Manipulation Meets Entertainment

As a content creator, my chief interest in any medium is entertaining the audience in some way. To do that I try to make something that is fun or enjoyable to engage with: with my written works I try to craft a compelling narrative, add some humor, and create characters whose story you want to follow. When I think of my favorite video games, like Portal or BioShock, a lot of them have all those elements, with the added element of play. But something I never considered until this week was that manipulation is important in these mediums.

I guess in every piece of media designed for entertainment, there’s a level of commanding your viewer, or player, how to approach it: setting up rules, giving them choices on how to do things, that sort of thing.  When I write prose, I try to do something exciting or intriguing within the first couple of pages to ensure my reader sticks around, and over the course of the story I am to some extent compelling the reader to keep going. Video games do the same thing, compelling the player to keep going through the story, engaging them in a way so that they don’t just stop playing: while this applies to single-player narratives, multiplayer games and their endless replayability are also an example of this.

Manipulation is just a natural part of entertainment, and it’s going on quite a bit in The Push. In fact, I would compare what’s happening in that special to the elements at play in Spec Ops: The Line‘s single player narrative, essentially manipulating the player (Chris) into doing increasingly horrible actions when you always have the option of just quitting and leaving, which Chris does not do until the very last moment. But there’s two crucial differences between Spec Ops and The Push:

  1. In a video game, the player is engaging with what’s happening of their own free will: they bought and downloaded the game, now they’re playing it. While technically Chris volunteered to appear in this special, throughout the scenario going on he has absolutely no knowledge that what he’s doing isn’t real. Now, of course, he can’t, because that would ruin the whole idea behind the special. Which…brings me to the other difference.
  2. The audience in a video game is the player. The audience in The Push is everyone watching the player. Chris is the subject of our entertainment, he is not the one who is being entertained. Derren Brown is doing this for the viewers, not really for Chris.

Now, one could argue that the audience is still being manipulated in The Push: constantly questioning what Chris will do next, and being tricked into thinking Derren Brown found out people won’t be compelled to kill someone, only for him to reveal that others were. But that still doesn’t negate the fact that Chris and his fellow test subjects were essentially used for others’ entertainment.

When we bring this to the ideas of the “This Is Not A Game” aesthetic, ARGs occupy a weird space: the players are being manipulated into believing this narrative, but they’re still the subjects who are being entertained. It’s what separates a failed ARG from a successful one: whether the players had fun engaging with the game and whether the game did what it set out to do. What happens if a player is well and truly immersed and comes out feeling betrayed when it turns out they were just participating in a game?

Now, I digress: The Push isn’t that comparable to an ARG because, again, the manipulated are the source of entertainment, not the target audience. But I think what puppetmasters need to consider moving forward is how they employ their manipulation: are you manipulating the audience so that they can enjoy the experience, or are you manipulating them so that they feel they have no other choice?

2 thoughts on “Manipulation Meets Entertainment

  1. Regarding your point about the inherent manipulation of entertainment and media, I think it’s interesting to consider who’s the audience of such manipulation. In The Push, for instance, there’s an extent to which we as viewers are being manipulated, as the special is expected to influence our thoughts and feelings. But I’d also be interested in thinking about the four participants as unknowing audience members, interacting with this creation that’s been laid out before them. I think there are more ethical versions of this too… escape rooms, magic shows, or haunted houses come to mind as places prone to audience manipulation.

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  2. I think your point about ARGs as potentially manipulative is extremely important, particularly for those who wish to design an ARG. It is true that the TINAG aesthetic, in contributing to the blurring of boundaries between reality and the game that is so central to what an ARG is, brings with it a danger that players could be manipulated into believing in and participating in a narrative rather than being invited and given a choice on whether or not to take part in it. However, I do not think that the TINAG aesthetic necessarily manipulates players into believing in a narrative, as while it does require that the game not explicitly acknowledge itself to be a game, an ARG can adhere to it while still including elements of signaling that lead players to conclude that the experience they are participating is in some way outside of the “real world.” I think one of the most vital parts of a game designer’s job is ensuring the safety of players, and part of that is ensuring that no element of the game could make a player feel coerced into participating in anything that they do not want to participate in.

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