Understanding our escape into “Reality”

Gaming and entertainment TV are two media juggernauts that are traditionally seen as forms of escapism – ways we get to “take a break” from the real world.  So with the demand for “authenticity” in all its gritty glory, the question seems to be – why are audiences using what has traditionally been the greatest means of escapism, to go back to… reality?

What’s that about?

Reality TV, similar to SIM games, MMPORGs and Tamagotchi features in toys and Apps feed a deep need for us to re-create life in which we can exert some measure of control. Building simulacra of real life is so appealing because it subscribes to that common myth that reality is like a vending machine – if I put my money in, out will pop the item I ordered.  (When in fact, it’s just as likely to have a second vending machine drop from the sky and crush you like a cockroach.)

Oh, I’m sure on a conscious level you would answer, “I know life isn’t fair! I’m not naive!”  But let’s return to the vending machine metaphor.  You pop in your money, expecting a Coke, and sometimes you get it, but just as often you get a burst boiler, or cancer or a small fluffy dog called Timmy.  You get the picture.  It’s not always negative, it’s just not what you planned for, and certainly not what you wanted.  When you really face this fact, that control is an illusion and fairness often non-existent, then you begin to understand the gravity and importance of our manufacturing of concepts like “justice” and “truth” and… you guessed it, “reality”.

We seek to impose these ideas upon a universe that often has no rhyme or reason.  We want the world to work a certain way.  But, it doesn’t.  Part of the human condition seems to be building vast ideological edifices in media, religion and politics that rail against this.

So what happens?

We get a huge upswing in the consumption of media that delivers an antidote to our sense of a lack of control or understanding.   Reality TV is a visible experiment in a contained environment, and the obsession with watching people in their “natural” state means we can apply the way we understand life as a story – with a beginning, a middle and an end – codified by morals we understand and laws of reality that will be enforced (even if it is only by the show’s producers).  We get to watch not so much life as it is, but rather how it should be – if you do x then you will have result y.  And we as demi-gods both watching and engaging get to satisfy one of our deepest needs, to feel the safety of a world that functions predictably, understandably and consistently.  Think how these three factors impact on the environment of a young child, and you will realise just how basic the need is.

The reason why gamification is working so well in business today is that it gives us one of the most important elements for achievement – we get feedback, and the sooner and more accurate the more we feel we have agency in the world. What we do is perceived to make a difference.  This single factor, of making your audience heard, changes the nature of your interaction.  It drives a foundational need in Maslow’s hierarchy – so go ahead, try it.  If you give your audience the real sense that they can affect the world you show them, they cease to be an audience and become disciples…. Wait, sorry, I should say super-fans.  After all, sport and games haven’t been given the status of religions, yet.

Brett Lotriet Best is the Creative Director for EdenRage Media, check out their Immersive Media work at www.edenrage.tv.  Go on, take a bite!

(Oh, and you can read my answer in more detail to the question “IS reality TV art or mindless consumption?” on Quora). Image courtesy of Michael Ryu.


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