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French television electric shock documentary offers sobering look at humanity

Did the "Game of Death" documentary live up to the hype?  At least it made this television-averse viewer rush home in time to watch.

The opening montage of the documentary that aired on state-owned channel French 2 offered a snapshot of where we are as a society. Scenes from game shows from around the world vascillated between the shocking and the revolting. One scene showed experiments conducted on cadavers in front of a live audience. In another scene in another country, a man was thrown into a tank of boiling water as people cheered. One woman was being suffocated by what looked like a large balloon over her head. And presumably, all of it was done for the sake of entertainment. And we watch, even participate.

And that was the point. How far would each of us go?  How much is too much in a culture where people are easily swayed by bright lights and fame? How much power does television have over spectators was one of the questions Christophe Nick, the show’s producer, raised with his disturbing documentary about a staged game show that called for participants to deliver potentially deadly electric shocks to a fellow contestant.

In the post documentary discussion, Nick said he got the idea to recreate Stanley Milgram’s 1960’s electric shock experiment after watching the French version of the show “The Weakest Link” where he noted the sway that the host and the audience had over the behavior of contestants who were encouraged to behave callously to one another and did so. In Milgram’s time, the experiment was done in a lab; this time it was on a live television set.

Most revealing was that people went ahead with the decision to participate in the first place even after they were told at the start that it was only a test for a pilot, that they would not win large sums of money but would have to administer the punishment to a fellow contestant if he answered incorrectly.

In the glare of the reality-TV cameras and under the gaze of a live audience, most people did not stand a chance.  One after the other they pulled the lever and went against their better selves, some visibly struggling with the dilemma. One woman who eventually ended the game before its conclusion, claiming it went against her personality, sobbed and apologized repeatedly to the actor who played the victim when she saw him backstage even though the producers explained that the man was unhurt. Another woman who said she came from a former Communist country said she related the incident to communism or to the Nazi regime and blindly doing what one is told to do. She was one of the 16 participants who stopped the game ahead of time.

What was also striking to watch were the commonalities of human behavior. When the out-of-sight actor playing the victim started to express he was being hurt, many contestants laughed as a coping mechanism, it was later explained. Some contestants tried to cheat to help the person suffering by over-pronouncing the correct answers when his cries became louder. Again, this was explained, it was a way for the person pulling the lever to assuage his or her guilt. Some tried to drown out or ignore the man's pleas. Others tried negotiating with the authority figure, in this case, the show host, but were swayed by her insistence that the game must continue and by the audience’s encouraging chants.

It could be argued that the documentary itself was contrived and edited to show the most compelling moments, but still the results speak for themselves. A total 81 percent of the 80 contestants administered the 460 volts of electricity to the actor-victim. That so many of us would rather go against our own humanity and morality to avoid disobeying an authority figure, even it meant killing someone — and for the sake of entertainment — is as mind-boggling as it is sobering.