Saturday, 29 October 2011


Saturday, 29 October 2011
The second of Derren Brown's "Experiments" was a curious hour of television; an enjoyable disappointment with a decent ending, but nevertheless fairly hollow and conceptually flawed. "The Gameshow" concerned the social psychological concept of deinviduation (the idea that normal people can make monstrous decisions while anonymous in a large group). It's the kind of thing that leads to so-called "mob mentality", which is rather prescient after a summer of rioting across Britain, where deinviduation played a part in proceedings. Its effects can also be seen with the Ku Klux Klan, Nazism, and the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

"The Gameshow" took a different approach to Derren's usual style of shows. This was effectively the pilot of a realistic gameshow called "Remote Control", where the life of one man (unaware he's surrounded by cameras and actors) was momentarily controlled by the vote of a large studio audience. The audience could collectively give the man positive or negative experiences; ranging from being accused of sexual harassment, to being arrested for shoplifting. Unsurprisingly, all the positive experiences, like being awarded money, never won a studio vote, so the poor guy had a memorably eventful and dispiriting night out.

But was this 70-minute special really showing us that groups of people, anonymous behind white masks (more for effect than practicality), turned into a nasty mob when their individualism was removed? I'm not entirely convinced. Everyone voting was doing so in the context of being part of a television show (anonymous or not), and that backdrop comes with certain expectations that everything's been approved, tested, and is all good fun. Despite being made aware the "victim" believes whatever happens is genuine, the audience know actors are involved every step of the way. Take any member of that group and have them make a decision as an individual, and I'm sure most would still choose the "negative" experiences... because those were also the most entertaining experiences. You probably wouldn't want to choose the least entertaining "good" option, for fear of upsetting the majority of people watching you. And that's peer pressure, something entirely different.

So I think this special was conceptually flawed from the start. The TV gameshow format comes with cultural baggage that the experiment didn't take into account, in my opinion. However, the ending of "The Gameshow" offered a very enjoyable twist, as the studio audience opted to have the man kidnapped by a gang of thugs, before witnessing him unexpectedly escape from his attackers and get hit by a car while running away. Suddenly it dawned on everyone in the audience that their decision had led to someone possibly dying on television. Of course, the footage was actually pre-recorded with a stuntman, and no harm had come to the gameshow's unwitting star. But again, were the group culpable here? Weren't they all just shocked because the car accident proved the TV production team's negligence? Or does my thinking prove I'm perhaps more willing to offload responsibility onto other people, if I was ever in this situation myself?

Whatever you think, "The Gameshow" should be congratulated because it did make you think. It's just a shame it took so long to make a fairly simple point, although the actual gameshow was surprisingly good fun (Derren's a great host, the fake show's actors improvised brilliantly), and the finale just about rescued it from being a flop. But the more I think about it, the more I'm unconvinced the idea was a watertight way of testing deinviduation.

28 October 2011 / Channel 4