The Role of Consent in Manipulations of Reality

My immediate reaction to “Derren Brown: The Push” was one of revulsion. Despite the  cautionary point Derren Brown claims to be illustrating in the end, I do not believe that the trauma enacted on Chris and the other three subjects in the show was either ethical or justified. We touched in Tuesday’s class on the dubious nature of the manipulation that occurs in many reality TV shows, and I agree that those, too, are often unethical; but I think that “The Push” takes this one step further for the primary reason that it lacks any process of consent. Many reality TV shows put their subjects in pretty terrible situations to see how they would react and even try to manipulate them to respond in certain ways, but (presumably) their participants choose to take part of their own volition and are aware of the basic nature of what they are participating in when they do so. To make the participants on “The Push” cognizant of what they had signed up for, on the other hand, was made impossible by the show’s very premise.

The arc of “The Push”—as well as the point it was trying to make—is very similar to the obedience study by Stanley Milgram which we also read about this week, the conclusion and controversies of which sparked new regulations on the treatment of human subjects in research, requiring that all such studies obtain informed consent from their subjects and must be reviewed by an Institutional Review Board weighing the dangers of deception. None of these restrictions exist for unofficial social experiments or games, including Derren Brown’s endeavors and also, most ARGs. Because of ARGs’ “This Is Not A Game” aesthetic and the way they skirt the line between play and deception, I think it is important to examine what separates an ethical alternate reality from Derren Brown’s questionable manipulation of it in order to ensure players’ emotional safety.

Much like in “The Push”, straight up informing players what they are getting into in an ARG would ruin the game. How, then, does the designer provide room for player consent and manage potentials for harm? I think that one angle to approach this is simply ensuring that a rabbit hole remains an invitation and not an imperative. When Chris sees a man “die” at a charity event, he has no option to simply walk away from the situation, but is immediately pressurized into making a high stakes and morally fraught decision. Most rabbit holes, on the other hand, are merely clues to something out of place that anyone, after stumbling upon them, can choose to either ignore or pursue. Another is through a signaling of gamification, alerting potential players to the possibility that, if they decide to accept the invitation the rabbit hole extends, they are entering into something that is, if not definitely unreal, at least in some way out of the ordinary. Incorporating a debriefing session post-game, like the one we had in the LARP Ask Again Later, could also be useful in helping players untangle the strands of reality from the world of the game. What other ways might there be to build safety mechanisms into ARGs and prevent them from going in a darker direction?

(To clarify, I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with deception in ARGs. In fact, I think that the way an ARG plays with your perception of what is “real” can be one of the most enjoyable and meaningful parts of playing one. Rather, I just think it is important to think critically about and continually keep in mind any risks involved, because I think any situation involving a manipulation of a person’s idea of reality, no matter how well-intentioned, holds the potential for harm, and it is part of the responsibility of the game designer to try to keep that harm from happening.)

3 thoughts on “The Role of Consent in Manipulations of Reality

  1. I really resonated with some of the points you made about a rabbit hole being an option to an alternate reality and not distorting the player’s actual reality. By this, I mean how you mention that a “rabbit hole remains an invitation and not an imperative” and that they are “merely clues to something out of place that anyone, after stumbling upon them, can choose to either ignore or pursue.” The players of Derren Brown’s social experiment did not have a choice and were forced to participate in this morally and ethically questionable situation, as they could not leave a dead man alone. In the Stanley Milgram reading, one of the participants mention how they were traumatized by the experience. Surely, even being after reassured that the whole situation was staged, the participants of “Push” were affected psychology, and the end of the documentary did not mention any follow-up with the players to see how it affected their lives after. There is a point in a game having the aesthetic of “this is not a game,” but it is surely important to emphasize that it is certainly a game to prevent consequences to the player’s mental state. After finishing an ARG, I think it would be beneficial for the game creators to debrief and follow up with its players to see how the game interacted with their everyday lives but also how it affected the way they thought about their simple day-to-day actions. This way, the game players can evaluate whether their game caused any mental damage to their players during the playing of their ARG, as the game players would be responsible for these causes. Following up with their players can really help strengthen how strong of a perception this alternate reality holds for the participants.

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  2. I really appreciate your post, since I was also similarly thinking about consent and ARGs in relation to the social experiments we watched and performed. Part of what made me nervous about doing a social experiment was just that – the lack of consent or information given to people who are thrown into situations. Of course, all of the experiments we performed in class were light-hearted in nature, so it was less of an issue.

    In regard to ARGs, I think you’re right to point out the rabbit hole and gammified elements as sort of signals to players, and the important part is that participating is voluntary and mostly-informed. I think, in this way, that ARGs also model a really good form of consent: at each stage, at each new hint, at each new puzzle, the designer is sort of asking the player again for their consent – do you want to follow this clue? will you follow this lead? do you feel comfortable continuing? Sure, these aren’t questions that are asked explicitly, but they are implicit. So ARGs are really asking for consent all the time, and players always have the option of not playing. At any point, they can stop. This is truly how consent should be practiced, so I think ARGs actually do a great job navigating a balance between making players know that play is voluntary while also offering a new and manipulated reality for them to inhabit.

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  3. You and I had a very similar response to “The Push”. I have no idea how much of it was ‘real’, and how much of it was actually actors, but the whole thing came off as very unethical and borderline hard to watch. On that note, I think it’s very interesting to think about the differences between an ‘experiment’ like “The Push” and an ARG. Both try to keep a ‘this is not a game/experiment’ aesthetic about them, and the puppetmasters in both situations may be looking to see how people respond to the stimuli being presented. Yet, in the case of ARGs, there is a sense of, hopefully, excitement and intrigue, even if the tone is serious and realistic. Not only that, but many ARGs (though not all), are open to more than one person at a time, and encourage cooperation. “The Push” only had one ‘player’ at the time, and even though there were actors ‘helping’ him, it still came across as an isolating experience.

    Despite these differences, I do think it’s extremely important to consider ongoing consent and ethics when creating something like an ARG. As exciting as it is to create a realistic narrative that the players buy into, it will never be worth causing trauma to the players.

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