The Game of Death: France's Shocking TV Experiment

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Christophe Ena / AP

Christophe Nick, producer of The Game of Death

Is a crusading French documentary maker striking a blow at the abusive powers of television — or simply taking reality TV to a new low of cynicism and bad taste? That's the question viewers across France are asking in light of Christophe Nick's new film, The Game of Death, which airs on French television on Wednesday night. The documentary has generated a massive amount of attention — and naturally, courted controversy — because of the dilemma that the film's contestants face on a fake game show: Will they allow themselves to be cajoled into delivering near lethal electrical charges to fellow players, or follow their better instincts and refuse?

The Game of Death is an adaptation of an infamous experiment conducted by a team led by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram in the 1960s. In order to test people's obedience to authority figures, the scientists demanded that subjects administer increasingly strong electric shocks to other participants if they answered questions incorrectly. The people delivering the shocks, however, didn't know that the charges were fake — the volunteers on the other end of the room were actors pretending to suffer agonizing pain. The point was to see how many people would continue following orders to mete out torture.

Milgram found that 62.5% of his subjects could be encouraged, browbeaten or intimidated into seeing the test through to its conclusion by delivering scores of shocks of increasing intensity to the maximum of 450 volts. In The Game of Death, 81% of contestants go all the way by administering more than 20 shocks of up to a maximum of 460 volts. Only 16 of the 80 subjects recruited for the fake game show refuse the verbal prodding from the host — and pressure from the audience to keep dishing out the torture like a good sport — though most express misgivings or try to pull out before being persuaded otherwise.

Nick says he got the idea for the project after stumbling across an episode of the French version of The Weakest Link. The willingness of the adult contestants to allow the hostess to belittle them — and their own eagerness to backstab fellow participants for their own gain — convinced him that Milgram's findings about the human submission to authority figures were particularly applicable to TV. "Television is a power — we know that, but it remained theoretical," Nick told the daily Le Parisien on Wednesday. "I asked myself, Is it so strong that it can turn us into potential torturers?"

The results of Nick's documentary indicate the answer to that question is yes — a conclusion reinforced by the program's editors and his sobering voice-overs. Indeed, while most critics have applauded Nick's effort to reveal the manipulative powers of television, some commentators suggest he nonetheless errs by leaving no room to contest the documentary's conclusions. "Its excessive dramatization and commentary that's too often willing to cut corners and blur issues can be irritating," writes Hélène Marzolf, a television critic for the culture magazine Télérama.

Despite that, Marzolf and others say the documentary demonstrates how a television-studio setting — with cameras, a pushy host and an audience that erupts at times with shouts of "Punishment!" — may be ideal for robbing individuals of their will. "For the past 10 years, most commercial channels have used humiliation, violence and cruelty to create increasingly extreme programs," Nick says in one of his voice-overs. "[Future] television can — without possible opposition — organize the death of a person as entertainment, and 8 out of 10 people will submit to that."

Perhaps, but some could argue that Nick's documentary relies on the same reality-TV techniques it is denouncing. Though staged, the game show features unsuspecting volunteers whose reactions and emotions are scrutinized. Although the voice-overs and cuts to sociologists involved in the project make it obvious that the show is a behavioral study, viewers are still required to buy into the "reality" that participants have been lured there in order to be horrified when they continue applying the electric shocks.

But media critic Daniel Schneidermann says it would be wrong to limit any conclusions drawn from the show to the impact of television alone. "The Milgram experiment showed that people will submit to authority no matter what its form: military, political, medical, a boss — or now a television host," he says, while noting that he has not yet seen the documentary. "The suggestion that television is the unique or most powerful offender in this manner is just wrong."