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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No Exit: How Games Can Change Us

Rule 1: Get a group of three or more people.

I was sitting in the second row, listening to Eric Zimmerman talk at IndieCade. I had arrived late as a result of drinking too much the night before and ended up sitting next to strangers instead of my friends. The bright, funky colors and amoebic shapes painted on the theater stage contrasted the prevalently white audience in black shirts. In hindsight, wearing brown that day might have been too apt. So when Eric motioned for us to group together, I instantly felt like the outsider.

Rule 2: Put up five fingers.

There are certain motions that move us to the ‘it’s a game’ phase. Putting on a uniform, grabbing a controller, putting up fingers. The magic circle. My pinky had a ring on it, and I wasn’t sure if it would affect my performance. Once our hands went up, bent at the elbow and floating around our chins, it felt like a game within a game. We were mostly strangers, maybe ran into each other a couple of times throughout the festival, but not enough to know everyone’s loyalties. I was the only woman.

Rule 3: Take turns eliminating each others’ fingers.

Something from the depths of my mind told me to do anything to not go first. The men shifted from leg to leg as we negotiated awkwardly, looking around at much more jubilant and excited groups. So I just pointed to the person next to me, volunteering him and going clockwise, so I was next. The group got tense, anticipating the struggle to come.

Rule 4: Last person with fingers wins.

Strategy was only part of the game; knowing how people worked, even just upon meeting them, was crucial to surviving. Revenge, or justice if you want to be nice about it, factored in the most. In a game where you need to wrong someone while still appearing good, enacting revenge is the easiest way to hurt another player while seeming blameless. I positioned myself to always side with the recently wronged, and the rest would gang up on the initial offender. I didn’t smack talk, I pouted gracefully when targeted, and never did anything to make myself stand out as a threat.

I won.

Flash back to the year 2000, when I saw the premier of the show Survivor. The premise was simple: groups of people were put into the wilderness, forced to work together in order to withstand the elements, but had to vote out a member of the game every three days. The game show was as much of a social experiment as it was a competition, a testament of the human condition despite the dubious editing as the show progressed. I was hooked, and ended up watching the show for 14 seasons. It wasn’t long until I discovered there were renditions of Survivor on the internet, hosted games where anyone can participate and see if they could ‘survive.’ Because the brutal environment was taken of the picture, these games were a distillation of Sartre’s “hell is other people.”

Out of fandom and curiosity, I started playing them. Hindsight might say it was a bit sociopathic; the contestants on Survivor played for a million dollars, a life changing prize, and rarely played more than once. I, on the other hand, continually signed up for games where I knew I’d have to socially maneuver, lie, backstab, and spend inordinate amounts of time sitting at my computer at late hours just for the experience of it.

It wasn’t the games themselves that were cycles of masochism, but my relationships with the people in the community surrounding them. Game and reality blurred as cell phones came into prominence, players met each other over multiple games, and reputations were gained. These games, these people took up large amounts of my time and emotional energy.

It was typical for things to get tense, and sometimes turn on your friends. There were relationships and rivalries, adding multiple levels of nuance to the games we were all participating in. Crying during these competitions was a regular event for me. ‘It’s just a game’ was a huge philosophical battle of this community; are your actions still a reflection of you even when suspending social mores for a game? What was you and what was you in the game? As we currently think of games, we play to get away from reality and do the things we wouldn’t do in our daily lives. But as my experience playing these Survivor games tell me, that’s not how it works.

Jumping back to the game I tried at IndieCade, I can see the skills I cultivated in Survivor games reemerged. Playing Eric’s game jarred something in me, a part of me that never left and possibly has been informing my actions for years after I stopped playing those games. I remember staring down a clean Culver Boulevard, squinting in the light, wondering if I should tell my friends about this revelation. I didn’t think this was a case of false attribution, that would finally be the link of violence in reality and games, but there was something else going on.

I feel like I discovered two things:

Discovery A: We are always in a magic circle.

When it comes to analyzing games and how people interact with them, the popular concept of the magic circle posits a border between reality and the game. It allows us to suspend disbelief and engage with the game without thinking too much about the world outside of the circle. But as iterations of the concept show, reality and games affect each other, shaping the landscapes and interactions of both worlds.

One perspective of what a game can be is simply interaction with rules. These rules produce varying kinds of behaviors in people and inevitably mediates their mentality. This happened on a social level in the Survivor games I played; in fact, I posit that we’re always playing a game, always interacting with social rules we’ve assumed to be a part of life. It just takes going to another country, or even another city, to sense you aren’t playing by the same rulebook.

I like to think of the cliched phrase ‘life is a game’ in the context of one of my favorite movies, Battle Royale. The main antagonist, if you could call him that, said this to a group of 8th graders all forced to murder each other in a game. The movie and books interrogate the analogy of life and game; how isn’t our current socio-economic structure not exactly like these deadly, tragic games? In a society where your classmate will soon be your competitor for a job in a tanking economy, doesn’t their success denote your set back? In a world where the rich complain about profits and the lives of the poor in their sweatshops suffer their every whim? The smartest bit of Battle Royale was destroying the notion that everyone starts off life and the game equally; one guy gets a submachine gun and another a pot lid.

Discovery B: Games change people.

As I change when I move from a bar crowded with friends to a public bus to a lover’s bedroom, I changed when playing Survivor. In this light, rules are actually a kind of perspective, a way of viewing yourself under different lights. The rules of a social situation pulls out different aspects of your being and tries them. You learn something about yourself working on a team at your job, you reflect how your interactions with you family has molded you as a person. Survivor showed me how I’d act with my back against the wall and only my words and social maneuverings to save me. I used what natural skills I had, untiring friendliness, interest in others, noticing people’s quirks and habits. Except all those things became relevant only in relation to the rules: I was friendly to gain bonds I would need later on, I got to know people so they would trust me, and I paid close attention in order to anticipate others’ actions.

This makes games a reflective, soul searching tool for me, much like music and visual art. I throw myself at rules, test their boundaries, and then again, and then contemplate what happened to me. It reveals a part of my psychology and I owe it to myself to meditate on what I’ve learned. Art, overall, wants to incite change. You are not supposed to leave a game the same person. For a time you can’t tell the difference between you and the game, and once you leave, you take a bit of it back to your life. It is the negotiation between you and what the game wants you to do. That’s much like how we describe identity overall, the tension between the self and culture.

Rule 5: It never ends.

Declaring my citizenship of all these spaces inevitably will reflect upon how people see me. To those men who had no idea a woman with a legacy of social manipulation held her hand up with theirs. I could never go back to those games without the reputation I’ve gained myself. These embarrassing revelations, about how cutthroat and unethical we are when we play our games alone: they are a part of us. And it isn’t the violence they depict, or the immorality they could promote that is dangerous, but the lack of reflection these systems mean to promote. Our games don’t need to be hung on walls to change us.

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