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This Gaming Life

Reality TV

by Ian O'Rourke
Jul 18,2002

 

Reality TV

At the risk of me being branded as thick, or a fan of moronic, modern television I have to admit that I'm a bit of a sucker for Reality Television. Don't get me wrong, I don't rapidly cycle through the channels (all four of them since I don't currently have Digital TV) looking for the latest show about running a hotel or people learning to drive, but I am a big fan of some of the high profile efforts in this 'genre' of television. I was a big fan of Popstars, and I was glued to Pop Idol (and I voted for Will Young). I watched the whole first series of Survivor (though it was not that good, since I didn't watch the second series) and don't even get me started on my Big Brother addiction.

Big Brother, at least the UK versions, some of the foreign versions of the show seem to have missed the whole point, is the Reality TV show that has had me glued to the TV for three incarnations of the concept. For those not familiar with it, the idea is simple. You put ten people in a house, and film them continuously. Each week they housemates have to nominate two people for eviction, these two go up for public vote and the public choose who leaves the house. Each week they must complete a task, and they must bet a percentage of their allowance on completing the task. They use the allowance to purchase food and luxuries. As a result the housemates are in competition, yet they must cooperate. They have to ultimately rely on public perception, but they don't know how they are being perceived. They must also survive in a relatively small environment while being constantly filmed, while living with people that are very diverse in their outlook and backgrounds. The chaos, group dynamics, and perceptions people have is, for me, enthralling viewing. The first series followed this format exactly, the second and third added few elements around the edges but the concept remained the same.

It is easy to get totally absorbed in the show. Each weeknight Big Brother is aired as a half hour show, with the exception of Friday, which is the night someone gets thrown out of the house and interviewed. The problem with the half hour show is it is tightly edited, so you only get what the producers want to show you and in the way they want to show you it. It is a format ripe for portraying people in a certain way. In order to counteract this you can watch the housemates 24 hours on the web, or from series 2 onwards about 18 hours a day on the Digital TV channel E4 (with series three you can now use an interactive service, which basically delivers the web service, with a choice of four cameras, but with TV quality pictures and sound). In short, you see them as they are, raw and in the flesh, you can even watch them sleep if you like.

So, what's this got to do with role-playing? Nothing much really, other than I realised a number of things while watching the show: (1) they've never had a gamer on, and I think this would be interesting and (2) I got thinking about the skills that gaming has given me that would be useful in the house and (3) some Reality TV concepts work well in role-playing campaigns.

The housemates chosen for Big Brother are obviously chosen for a reason, the producers ensure they are a diverse bunch, thus ensuring differences of opinion about the housemates inside and outside the house. We have had strippers, posh people, real scrubbers, the incredibly thick, and even the intelligent (who end up looking thick as they end up thinking they can 'out think' the show). We have had one borderline science fiction fan, he was to science fiction what lipstick lesbians are to gay women - he liked Star Wars when he was a kid (he even named the fish Darth Vader) but he was no obsessive. He was certainly not a gamer.

A gamer on Big Brother would be interesting; mainly because I tend to encounter two types of gamer: intolerant, obsessive, and sometimes ignorant gamers or the more sane variety who are actually capable of holding a debate and adding something insightful. I realise it may be just me, but I've never found a gamer (physically anyway) who sits happily in between these two polar opposites. The reason for this are probably numerous, including the number of gamers I have encountered not being a representative sample, or it could be that anyone who does not seriously care about the hobby (and thus played role-playing games much like he did Monopoly) left it once they 'grew up.' As a result, you're left with the extremes at either end of the scale.

I would find it hilarious to have an obsessive gamer on Big Brother. It may be a stereotype, but it would be interesting to see a hard core Dungeons and Dragons player on the show, you know the type, the ones that obsess about classes being weaker or stronger, whether the weapon weights are incorrect, and who always play to win. Now may be you're recognising some of these traits in yourself? Well, that's okay; it's a matter of degree at the end of the day. He'd drive the housemates up the wall with his black and white philosophy (and no doubt right wing politics) and he'd be fun to watch until the first eviction came and he got voted off - thus embarrassing us all and showing the whole of the UK how 'geeky' and pathetic gamers are. It's probably not a good idea, but I'm confident enough in myself, and see no need for PR campaigns about role-playing, that I'd be happy to get the laugh and move on.

It does not have to be like this though, as role-playing is capable of teaching you a number of skills that are key to surviving Big Brother. The first is a wide number of subject matter for conversation. How many people are involved in a hobby that might have them reading up on the crusades one month, the 1930's the next followed up with a book about modern-day espionage? Okay, it's not stuff that comes up in normal conversation, but when those long lonely nights on the sofa come around you just never know when such an esoteric conversation piece might prove useful. It also helps even if you never get to wax lyrical about the crusades - it gives you a perspective, and a body of knowledge that often results in being a comfortable conversationalist about a number of topics.

I'm a very honest person, and I find underhand tactics horrible. People believe I am honest, I'm great at engendering trust in people - be it colleagues, clients, or business partners. The reason I can do this is because people know I'm not in the habit of doing them over. This means I'm not two-faced by default, but it sure is a good skill and years of playing role-playing games has taught me how to do it damn well. I'm not saying I'm Patrick Stewart, you don't need to be, you just need to be able to empathise and speak confidently, and role-playing has made me better at that. When an employee proved not to have the skills needed for the role he was in, it is best to use the argument that the environment he was working in had changed around him, and have him exit stage left without trouble. By lying very infrequently, being honest most of the time, and using the skills built up via role-playing when I do lie, I can get away with it with ease, and have people trust me while I do it. This is another good skill for surviving Big Brother.

You could also entertain the housemates. Even though you're not allowed to bring much into the house you have been allowed to bring in a book and a magazine, etc. A particularly brave gamer could bring in a gaming book, though it would have to dice less. You could bring in Nobilis? Actually, that's probably a bad ideas as based on past contestants the chances that some of them would grasp Nobilis would be minimal, and the rest would not be interested. You need something quick, something fun, and ideally something you can remember, as then you can still bring in another book, magazine or a stash of cigarettes. The perfect example is SOAP. You can memorise the rules of SOAP, and you can make the plot tokens from a breakfast cereal packet with your bare hands. SOAP works because it is role-playing without all the arcane rules and conventions - it is just storytelling in a Soap Opera style with a few rules to provide structure. In this way it is a more structured way of performing the role-playing all Big Brother contestants do anyway - such as role-playing being on a Jerry Springer Show just for the fun of it.

Role-playing may or may not have a place on Big Brother, or Reality TV in general (imagine a Reality TV show about running a conventions?) but it does have a place in your role-playing games. The specific idea of a Reality TV show or conventions from it can be incorporated into your campaigns, or even found in existing games. You're running a Superhero campaign, one of those 'Supers in the Real World' style of games; it would be all too easy for a Reality TV show to be based around Superheroes. Aberrant is particularly ripe for this: Nova! the Reality TV show about four Novas, their lives, loves, and adventures. In fact a whole mini-campaign, whether within a larger campaign or not, could be run with the Reality TV show as the framework. Run the campaign, but make it part of the show. Why? Well the format gives you extra characters to work with, such as the TV crew, whose involvement might bring some humour. You also have the TV show providing instant feedback from the public on the actions of the characters. The super heroine Sprite makes a racist comment? She faces the 'viewers comments' next scenario.

All these concepts are small fry compared to the killer reason for using a Reality TV framework: breaking the fourth wall, allowing the characters played by the players to speak to the camera. This idea is presented in the game InSpectres, which includes the concept of the 'Confessional' as an actual rule, and method for exposing character development, and furthering the plot. If you look at the show Cops, the characters speak to the camera giving their personal feelings on issues and events, this was then used in classic Star Wars fan-flick Troops, to allow a Stormtrooper to speak Cops-style to the camera about his time on Tatooine. Do the same in your role-playing games, it can peal away the layers of your characters like a scalpel. Something important happens in the game, such as the death of a loved one, or a pivotal victory, allow the player to role-play to the camera, as part of the Reality TV show, rather than having what his character thinks in his head and never voicing it.

So, I've admitted my addiction to Reality TV, specifically Big Brother. I've bored you with why I think it would be interesting to see a geeky gamer on Big Brother and what skills role-playing can bring to being a winning contestant. I've also detailed what I think Reality TV can bring to your role-playing campaigns. I've even persuaded myself I want to a run a Reality TV mini-campaign; I just have to decide what the players are. If it is good enough for the X-Files, it is good enough for me.

Till next month...

Ian O'Rourke
Fandomlife.net - The e-zine of SciFi media and Fandom Culture.

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All This Gaming Life columns by Ian O'Rourke

  • Reality TV by Ian O'Rourke, 18jul02
  • The Rise and Fall of 3E February 14, 2002
  • Defence System August 10, 2001, guest column by Steve Darlington
  • Gaming in the Modern World July 4, 2001
  • And It Involves Rubber Swords June 6, 2001
  • A Wasted Youth? May 9, 2001

    Other columns at RPGnet

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