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Big Brother From A Game Theory Perspective

Posted in Society and Morals, Spotlight on Humanity, and Television Reviews

Big Brother is a potentially psychologically damaging reality game show, which started off in the Netherlands and has versions all around the world. The basic premise is to put a group of strangers in a house with no access to the outside world, no pens, paper, books, phones, television, magazines and the like to see how they cope for up to three months. They are monitored and filmed 24/7 and everything they say or do is recorded. Each week they must nominate two housemates they don’t want in the house, and the ones with the most votes get put up to the public vote. There are rules of course, and the group are given morally challenging tasks to complete in exchange for rewards such as a luxury food hamper or alcohol. Punishments are also dished out, as no one can discuss nominations or try to escape, and these range from no hot water in the house or being given basic rations. It is a true test of human nature, and whether people will save themselves or consider others when faced with a choice.

When the show first began, there were psychiatrists on hand for the contestants in the diary room where they could talk through their issues. Now, it appears to be more for entertainment value, to see who will break down and cry or crack. The problem is many former contestants and winners (the prize money is usually £100,000) see it as popularity contest and not one where the best player does win. Even those who don’t win, but were popular with the public could land deals with television shows or endorsing products, or making public appearances. The idea of the show is to avoid getting nominated and to get of the competition without alienating others. The best player keeps out of arguments, but thinks about the good of the group while figuring out who is weak and who is a threat to their chances of winning.

Game Theory is about probability and tactics. One of the most common games is the Prisoner’s Dilemma—which is the best option; to save yourself and make a deal, or to keep quiet and hope the other person does the same? What if the other person betrays you? The idea is to look at cooperating and the consequences of failing to do so, which is the same in the Big Brother house where housemates are pitted against one another. You can only predict a possibility of what other parties may do, and that is where psychological damage can come into play. It’s group tactics versus self-interest and having to live with those consequences publicly. Do you choose for yourself and hope others understand, or sacrifice things for the group? Emma, who was evicted, was given a choice to see her  boyfriend or gain loyalty points for a group award. She chose her boyfriend, and thus lost points for the group. Nearly all the group were angry at her because her actions were selfish, nor did she wait to discuss things, leaving the group without the reward they had been aiming for. Big Brother wanted to tempt the housemates, to push them and to see the consequences, and Emma played into their hands, while others such as Jason resisted seeing his beloved dog for the sake of the group.

Recently in the UK version, Big Brother gave the remaining housemates a ruthless task where there were a reward, but with  a consequence. They were told £20,000 had been taken out of the prize money and would be given the housemate who buzzed first. However, to get the money they had to evict someone on the spot. There are those who wouldn’t buzz because they did not wish to appear to betray their fellow housemates, but those who truly understood the game did. Even if no one pressed the buzzer the £20,000 would have be taken out, so if no one pressed then they all would have lost that money. Jason was the first to buzz and evicted Lateysha on the basis that he was removing the competition. That was tactical, and he was playing the game while others criticized him as a popular housemate was evicted.

What many fail to realize it’s not a popularity contest (even if the public like or dislike someone, they tend to vote for who acted and behaved with the most morals), but who knows how to play the game well, and that means to keep the weaker people in who are no threat and getting rid of those who are. Jason could have evicted Jayne with whom he wasn’t getting on with, but that would be personal rather than tactical. The psychological impact of the task has hit those who misunderstand the game, as many have shunned Jason. It was a risk he took, but the wise can see his motives, while others took it personally as a devious move.  Many entered because they wished to become reality stars, but the show is a public game show to psychologically test how people react in given situations, testing their morals, versus their desire to win. The excuses that someone is a single parent or has debts is no reason to keep them in a show; it’s not about the money, but the skill in winning and pitting your wits against the fellow contestants.

I find it amusing that people tarnish others with the tag ‘game player’ because it is a game show and they are all playing a game whether they realize it or not. However, the mind games, solitary confinement, restrictions, and arguments over petty things can be damaging. Contestants live in a false environment and say and do things subconsciously that are filmed, and later they are judged on them. It’s not always fair, as people cannot control themselves 24/7, but that’s what the prize money is for. The public can be cruel too for judging the choices made or things said in the heat of the moment as well as general behavior. Sadly, that is what reality shows are for and I don’t watch them (only cooking ones because I can learn from their mistakes), but I know two of the contestants personally. I have watched to support and defend them, and hope after they leave they will be okay, as while there will be good memories, people can say and do things they regret.

Should we be entertained by watching how others behave and react? Big Brother these days are grasping for headlines with scandals rather than looking at how groups interact. They have a responsibility to ensure contestants don’t get meltdowns, but the effects can last years and not just a few weeks after the show has finished. It is a game show with probabilities and expected outcomes, but all contestants will experience some consequences even the winner. With so many reality shows, why are people entertained when people fail, argue, or are upset? Has humanity become perverse? There are no real winners in the game—except for the gamemasters.

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