In Too Deep: What Makes a Good Game Show?
Hello and welcome to In Too Deep, where I over-analyse a certain section of pop culture.
The Chase. Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Deal or No Deal, The Price is Right. All great TV shows of varying quality that get played daily over here in NZ. But as I watch some of these shows, a question comes to mind: What makes these game shows so popular? Why are there so many bad ones out there? In short, what makes a Good Game Show? Well, lets find out.
I suppose the smartest place to start is what I mean by a Game Show to begin with. After all, things like Survivor or Big Brother aren’t ‘game shows’, despite the fact that there is a game element to them. No a Game Show has to involve a few important things:
Firstly, there must be an actual game to it, in the sense that there are clearly defined rules and ways to win/lose. For example, you have to answer a certain number of questions, or pick the correct number. Now while the latter is luck compared to the former being skill, there is still a clear concept behind it. There is a game to this show, after all.
Secondly, the game is the focus of the show. While similar to point one, it’s where game shows differ from reality TV shows. The appeal of Survivor and Big Brother is the contestants, more so than the ‘games’ they play. We’re more concerned with the larger narrative of who goes and who stays over the smaller narrative of who wins each round. So while these shows have games to them, that’s the last thing the producers want us to focus on.
Finally, the game must be set up so the viewer is rooting for the contestant. This is in contrast to shows like Wipeout, where the appeal is seeing people fail in funny ways (and where playing by the rules is the stupidest thing someone could do, since it’s more efficient to ‘fail’ and swim for the finish line, since the first challenge is time-based). The point of the show is for the contestant to win, not for the contestant to lose.
So with that classification out of the way, what actually makes a game show good?
Well there are three parts to pretty much every game show: The game, the show, and the host. So lets break these three down to their individual parts. The game is, perhaps, the most important part of the entire endeavour. Or at least it is to me, since I’ve never really been invested in the contestant parts of these shows. Now a game can be a rather simple â€œAnswer these questions to get X amount of moneyâ€, or they can be complex. The most important thing is that the game isn’t breakable. It’s a common problem in game shows, where it comes to a point where playing the game is disadvantageous. An example (from a show whose run was so short I forgot the name) went like this:
Round one had each question worth one point, with there being five point questions scattered through. So if someone did well in the first round (getting a lot of one point questions right, and the two five point questions), they’d have a comfortable lead going into the second round. Now in this round each question was worth two points but, if you got it wrong, you were locked out of answering the next question. So, lets say you have a somewhat comfortable lead, but could easily lose due to other people getting more questions right. What do you do?
Well the simple way (that no one ever seemed to think to do) was to buzz in for every single question, even if you didn’t know the answer. Why? Because while you wouldn’t get those two points, your opponents wouldn’t get those two points either. They’d be given the next question to answer, which they may or may not know. So lets say that there are ten questions in this round, and you’re in the lead by twelve points. If you buzz in for half the answers, even if you get them wrong, that stops the opponent from scoring ten points. So even if you don’t get any right, you’re still in the lead since they have no way of catching up to you. You’ve locked them out of getting enough points. Now clearly this requires quick mental calculation (since the round was based on time, rather than overall amount of questions), but once you’re safe enough ahead it becomes in your best interest to sabotage your opponents. Better for your opponent to get two points when you get locked out than them getting four points because you did nothing. But why do I bring all this up?
Because, if a player used their brain, they could quickly break the system in their favour. And as a viewer, it frustrates me that people don’t actually think about what they’re doing. An intelligent player could easily play the game by following the rules exactly, even if they went outside the conventional thinking. It requires a simple matter of thinking outside of the box to win.
(To digress: When I use to be a cub scout leader, I gave the cubs tasks like this: 1)Drop an egg from the balcony and have it land safely and 2)Build the tallest tower that can hold a can of baked beans. Now the smart ones realised the loopholes that 1)I never said you had to drop it from the top of the balcony, and you could easily just lower the egg down as far as possible before dropping it, and 2)I never said the can of baked beans had to be on the top of the tower, meaning you could build a small platform for the can and build the tower on top of it. The purpose of the exercise was to teach the kids to think about the rules and work out how to exploit them. So when the next generation grow up to be manipulative and devious, I take full responsibility).
So that’s an example of a game show having terrible rules that can be exploited by someone following them to the letter. What about a good game show that has a clever game?
Well now I come round to my favourite game show, The Chase. The game is very simple:
Four people all have the chance to win money. The first round is a quick-fire round, with each right answer giving them a thousand pounds (the British equivalent of dollars). Normally people make four to five thousand pounds, quite a tidy sum. Next comes the much harder round, and the true genius of The Chase.
The contestant has to face off against the Chaser, a trivia expert. Their money gets put on the board, five right questions away from home. They are then given three options by the Chaser: Take the higher amount (normally five to ten times what they won in the first round), but be a step closer to the Chaser and giving the Chaser an easy chance to catch them; stick with the amount they have; or take a step away from the Chaser but taking a massive cut in profits (losing at least half if not ninety percent of the money they won). Once the contestant has made up their mind, they and the Chaser have to answer the same amount of questions in the same amount of time. If they get enough questions right, they get home safely. If the Chaser gets more questions right than the contestant, they catch up and the contestant is eliminated. Each question has three answers, making it a bit easier on the contestant.
Now the game is both simple and intriguing. The contestant and the Chaser answer the same question, and the tension comes from who is right. Sometimes the contestant is wrong and the Chaser is right, having the Chaser move that one step closer and raising the tension. Sometimes both are either right or wrong, meaning they stay within the same distance of each other. And, rarely, the contestant is right and the Chaser is wrong, giving them a healthy gap. Naturally the drama comes from two places: Whether the contestant is right and whether the Chaser is right. There is strategy involved in the game, since it comes from how much of a gamble the contestant is going to make. Because they’re not just winning money for themselves, but for the group as a whole (since the money gets added into the total prize pool). And there lies to the true game: If you take the lower offer you have to split the money with how many contestants survive, meaning you won’t earn a lot. If you take the higher offer, the others get to benefit from your generosity and, if you’re the first player, gives them incentive to take the lower offers and take a share of your prize. So there is a lot of thought that goes into it. But, as soon becomes predictable, people never take the higher offer and more often than not go down (so much so that one Chaser offers people ridiculous amounts of money both ways, either thirty thousand pounds or negative amount of money, having deduced that no one has the balls to go up higher).
But that’s just round two. Round three is another quick-fire round, this time featuring all the contestants that survived. For every person who made it into the finale, they get an extra point on the board. They have two minutes to answer as many questions as they can. Then the Chaser comes out and does the same thing, attempting to match the score that the contestants came up with. So if the team scored nineteen right answers, the Chaser has to get nineteen answers right. If the Chaser gets one wrong, the team can answer it and, if correct, can push the Chaser back one step. Again, the tension comes twofold. Firstly the team need to get the highest score they can, and then have to hope that the Chaser doesn’t match it. If the Chaser catches them, they go home with nothing. If the Chaser doesn’t, they get to split the cash between however many were left standing.
So there’s a lot of tension within the average hour of episode. The contestant has to build the money, escape from the Chaser, and then answer enough questions to win. Every section of the show essentially has two dramatic points to it: Whether the contestant gets it right, and whether the Chaser gets it right. So the tension can build greatly. But, despite the brilliance of the Chasers (and they do know a lot), they’re still human. It’s still possible to beat them. It’s happened often enough you to root for the contestants and think that they actually have a chance of winning.
But the best part of the game is that all the questions are general knowledge, standard trivia stuff. Sure some might be obscure, but more often than not you can play along at home and try to guess the answers for yourself. It’s very much a show for the viewer as much as it is the contestant. While some shows like Deal or No Deal (and Who Wants to be a Millionaire to some extent) is about watching the people making their decision, this show focuses more on asking a lot of questions to keep the viewer occupied. It works wonders to make the viewer feel a part of the experience, especially when watching it as part of a group. The questions come thick and fast, keeping the viewer’s attention and stopping the show from dragging. But that’s the game. What about the show?
Well I mentioned that the other two important parts were the show and the host. Truth be told, these two tend to go hand in hand. But they’re not mutually exclusive. Sometimes a good host can make a bad game show watchable, and a bad host doesn’t ruin an otherwise interesting game. But The Chase have both in great detail.
Lets start with the show part. The Chasers are fantastic. They can be arrogant, yes, but they have the smarts to back up this arrogance. They act like they’re the smartest people in the room because they are the smartest people in the room. They’ve all won international trivia championships and whatnot. They are just that good.
Special mention must be made of ex-teacher Mark Labbett, aka The Beast. He is a great villain, ruling over the show like a King looking over his court. He can be a real smart-arse, willing to insult anyone who goes down a level (happily calling them a coward and whatnot), but he’s likewise willing to compliment someone for going up a level. In fact he once gave a standing ovation to a young man who was willing to go up a level and meet The Beast head-on (the guy lost, but the act of applauding his bravery spoke volumes). And that’s why The Beast is the best Chaser (and the one they picked for the American series): He can be a smart-arse, but he’s more than willing to acknowledge when people beat him. He can be arrogant, but also humble. He has a great screen presence that really helps put him in opposition to the contestants. And that’s where host Bradley Walsh comes into play. He happily verbally spars with the Chasers, staying on the contestant’s side the entire time. He’s rooting for the contestant the entire time, lamenting their losses and cheering on their successes. And more than happy to laugh at the Chaser when the Chaser gets it wrong. If the Chaser is positioned to be the bad guy of the narrative, the host is positioned to be the helper. It works in the show’s favour, since a narrative is very quickly constructed. You have the good guys, the bad guys, and the one’s we side with as an audience member. In short, you have a great game show that really captures the public’s imagination and makes them want to watch. It’s a very simple idea, but fantastic nonetheless.
So there you have it. A look at what makes a good game show, looking at one of the best I’ve seen. If you disagree with anything, or have anything to add, feel free to leave a comment. Till next time.