In The Game of Death we have the substantial impact of gameshow machinery as a stand-in for the scientific authorities of the initial experiment. An impressively deadpan TV hostess gives the orders to continue the game, even as the victim’s suffering becomes unbearably audible. It’s all a hoax, of course, apart from the fact that the participants are admitted, via auditions, to what they are led to believe is a regular game-show in which some participants ask questions to which others must respond.
The last one (an actor, of course) is supposed to be at the receiving end of the electric shocks, given at successively increased voltage, as punishment whenever a wrong answer is given. Let the games commence. An obvious flaw in this film is that what’s being revealed by this “doctored” TV-show, and by the Milgram experiment for that matter, is hardly the shocking truth that it aspires to be, but rather a reminder of lessons learnt in school about the atrocities of Nazi Germany: cruelty is potentially everywhere.
The horrors of the concentration camps were made possible only by the passivity and participation of the Common Man, the word “common” here to be read as conventional, rather than base. Hence the rooted scepticism some of us exhibit when something is justified with reasoning along the lines of “but that’s normal”, or even better: “natural”.
The sheer normality of it all, of gas chambers and industrial genocide, all performed systematically, with meticulous precision, by well-educated people – and then home to Frau, kinder und fleischkloss. Maybe that was the most unsettling trait of the Nazi egime’s “accomplishments”: infernal, and yet “heimlich”. Back in the living rooms of today: writer/producer Christophe Nick and his director team start off by presenting a compilation of increasingly extreme television entertainment, ranging from the deliberate focus on accidents and severe injuries in the wake of Jackass, via a semi-live transmission of Russian roulette (sic!), to the more pitiful display of cynicism and vanity of Paradise Island and the like. All of them are shows busily outbidding each other for the attention of couch-dwellers around the world.
The didactical “Where will it end?” posed by the introductory phase of the film, is an earnest groan familiar to all equallydisgusted viewers, but also a question begging the answer formed by the film’s title. Will we, sooner or later, have real dying or killing as the end-game of deranged TV entertainment? Are the conditions in place? How about the people? In collaboration with Jean-Leon Beauvois, a professor of Social Psychology, they set out to perform their own experiment, this time in the guise of a television quiz show, and adhering as faithfully as possible to the premises of the original Milgram experiment.
And, yes, there are a few surprises in store for them. Without spoiling the experience for our readers, let’s just say that some lectures cannot be repeated too often, and this is one of them. For even though we have a fair idea of the outcome, there’s still the question of social process, temporary loyalty, system adaptation, etc. Most of all, The Game of Death is the guilty thrill of seeing the unthinkable evolve before your eyes.
While we hear the victim screaming, we see the reactions of the gamers, most of them squirming a bit, one of them barely wincing, before he shrugs it off and pushes the handle, seemingly with the same dumb indifference we imagine made WW II possible. They’re ”just following orders”, perhaps thinking: ”the ones in charge must know what they’re doing”. Which they actually do, as we, the viewers, happen to know. How ironic.
There are some utterly hilarious moments here, the next instant it’s like examining an open wound. The Game of Death is a cocktail of effects. These people keep torturing a guy, or at least believe they are – and they continue when told to do so. Having digested the appalling reality of what the gamers are actually capable of doing, the viewer submits, for a while, to legitimate schadenfreude at the expense of the show’s evil-doers.
There are quite a few awkward moments while the (make-believe) electric shocks are administered, and, knowing that the nonchalant “sadists” are the butt of the joke, one is tempted to indulge. Then doubt sets in, the initial giggles are choked back, the fairness of the participants’ treatment gets called into question, and who, after all, are we to judge? “Common man”, wasn’t it?
In a highly unfamiliar environment like a TV studio, in front of an audience and caught unprepared in the limelight, maybe for the first time, while in the midst of an internal battle between personal ethics and loyalty to authorities that one has volunteered to sign up for: who’s to claim that his or her moral convictions would have been a sturdy totem of integrity, placed centre stage in the anomaly of a setting like this? Some of them start questioning the development, and, lo and behold, the first participant declines to continue. In spite of the viewer knowing about the hoax, the first participant’s refusal to obey still stands out as a moment of beauty, and that quiet sensation says a whole lot about the emotional power of television, not to mention the lewd appeal of shows that cater to these appetites indiscriminately. Add to that the sad fact that most of us on average spend fourteen years of our expected life span in front of the sillyvision set, and it’s not too hard to second the diagnosis given by the social psychologist in the concluding scenes. What was it? Go see.