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In Virtue/Vice, Dr. Christine B. Whelan blogs about news, books, scientific and psychological research and her general musings about virtue and vice in our everyday lives.


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July 29th, 2010

The Game of Death


gameofdeath-flashA French documentary, which aired this spring, argues that we’d do anything to win a reality television show — even kill another human being.

The film, called “The Game of Death,” features players in a fake television game shocking fellow contestants if they answer a question incorrectly. The directors of the film found some 80 contestants and auditioned them to take part in a game-show called “Zone Xtreme,” where other “contestants” (actually actors) were asked questions while strapped to an electrified chair. If the actor gave an incorrect answer, the contestant was encouraged to administer an electric shock as punishment, while the crowd roared approval.

Christophe Nick, the maker of the documentary, told the BBC that 82% of the participants shocked the actor-contestant.

“They don’t want to do it, they try to convince the authority figure that they should stop, but they don’t manage to.”

gameofdeath-inside1The idea for this show comes from the Milgram experiments from the 1960s, which demonstrated people will do horrible things if someone in a position of authority tells them to do it. Mr. Nick, the documentary’s producer, said his results outstripped even Milgram’s findings, with 4 out of 5 contestants going against their conscience at the behest of a television show audience.

Which means that in 2010 we’re more likely to do something morally reprehensible for a reality TV show host-and a shot at fame-than folks were to obey a white, male scientist authority figure in the 1960s.


If the point of this was to demonstrate the dangers of reality TV, it’s certainly a wake-up call. But did the contestants really believe that the injuries were real? Given how accustomed we are to the twists of the entertainment biz, didn’t at least some of them suspect an actor behind the set-up?

And just think of how the “contestants” must have felt when they were told it was a documentary-not a real game-show-and that instead of prize money to go along with their shame, they’d be publicly humiliated (the documentary shows their faces, but does not identify them by name) instead?

Mr. Nick claims that the show emboldened contestants to be less passive in their lives and speak their own voice. Good thing for him that the French aren’t nearly as litigious as we are on this side of the pond.

The Author : Christine B. Whelan
Dr. Christine B. Whelan is an author, professor and speaker. She and her husband, Peter, and their dictator cats, Chairman Meow and Evita Purron, live in Pittsburgh. Her book "Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women" is available in stores or at the Halo Store.
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  • Eric H.

    If anyone wants to see something very similar, watch Doctor Who, episode titled “Bad Wolf”. It is about getting thrown into futuristic reality show games. If you lose your round, you are disintegrated!! It shows how far reality games could go just for entertainment value. Kind of reminds me of the escalation of gladiator games in ancient Rome. Throwing Christians to the lions is what I think of.

  • joe

    yikes! this proves what i’ve suspected for a long time – that reality tv is evil, and before long we will all be living within the world of The Running Man

  • Matt

    Mark me down on the “we’re more cynical” side. I suspect anyone volunteering for “Reality TV” these days goes into it knowing that the “contestants” and the audience are all being actively deceived by the producers, and thus takes nothing at face value.

    Likewise, they may be less litigious in France, but they’re not so blase that TV producers would put people into situations where — without special safety measures — there’s a serious danger they’ll be literally killed, without taking precautions to make that outcome extremely unlikely. Everyone who goes on camera knows this. “It may look like they’re in danger, but that’s just for drama.”

    Nobody expects television to be true, and most don’t expect it to be realistic. We want it to be entertaining, and we know going in that making it entertaining is going to involve deception.

    Now, if a show like the fake one in the documentary ever actually got on the air for real, and was a commercial success, you could definitely get some meaty commentary on the coarseness of a society that found such things to be entertaining, even if fake…

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