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MODERN WORK, MODERN PLAY

Take on the Twisters is the latest ITV dinnertime game show representative of a trend in mainstream modern play in emulating modern work. Its rules subject its contestants at various points to the element of chance, an increasingly popular technique in TV gaming that has begun to replace the level-playing-field formats of questions and answers – from which contestants answering correctly gain qualification or victory – or set tasks – in which players can outdo each other to win, à la 15 to 1, Countdown, et al. Throughout this games’ stages risks loom chancily and threateningly, but in its showdown – the ‘final twist’ – the real chance element comes in: the contestant at the end must try to keep as many ‘twisters’ – coloured discs with giant egg timers in their middles – out of eight, ‘in play’, by twisting them before their time runs out. Beforehand (supposedly), the contestant’s accumulated jackpot is randomly hidden behind one of the twisters; after the final twist the ones that were kept in play are revealed and the money is either behind one of them or one that’s gone out of play… If all eight have been kept in play of course, the contestant will win their jackpot (though the scenario is rarely seen due to the difficulty of the task); the cruelty of chance comes in in that a player who saves seven twisters might still see their jackpot behind the eighth unsaved one, whereas a player who saves only one could find theirs there. Despite probability making these outcomes all the less likely, their risk is nonetheless a factor.

Other recent game show productions have been similar; Tipping Point sees contestants playing a giant version of the 2p or 10p coin-pusher arcade games, ultimately putting their fate at the hands of the tipping point, rather than solely in their ability to answer the questions correctly; and probably most popularly and famously Deal or No Deal relies fundamentally on the chance of guesswork and hope. The narrative of UK game/quiz shows seems then to have moved from the cerebral meritocratic model, through a teambuilding paradigm (The Weakest Link, for example), to greed-based deadlocks (e.g., ITV’s Golden Balls, in which who wins money at the end is determined by two contestants choosing in secret between ‘split’ or ‘steal’; i.e., two splits splits the pot between them, one steal and one split gives the entire pot to the stealer, and two steals equals two losers), and, finally, to cruel determinations made by chance.

We may wonder where this narratological shift in modern play comes from, and it might not be amiss to trace in its stages a mirroring of the capitalistic states of modern work. Such work is typified by the zero-hour contract, the sending of endless applications into the abyss of nonresponse, and, ultimately, the acceptance of the fact (ideologically told/sold to us) that we are subject to the whim of market and economic crises – beyond employers’ control – that dictate the state of our employability, job security and benefit entitlement. Work-based traits are everywhere in modern play: from free market economy notions of the best candidates winning, through neoliberal business jargon that goes with the ubiquitous ‘teambuilding exercise’, and individualistic greed-mongering in the stock market economy, to these precarious positions.

The modern proletariat is known now as the ‘precariat’ (representative of temps and zero-hourers in a state of constant precarity in relation to the job market); luck – over skills and qualifications – now increasingly defines the chances of employment; and the ability to save for the future and meet the financial demands of the present is becoming increasingly difficult: these hallmarks of modern work are reappearing in modern play (even the last, in console gaming; the simple parables of Mario collecting coins, and Sonic rings, seem no longer as prevalent). In Of Grammatology Jacques Derrida states: ‘all that desire had wished to wrest from the play of language finds itself recaptured within that play’; perhaps it is that the surpluses of the games played in today’s working world find themselves ideologically recaptured in its modern play too.

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