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.)