Return from the abyss / Survivor = Wrestling / RISK and Reality “Gamebotting”

It’s been a long sabbatical from the online world.

I mean, really long. Seven months long. In the digital age, I may as well have abandoned my apartment and returned to see squatters trifling through rubbish…only to find I didn’t leave much behind.

So what’s been going on in the interim?

–> GSU student media outlets continued to make me proud. The spring brought good news as GSTV,The Signal and WRAS all received placements at the Southeast Journalism Conference and The Signal added some state awards to that list as well. Speaking of which…

SignalGCPA
I clean up nicely when I have students to not embarrass

–> GSU was selected to host the 2015 SEJC. We’ve already hosted our own in house conference (with a followup planned for the fall) and a regional Society of Professional Journalists conference. Perhaps a future career is conference planning?

–> The Student Activities department also did its Panther Leadership Academy, which I always find rejuvenating and inspiring. This year, it was held at the Enota Mountain Retreat area in Hiawassee. Aside from helping build group leadership skills, the retreat had trampolines. We’re all lucky I’m not still bouncing around up there.

–> My wife has gotten really, really into geocaching. Well, OK, she already was into it, but now she’s really into it. So I’ve seen a lot of backroads of Georgia.

–> We’ve been planning a summer excursion to Lima and Iquitos as well as the Machu Picchhu trail near Cusco. Hard as it is for me to believe, I actually haven’t left this humble continent in my lifetime. So look for me to come back stateside in late-July with hilarious misadventures of sherpas having to drag my sorry behind up the mountain and my inability to speak a sentence of anything not-English leading to horribly delicate misunderstandings.

That’s the real-life stuff going on with me. In the made-up(ish) universe…

——————————————————–

Something strange happened to me over the course of the past few months. While my colleagues and friends have been glued to the relevant shows of the day (and basically having heart attacks watching Sunday’s Game of Thrones episode), I was busy becoming reacquainted with a TV show more than a decade past its cultural zeitgeist. I stumbled back into the landmine of Survivor.

My wife likes to have a certain amount of TV shows “on the go” and re-added Survivor to her queue in February. I hadn’t really given much thought to it since Richard Hatch became America’s TV villain of 2000 for forming an alliance. The show has become especially “non-courant” with dwindling ratings leaving it strong enough to make renewals at CBS, but only because of a dedicated subculture.

Watching the show play out– and becoming more addicted to it than the person who suggested we watch it in the first place– I was struck by some of the similarities between Survivor and pro wrestling (more specifically the WWE), which fits my aca-fan profile. Similarities such as:

–> Neither are close to as popular as they were during their peak(s) yet both have major media forces that continually rely on repurposing for profit.

–>Wrestling and reality TV also overcome their dwindling popularity with lower overhead than their traditional dramatic counterparts. Wrestlers have no union and are usually relegated to no-name status without their WWE trademarks. Survivor contestants compete for prizes and returning players are shunned if they demand any additional compensation for their notoriety.

–> Both Jeff Probst and Vince McMahon, the most powerful people in the Survivor and wrestling universes respectively, have traversed the path from host overshadowed by the talent to the showrunners seldom overshadowed by anybody.



Vince’s phlegm would put out the torch by itself

–> Since its infancy, Survivor has been much like wrestling was pre-Vince McMahon. Back then, everyone thought wrestling was fake, but no one admitted it. The entire “reality television” genre is shrouded with suspicions of how much it’s “rigged” and the Survivor fanbase often holds similar beliefs that certain seasons are decidedly tilted by producers to favour certain players.

–> Both have found themselves both compared and usurped in the popular imagination by something that’s kinda similar but really not similar at all. For the WWE, UFC. For Survivor, singing/talent shows.

–> Both subcultures stick with the product but endlessly complain that the producers won’t find fresh new faces. Entrenched crusty WWE fans tire of John Cena and Wrestlemanias centered on one-time-a-year wrestlers, Survivor fans are wondering when they’re going to get another season without any returning players, as the last three have all featured various numbers of returnees.

–> Both have hermeneutic terms of production that simultaneously are universal yet genre-specific in their application. In particular, the word “edit” amongst Survivor fans takes on individualistic meaning (as in “Brenda didn’t get a very good edit this season”) just as “booking” would appear to be another word for “writing” in wrestling jargon. Yet hardcore wrestling affectionados would tell you that what’s wrong with wrestlng today is too much writing and not enough booking.

–> Most fascinatingly, but sadly not surprising, both are genres of entertainment that wrestle (pardon the pun) with portrayals of women (maybe Ashley Massaro could comment?). Both McMahon and Probst seem most comfortable when they can keep their onscreen females in the 18-35 demographic but at least Probst always has a spot for a working mom or two. However, perhaps his portrayal of them is still lacking for nuance (see my point on gamebotting and Dawn Meehan below…).

Being a diminutive scrawny fellow and being someone who completed countless university assignments on his favourite pop culture phenomena, it wasn’t too hard for me to treat John Cochran as the protagonist of the affair– even as he attracted the wrath of many devoted Survivor legions who yearn for new faces and complained of his edit taking over the show.

Cochran is the face of non-zeitgeist Survivor. First, for being the example of character development that Probst now aspires to have Survior attain with returning players. Cochran “two season” arc was reality TV’s version of the hero’s quest (minus the refusals). His first season transformed him from the bullied to the turncoat to ultimately a poor player who nonetheless has his “world of cardboard” moment upon his exit. The second season completed the ascent deemed inevitable from that moment; such that some fans argued the casting was rigged (booked?) to complete the “storyline” satisfactorily with Cochran getting a favourable draw of fellow favourites to navigate his plan.

Second, and more importantly, Cochran is the face of compulsive theorizing the gameplay of a show that on the surface is designed to emphasize drama much more than any idea of sport. One of his talking points when auditioning was a Harvard assignment in which he compared the Survivor jury system to actual jury systems. This actually fits Cochran in with the subcultural universe that exists outside of CBS’ purview in which players dissect their moves in podcasts that sometimes exceed two hours per player.

Which lead me to an interesting discovery…

————————————————

I’m no more of a board game person than your average Jane or Joe but I played a fair bit of RISK with my compadres back in the day. It usually went as follows: 1) choose red, 2) desire to take over Africa, 3) get a crappy card draw, 4) wander instead, 5) roll crappy dice and be the second to go. Fun times.


Arrrrrrrrggghhhhhh!!! Europe again!!!

My friends were never keen on playing the marathon model of RISK I’ve heard so much about through TV mythos. My friend and colleague Shane Toepfer, however, regaled me with tales of his games where the board would sit for an entire weekend and players would hold private convos with each other to try to form (and break) alliances. In other words, it sounded like a less serious version of reality TV.

Which is why the latest venture of Survivor alum Rob Cesternino is particularly compelling. The new online show Reality Gamemasters pits Survivor and Big Brother alumni against each other in a simple RISK game. Except of course, add cheesy music and private discussion booths so that the game can be edited to essentially resemble the shows that made the participants D(E?)-level famous.

I’m anticipating that the meager $7,036 budget (funded by Kickstarter) and the compressed timeline of the actual game itself will provide a hilarious bizarro universe of the reality TV world.

Theoretically the players should be reduced to “gamebots.” Notorious Survivor villain Russell Hantz usually (involuntarily) wears the “gamebot” term perjoratively as someone who embraced backstabbing and manipulating and forgot the endgame of the jury actually wanting to vote for you.

The most recent season saw Mormon adoptive mother of six, Dawn Meehan, get the “villain edit” by opting to vote out Brenda Lowe despite their bond. The corresponding jury/audience response was rife with gender politics, as she was lambasted for simultaneously playing “too emotional” and “coldhearted” as though the two had to be constantly mutually exclusive by some sort of sacred law. Cochran declared the absurdity of taking such things so seriously with the pithy observation “she was voting people out of a game where the crucial part of the game is voting people out!”

However, the private discussion booths, the history of all six players and the over-the-top dramatizing is designed to add a fake layer of emotional consideration to make RISK seem less “gamebotty.” It’s probably a bit sad that this might not even be necessary with some people as there’s always that one friend who takes it just a bit personally that s/he’s the first target in RISK (“everyone’s out to get me!”). However, that fake layer only seeks to reveal the absurdity of reality TV itself, where games are prolonged to 30-50 days in an attempt to make them personal to both player and audience– even though they take up a tenth of a percentage point of someone’s lifespan.

I’ll probably lap up this cheesy reenactment and end up being way more chatty the next time I play RISK (oh boy, won’t my friends be appreciative?). It also mirrors Toepfer’s helpful dissection of the playful wrestling audience delighting in the obscure Champions of the Galaxy board game. These fans of reality TV were devoted enough with their games to end up playing it for real, but when the spotlight dims, they’re really just seeking any way to playfully engage with social gamesmanship– even if it’s in the form of a video-edited game of RISK.

You’ll note that Cochran chose the continent of Africa for his first landing spot and red as his army colour. He’s already playing RISK like me. Heaven help him.

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