UnREAL, Feminism, and the Reality Game

I recently wrote on the different ways reality TV games approach play and game design that differ from conventional attitudes on the topic. Despite how much film is seen by games people as a static medium, the form of reality TV using games to generate narrative, politics, and a wider scale of participation via spectacle all deserve due recognition. After writing about this, I’ve had friends tell me about the TV series UnREAL, a fictionalization of one of the creator’s personal experience being a producer on The Bachelor. It’s a very well done dark comedy and drama that also wrestles with contemporary issues surrounding feminism in a rather refreshing way, that is, everything is super fucked up and no one is holy. I recommend watching it if you can.

What fascinates me the most about this show is how it’s using a game as the central allegory for the struggles of feminism within contemporary society. Consider: first there is the literal game of a group of women who must woo the bachelor into letting them stay every elimination, with different motives not always romantic (bachelor included). Then there’s the producers who split the girls between them and receive financial incentives to goad them into drama and get them to the end. On top of that is the showrunner who has to produce high enough ratings for the network (and they usually want to degrade women in some way for such a purpose) so she can keep her show but also keep a bare minimum of loyalty with her production staff who are trying to retain any sense of conscience that they can. Most of this might not really be seen as a ‘game’ by most, and since this is a TV show everything is scripted so nothing seems to really be ‘played,’ but I believe the success of UnREAL shows the potential for a speculative wave of reality TV game design that could better access social issues on a populist platform. I have previously equated the struggle of personas on social justice twitter to reality TV, and the dynamics this show produces creates a heavy pause for reflection on how contemporary feminism is critically compromised.

Social justice and the general progressive mentality mainly deals with issues in large-scale political motions. Which is needed for sure, but also creates this ‘go big or go home’ attitude that has most people feeling like they can’t do much about all the crappy ways the world works if they don’t have a large reach of influence. Using reality TV as a game allows the show to reveal and unpack a complicated web of interpersonal struggles where decent people are stuck in a crappy situation and are compelled to pull each other down for their own survival. The focus of the show is how women are forced to use other women as stepping stones in order to get through the mess of their career, so the show features mostly women, but men appear around the edges to always fuck things up and make the situation worse. A reality-based game is well-suited to talking about this because they aren’t purely game theory strategy puzzles, rather largely dictated by how contestants struggle with social systems.

The striking metaphor for me is the relationship between producing and performing. UnREAL is completely meta, being a TV show about a TV show, using that distance and irony to reveal the process of how something seamless like a television program is produced in a very messy and contemptible way. The show of Everlasting, which is basically The Bachelor, is the reality in our imaginations, how we understand the world. There’s all the tropes you can think of, the bitch, wholesome wife material, spinster, angry black girl, the slut, the not-so-reformed dallying Ken doll. The ‘it is what it is’ or ‘that’s just reality’ part of us when we accept the subtle ways media and social systems have portrayed other people to us. But as we see in the show, the games are used as a structure to manufacture drama that can eventually be edited out of context in order to create this fantasy version of reality. Claims that reality TV is completely staged is way too simplistic; those things really do happen, we are watching reality, but there is an active force shaping those events, much like how we imagine systems of power in society. There are many lines in the show like ‘don’t blame me that America’s racist’ or ‘no man wants a dried up old woman’ that speak to how media and audiences are constantly reflecting each other in a never ending self-fulfilling prophecy, where the production staff is forced to twist women into nasty tropes and completely disillusion them from the fantasy world they were promised because audiences won’t watch it otherwise, and audiences receive a master cut of footage completely unaware of the context in which it was produced and on some level accepts it as ‘reality.’

It is fitting that the show chose The Bachelor to model instead of a game based of off athletic skill or conventional puzzle solving. The women of the show can’t display any sort of objective merit, the undercurrent challenge of the show centers around their worth and how they can shape others measuring their worth. Watching the show gave me many ideas for participatory experiences to involve people in power struggle on a social and societal level as opposed to a purely strategic. Different strata of people, the contestants, the bachelor, the producers, the showrunner, all have different forms of power and different sources of pressure while they all hurtle towards the final episode where it matters to every single person who is chosen to be the bride-to-be, just for widely different and typically unsavory reasons. Fairness isn’t really something that exists in this game, and the only rule seems to be that you can only leave once you’ve been eliminated. In this sort of game, it’s questionable whether anyone ‘wins,’ rather everyone just eventually gets to the end and has to reflect on what happened.

We can see UnREAL as film’s take on using the unique properties of reality games for commentary. It used the medium’s strengths of representation to show us mostly plausible parable and used suspense devices associated with reality games to keep us deep into the messy relationships as we try to figure what we would do in similar situations, and coming to the conclusion there is little wiggle room for the martyr narrative we have in actual reality. Good deeds are squeezed out of a great deal of compromises and the only people who can actually change anything are the rich and powerful who don’t really care about the pain of those under them until it comes to affect their routines. Games people interested in exploring social systems would do well to follow the example and look into reality games.

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Intro to Reality Games for Game Designers and Critics

Being involved with artistic and critical communities around play, it’s easy to see repeated narratives about games eventually made into a canon. Certain games and play experiences are seen as exemplar and in-turn define how we think of what games are, particularly good ones. As with any sort of curation, canonization is political and reflects the values of the community that holds it up. So it’s always a fun venture to see what is left out of the canon and explore how it could complicate conversations around the medium of play. I’ve had a long-standing interest and history with reality games, the most famous being the US versions of Survivor and Big Brother, which are curiously absent from games discourse. I want to pose some potential areas of interest where I believe reality games stretch and challenge game conventions and critical thought around play. Also I just think people would get a kick out of analyzing and designing them.

Survivor and Big Brother created genre expectations for the reality games we see on TV today and even other sorts of game shows. The basic premise has a group of players sequestered away from their lives and other people to play in an elimination game that usually take a month to three to complete. These games are played in structured rounds that usually include some sort of physical, mental, or social challenge to either gain safety, control, or rewards and then a voting phase to eliminate another player from the game. Interpersonal dynamics mix with game theory as participants maneuver through the game until eventually there are only two left. Some eliminated players then act as a jury to choose the winner, who gets the grand prize. It is worth noting that film and TV conventions also affect how the game is viewed by audiences and that there is an audience at all is a strong factor in both the design and mythos of reality games. Just as we wouldn’t ignore the audio-visual elements of a video game, we must keep in mind cinematography and film/TV choices when thinking about reality games.

I should also note that amateur reality games exist off the TV and are played across internet forums, instant messaging services, and chat rooms (Online Reality Games, called ORGs for short). Communities of reality game fans play multiple of these over time and expect written episodes from the host that oversaw all the chat logs and journaling from the players. While the formats differed, they ultimately conformed to the structure and expectations of Survivor and Big Brother, with one of the most prolific of these using RPG elements and novelized into full-length fiction. ORGs that aren’t about or inspired by existing reality TV shows tend to bleed into the alternate reality games (ARGs) genre, to which many members of this community played before they reached public attention as marketing stunts.

 

Design Narratives & The Twist

Despite the game aspect being such a focus in this form of media, reality games are first and foremost creative works of non-/fiction (we can see them as both at the same time). While this would be true even if we were just peeping through cameras at the unfolding of the game, the players are aware the entire time they are being watched and a story will be made out of both public and behind the scenes drama. Confessionals, the usual name for private interviews between players and camera people, are frequent and contestants are asked about their personal perspectives and stories to eventually turn into dramatic episodes. And while the strategy of the game is interesting, the structure of the game is made to produce dramatic and interesting television, to create interpersonal tension and conflict since that’s what people want to see. The design of reality games are not simply for the enjoyment of the players’, rather it’s more important that the design creates a good spectacle. We can see this with regards to the introduction of ‘the twist;’ much like how we use the term ‘plot twist’ for injecting interest into writing we’re familiar with, in reality games there are also game twists. For example, the strategy of the first couple seasons of Survivor followed the same pattern: sixteen players start off in two teams of eight and after six eliminations merge into one group. When one team gets majority, they pick off members of the other team before turning on themselves. This was becoming predictable and therefore by the third season, an unexpected twist switched team members before the merge to shake up the dynamics of the game. Ever since, there’s always been a twist and further adjustments to the game whenever it started to get predictable. Games often contain plot twists in the story but rarely design ones; game developers tend to add on layers of general complexity that gradually helps the player progress, but not necessarily a design upset that completely shakes up how they play. One of my favorite board games, Betrayal at the House on the Hill incorporates a twist, where players know a twist will happen but unsure of what kind. Another example might be Michael Brough’s Corrypt, which is why it caught many developers’ and critics’ attention.

 

The Vote & Politics

In many games there’s some sort of force that makes sure that everyone has a fair shot and are playing fairly, like referees, dungeon masters, other players, or the computer. In reality games, fairness mostly comes from the fact that everyone has one vote that they can use in each elimination phase they attend, otherwise they are victim to the whims of the challenges, twists, and social dynamics of the experience. Players are often reduced to their votes or voting power in terms of strategy; alliances form to create a majority of votes, players act as swing votes between alliances, and jurors at the end of the game vote to decide who wins. Scholarly writing on reality games picked up on this imagery of voting and how it represents American or general Western fantasies of political systems. Voting is the most important part of these games and there is strong rhetoric at least in the US that voting is the most important part of being a citizen. By creating a game based on this sort of democratic idealism of equality through voting power we see reality games express a range of arguments around ethics and personal advancement in ‘fair’ societies. With Survivor taking place in ‘exotic’ locales and Big Brother taking place in a heavily surveilled compound to live up to its reference, critical perspectives could easily see how media and games contain imperialist, nationalist, and capitalist values. We can see not only the players’ expressions within political systems but also understand how audiences relate to watching ones play out. Implications of how people view prominent members of social media as they do reality TV characters are also interesting to follow.

 

Replays & Strategic Evolution

Though in the majority of televised reality game contestants only play once, there are many ways that knowledge of how past games affect how present ones are played. These sorts of effects are considered incidental or auxiliary enough to not merit consideration in conventional design or analysis, but in reality games, past relationships and how much knowledge you have of the game becomes much more important. This is particularly true for ORGs, where the same community of people are playing reality games multiple times, so players are bound to have played games with others and have both relationships and reputations. Because these games are so wrapped up in interpersonal dynamics, strategies will play out strongly biased by relationships and expectations already established. For example, who you decide to align with or vote out will change if you left a friend or foe with another player in a previous game, as well as if they played honorably or not and how far along they placed. If you know someone to be a generally nice under the radar player, you will be conscious of them sneaking too far along unnoticed. If instead a player was revealed to have backstabbed you and many people in the last game you played, you will know not to trust them and might want to eliminate them as soon as possible.

If someone was to research the change of the game and players over time, the fact that people who have watched and possibly discussed reality games in depth could play the game becomes important. Fans of the shows know the strategies and archetypes of players, forcing the game to move in certain directions, and eventually prompting new kinds of twists and structure changes. The audience of reality games cannot be ignored since their language discussing the shows eventually get into the games and shape design and discourse; the first recognized instance of an ORG player being drafted into the actual show of Survivor ended up placing 3rd out of 18. More games could take into consideration the same group of people playing games together and developing a set of dynamics, like Legacy: Risk.

 

Reality & Deterioration of Magic Circle

In the canon of game design and criticism is the ‘magic circle,’ an anthropological term about a sacred space where play exists outside the rules of real life. It points to the tendency for games and play to not have any consequences on real life, that how one acts in a game shouldn’t really affect them outside of it. And while the magic circle becomes more porous over time, reality games, especially ORGs, challenge its influence since one of the main elements of these games is reality. On TV, players are looking to win a million dollars, which will no doubt change their lives, and also exposure as models and actors, or some other PR reason. With ORGs you find players developing relationships over time that have an impact in and out of the game. Televised Big Brother games have a reputation for mixing in people’s lives with the games, such as secretly bringing in some players’ ex-partners to play the game, twin twists, and even seeing a player getting put on leave from his job for appearing on the show. The reality aspect of reality TV requires that the game meld in some way with players’ lives, and audiences indulge in the authentic emotional expressions of players when watching.

More pressing is the ever frequent questions of ethics in reality games. In games discourse, the only kind of play that is described as frowned upon are cheaters, who know and break the rules, and the ‘spoilsport,’ who doesn’t recognize the rules of the games as legitimate and plays outside the rules in that play space. In reality games, backstabbing and lying are not against the rules but highly frowned upon because backstabbing and lying are taboo in reality. In most games, lying and backstabbing are brushed off because for reasons such as ‘it’s just a game,’ and are easily forgotten outside of the context of play. And while this sort of reasoning comes up in reality games, because the game is much longer, the stakes are higher, and everything is more personal, what is moral stays in debate because humans decide who’s the winner of the game, not any objective win condition. Player’s personalities and understanding of how one one treats each other in the real world affects how the game proceeds and is resolved. This goes hand-in-hand with conversations around ‘deserving;’ who deserves to be voted out, who deserves to win? While a contemporary game designer and critic might conclude to the objective fact of who actually won and lost, within reality games is a constant discourse over these questions which ultimately shapes how the game concludes. There have been instances where between the clearly more strategic, cutthroat player and the under the radar, never lied player, a jury will pick the latter because they would feel morally compromised choosing who others might think of as a ‘better’ player but was a ‘bad’ person.

 

Players & Characters

In reality games, a players’ personalities undeniably impact the procedure of the game; are they likeable? Charismatic? Manipulative? Honorable? Can I stand being around this person all this time? Can I bare the thought of this person getting far in the game? Do I feel good about taking this person with me to the Final Two? Am I okay with this person winning? Personal preferences have always found expression in games, but never so much take a central role in the development of play as they do in reality games. Game designers that lament the difficulty of designing around relationships would find much use in how reality games prompt bonding and social dynamics. The personalities and strategies that emerge from the clash between the game’s structure and players’ morality are then viewed in highly edited episodes that turn real people into characters. This mediates audiences’ understanding of ‘reality,’ that even if there’s an awareness of creative intent in the production of these games and episodes, the relationship to the game is through some level of appreciating authenticity. Players’ emotions are real, there are close-up shots of their real emotions, information is shown and hidden in a way to show a real drama. Audiences eventually notice archetypes of players that are simultaneously their character and strategic editing; fictive and strategic elements are completely intertwined. Understanding the editing of reality TV has taken on its own art-form to create a meta game of guessing the winner, called Edgic. In this way, audiences are playing along to guess who the winner is, much like a reader would try to find out who the killer is in a whodunit. We can’t ignore the influence of editing and fan culture, not only because they eventually seep back into the canonized game, but they ultimately outline what a reality game is and how far its bounds stretch. Rarely has fan culture affected commercial games in such a manner.

 

I hope designers and critics give reality games a chance to be a part of our medium’s canon and history. There’s a lot to learn and chew on, especially considering the focus on interpersonal dynamics and how audiences relate to the game. If anything, I’d just like to see contemporary versions of these games that play with how people relate to one another and recognize that qualities of our culture can be used in the creation of play. There are strategies reality games have in spades that contemporary game design lacks and I think could help raise the bar in the kind of experiences we choose to create.

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