Whose Tester?

The question that my patchy background in critical theory teaches me to ask about reality television is pretty basic: whose reality is it supposed to be? Whatever MTV is trying to do (provide a quality thirty-minutes-hate or stealthily promote GTL at the behest of Maytag and 24 Hour Fitness) with Jersey Shore, it clearly has nothing to do with providing unvarnished 'reality' in any remotely acceptable sense of the term. There's a clear agenda. So what is Sony's objective with The Tester?

Let's run down the list of preliminary horrors of the show, which you can pick up from one of the episode remix youtubes floating around. First there's the blatant advertising for bad games or bad products ("your last challenge involves being driven in a 2011 Ford Focus to finish the new Killzone, only for Playstation Three. no jumping at any time"), second there's the wicked sick pad/playland/womb with crazy colors, corrugated metal, bright lights and a prepetually open bar, third there's the contrived competition, fourth there's the actual prize itself, and finally there's the shameless fanservice.

The bigger horrors, the ones you can't pick up from the remix youtubes, involve the world Sony is implicitly working towards establishing. Everyone is referred to firstly by their gamertag and secondly by their actual Christian name. The attributes of a person- their kindness, the fact that they take responsibility for themselves, their coolness under pressure, are mentioned in the same breath as their attributes as a gamer- people are always talking about how many trophies they have, and how impressed they are by their co-contestants for having "twice as many as I do!" For those of us who choose gamertags arbitrarily or with an eye towards something other than complete congruence this is really frightening. Would anyone with an intentionally offensive gamertag and a documented history of anonymous teamkilling and shameless teabagging be eligible for this show? What would that look like, if someone with a horrendous gamertag personality and a relatively normal real personality appeared on the show? It would break the spell Sony is trying to cast: your gamertag literally is you, you are completed by and immersed in Sony's virtual world and your existence is somehow truncated or impossible without it. The Tester is that one episode of Black Mirror, except serious. In fact, the whole show is a bit like someone else'e nightmare done straight and with a positive spin. It's like someone on Sony's Tester production team read Baudrillard hyperventilating about capital actualizing itself and transcending into astrality or whatever and said 'sounds cool. let's do it.'

Of course implying that 'you are incomplete without our products' is the first principle of marketing and in no way new. Sony is breaking new ground with The Tester by getting that message across in a much more pervasive and complete way than has been done previously. During the first episode of each season everyone is issued a special card which they are solmenly told is the one thing allowing them to stay in the competition- and in Sony's dreamwomb. During the final reckoning at the end of each show, when one or two cast members are sent home, there is a hook at the back of the room with the cards of previous failures hanging on it, like some kind of weird gallows! And whenever something positive is introduced- the reward for completing a competition, or the initial introduction to the show- the robotlike host is always careful to reinforce that 'all of this could end, at any time, if you fail, if we take your badge.' The cast does a lot of vocalizing- cheering when something cool happens, shreiking and fainting when a commodity prize is dangled in front of them, booing and crying when they are sent home- and it's not hard to see them as Sony treats them, as children held in bondage and gradually losing their minds.

The show's handling of diversity is even more interesting. The composition of the cast- unlike Jersey Shore- is carefully heterogenous. There are always one or two outrageous (or stoic, honorable) black men, women are half or close to half of every cohort, and in the second season there was a gay man, who went on to actually win the entire season and presumably secure a worthless bottomfeeder job at one of the worst studios in the business. Stonewall wasn't for nothing! The cast looks like a company brochure with pictures of fake 'employees' smiling. Always women, minorities, inventive combos of women and minorities (Indian, yes, but... dot and feather!?), sometimes a woman with super short hair, never any of the people who either run or benefit from the running of the company, straight old white men.

Of course The Tester's diversity, even on the surface level, has clear limits. White people are not really allowed to be racist (one girl is sent home for, in part, complaining that her compadre shouted at her in Spanish during a particularly hairy sequence in one challenge) but the cast is still overwhelmingly white, and nonwhite characters are (typically) eliminated early or appear to have been selected on the merits of the one-liners they can color the scenes with. Everyone is middle class and above, and there are audible gasps when one contestant admits to not owning a Playstation 3. One contestant gains instant cred by claiming to own all systems ever produced, and it's only when he reveals that he doesn't know anything about games that his facade evaporates.

But the significant diversity- diversity of experience and of ideas- is something The Tester doesn't have. The idea that you could be playing other games or having other experiences with them is not discussed, mentioned, implied, or allowed. For a show that's supposed to be about getting a a job making games, the contestants have very little to actually say about the process. Precisely one challenge (that I've noticed) in the entire three season series has to do with coming up with an idea for a game. And even then, the competition consists of marketing the idea to a focus group, not examining the idea itself. During one 'unscripted' sequence in the pad, someone says "I want a game where you're a guy and you lose everything and like, you get it all back over the course of the game and at the end of the game you're like, wow, I did all this, and that story is yours." Everyone is in awe of how smart of a comment this is. And it's the longest discussion of something approximating game design I've seen so far (I have not watched every episode...).

The kicker is that the message, and Sony's ideal world, is neocolonial. Everyone is acceptable, black, white, straight, gay, nerd, whatever, as long as you stay on message. The actual experiences of real women, who are universally mistreated in video games, and of minorities, who exist only selectively and at the pleasure of an overwhelmingly white development establishment, are nowhere. There is some lip service to getting 'more women in games' but it doesn't seem that the intention is to change the way games are made. It's just to apply a patina of respectability- producing the same trash, but with different faces attached to the credits screen at the end. The gay character I mentioned earlier makes a key slip during the last episode of the second season, when the remaining three contestants have brunch with the judges and a higher-up at Sony, who happens to be black and also happens to be seated across from the gay dude (how's that blocking). They get to talking, and the gay character says it was so great to hear encouragement from "a fellow minority." That's music to Sony's ears. What possible significant information could you gather about someone from hearing that they were a "minority?" What could you say about two people who were both "minorities?" Almost anything, and nothing significant or personally identifying. This is what Sony wants, an undifferentiated and amnesiac bunch of vague "minorities" to put a contemporary stamp on an old white-supremacist/mysoginist/transphobic etc. product.

This is already too long of a post. Let's finish it: The sufis said that the world is the introspection of God. The small, shitty world of The Tester is the introspection of Sony.

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