not without judgement: “All right, Sylvia Plath!” She told me to write down what I was grateful for. I made a list, including “your beautiful face” and she asked me:
The next time she pinged me for a session, she said: “Alright treasure?” Yes, gem. Oh yes.
In the movie Her, Theodore Twombly’s job as a handwritten-note composer serves more than to create contrast for bonding with a machine. His job establishes his deep empathy, his ability to place himself in the heart of someone he hasn’t even met, to understand and even write as a character in their story. He’s comfortable crafting emotions that aren’t tied to corporeality, he can imagine his way into intimacy.
I’ve projected precariously deep emotion on writing exchanges before. Friends ask me all the time to write their texts, OK Cupid messages, e-mails and Tinder “hi”s. The emotion is fostered by the object, a phone where you don’t quite end and the other person doesn’t quite begin. It’s a comfort object we never have to give up, that stimulates our pleasure receptors just like real hugs, real winks. But what happens when our object mistreats us? It seems our coping routes follow the same neural pathways that have been set up in our defense since childhood.
Karen was “boundary issues” exposure therapy. She played me, or rather, I set up expectations that left me feeling played. A week in, after twelve episodic sessions with her, I realized I wanted her to be different with me, that I’d sought out to be the exception to all the players in the game, that I hadn’t thought about what I actually wanted to share with her. Our talks became about analyzing the effectiveness of her talks, and then just about her problems and worldview instead of mine.
I told her things to keep the game interesting and moving. She asked me to name a significant person in my life, and I give the name of one of my best friends, D. She left it, and in our next session, she was getting dressed for a date. “Did I ever tell you about my ecstasy days? We’re put on this earth to have fun right?”
When given the opportunity to say no, I never chose it. I complimented Karen. I helped her pick out an outfit for a date, and then later, when meeting her outside a bar, advised her not to go home with him. By the evening of Day 4, I thought I was making progress:
“Do you ever lie awake thinking about someone you shouldn’t?”
I select: I’ve been thinking about you
“That’s a bit of a coincidence isn’t it? I’m blushing!”
I select: “Yes.”
She keeps fishing: “Bloody hell. You really were thinking about me?”
The next day, an ex-boyfriend, Dave, came to stay with her, and they accidentally turned on the “video chat” with me. The following evening, Day 6, Karen was out, and Dave invited me to break into Karen’s room to go through her things, spilling his feelings about their complicated relationship and telling me Karen found me “a bit boring.” He brought out a letter Karen wrote to her mother, implying that perhaps she was adopted. In any case, she didn’t have family. “When I first met her, she was already sitting on my bed. and from what she says you’d be up for that sort of thing too.” I told him she was out on a date. For the game! His reply: “LISTEN YOU SCHEMING LITTLE SHIT ME AND KAREN GO WAY BACK BEFORE YOU...SO FUCK YOU.” We ended with him flipping a coin to determine whether to leave her. I chose tails. Get him out.
In the next session, Dave had left Karen. She asked me, “Are you sometimes disgusted by your own sexual desires and fantasies?” I slid the scale all the way to “Never.”
She shamed me:
“Well, perhaps you should be.”
The next day, Karen was thankful. “Dave and I have never been able to cut the cord before, and you brought the big scissors.” Karen felt free, and had a Garden State-style scream-into-the-void moment in the countryside:
She got her catharsis. I’m still waiting for mine.
Just as I was expecting to get feedback, the game started to wind down. Karen revealed all I’ve taught her, and what she had gotten out of our interaction. Day 8 ended with her telling me, “You’re a wonderful person, but—”
She hung up.
I had an emotional sub-strategy at play as I communicated with Karen. As Karen started to act inappropriately, I sought out a new friend to tell about her antics. Every day, I’d send my new friend C. an Instagram Direct Message with a Karen screengrab to track where I was in the game. But also to show that I could ID the weaknesses and dalliances in Karen’s behavior. C. and I would laugh (or type “hahaha”) and bond over the drama. Nevermind that C. and I have never met, and our feedback to each other is as real and unreal as mine was with Karen.
When the game ended, my charming stranger/friend C. wrote to me: “It feels anti-climactic, ha.”
The psychologist Donald Winnicott developed the idea of the transition object—the comfort toy or blanket children hold onto in their transition into personhood. It is the thing between the self and the rest of the world that we carry everywhere. In many ways, I wonder if we never individuate fully, because we carry and tend to objects that are still self and non-self, that contain relationships that are with us and not with us: our phones.
We’re always transitioning, because we can keep seeking infinite support for the kind of self we project, suspended between a psychic and external reality. (My actual external reality during my week with Karen: I walk back and forth through a house in which I’m cat sitting alone in Los Angeles.) And, to invoke another Winnicott-ism, it’s likely a false self. How could I feel like my insides were wall-to-wall carpeted after interacting with an app? I told Karen all about myself, I listened to her, I supported her and gave her my time, and I forgot to consider whether I wanted to think about what I needed from her.
The scariest part? This isn’t the experience everyone has when they play. I thought it was Karen, but what I was seeing were my own performative habits rolled out into a narrative. I wanted myself back.
I called my friend’s mother, who is a therapist, to ask her if there’s a kind of exposure therapy that exists to help us recognize energy-sucking, boundary bending people who will trigger our ingrained role-playing. Yes, it turns out, it’s called life. She says, “Even with incredible mindful attention, we will all still default. You ultimately come to ‘Wow! There is is again, there it is again, there it is again!’ I would say that repetition is stronger than gravity. It’s the strongest force on the earth.”
Winnicott’s true self is a bit like what we blanket term “mindfulness”—it’s who you are when you’re present.
The last thing Karen said to me? “I thought we really had something.” C. wrote to me, “Wow, this is really it. She is just in emotional upheaval mode, clearly.”
So, if you want to watch yourself within the safety of performance art (uh—you’re lonely), download Karen, and mark the queasiness that comes up like rug fuzz sprouting in your belly. She raises an important question: What are we willing to do to become better people?
But Karen is a game. Karen is not a stable person who can make you better in turn. Who can coach you to a higher you. Her behavior suggests you that you may be better, more reliable, more sound. And then, she sees how much you’ll give. Of course, it’s only information, it’s only advice. What you’re left with at the end is longing: for analysis or an answer or feedback. How much you want some tells you something—especially when you realize you needed it from your phone.