Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Can You Read My Mind?

I like watching game shows. In the absence of good game shows, the best thing to watch is of course really bad game shows. Unfortunately, there's recently been a raft of game shows that, while bad, aren't bad enough to be so-bad-they're-good. All of them are based on the fundamental misconception that game show contestants, never the smartest bunch, have an innate ability to divine the inner thoughts of their fellow players.

Can you work out who earns £23,000 and who earns £26,000 based on which one of them knows who wrote The Mill on the Floss? Yes? Well that won't help, because they won't ask anything that highbrow.


Channel Five (or if you prefer, five) recently launched a show called Payday. It's a thoroughly dull quiz, based around the concept of trying to guess what other people earn, and hence winning their wages. (You don't actually win their wages off them, mind. That'd be too interesting. You win a prize equivalent to their wages.) In the final round of Payday, the winning contestant can pocket the annual pay of the highest earner among the six other contestants if he or she can match all six of those contestants to their wage. They know what six jobs the contestants do, but not who does which. All they know about the other contestants is the manner in which they answer general knowledge questions. There are 720 ways of matching up six contestants to six salaries. Can you work out who earns £23,000 and who earns £26,000 based on which one of them knows who wrote The Mill on the Floss? Yes? Well that won't help, because they won't ask anything that highbrow. This game is flatly impossible. Perhaps this is no accident; Channel Five probably can't afford to be giving away tens of thousands of pounds every day, and since you can't do premium-rate phone-ins anymore, these things have to make some financial sense.


ITV, never ones to miss out on making bad television if they can possibly avoid it, have their own conceptually flawed show. It is called Golden Balls, and is hosted by Jasper Carrot, who owned a large part of Celador when they invented (or, if you believe this man and his astonishingly poorly-written book, stole) Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? and so has more money than any man will ever need and therefore has no excuse. I shan't bore you with the details, but essentially, the contestants have several golden spheres with different amounts of money inside, some of which are on show to the other players, and some of which are secret. After they've chatted for a bit, there's a vote, and whoever has most votes is eliminated and takes their balls with them. Since the balls left at the end are used to make the prize, it's helpful to vote off the people with the least money in their balls. And herein lies the problem. There's no reason for any player to do anything other than pretend they have more money than they do, and no reason for any other player to believe them. So the game quickly descends into this:

"I have the twenty-thousand pound ball!"

"No! I do!"

"Well you don't, because I have it."

"Don't!"

"Do!"

This is not the most thrilling spectacle that has ever been seen on television. Indeed, it ranks somewhere below switching over to Richard & Judy where you can probably listen to Julia Hartley-Brewer's opinion on something that was in a tabloid newspaper the previous day.

So, if any game show commissioning editors are reading this, please remember: we are not all Derren Brown. We cannot spot liars at twenty paces. (Remember, if they look up and to the right, that means they're recalling visual information about sums of money written on the inside of gold balls. If they're looking up and to the right, they're accessing the creative centres of their brain and inventing sums of money written on the insides of gold balls.) Watching people try isn't fun. It is particularly not fun when the people trying are the 'characters' you so love to populate your shows with (that is to say, people who talk loudly and insistently while not actually expressing any coherent thoughts.) Please stop it.

4 comments:

James said...

You are right Golden Balls is a dreadful show. I have written a post about how flawed the ending to the show is, as theoretically people will always pick steal.

PaulT said...

The end game (which for anyone lucky ennough not to have seen it is the same as in Shafted, which if anyone is lucky enough not to have seen is the Prisoner's Dilemma, where both players in secret choose to cooperate or defect, with mutual copperation splitting the winnings, mutual defection meaning nobody wins anything, and defection against cooperation meaning the defecter wins all the cash) is really very interesting. Interesting conceptually, anyway. It's quite dull to watch when you can't know what the players are thinking (which as I've mentioned, you can't). I've written a comment on your blog in more detail, though I'm not a game theorist so I'm speaking without any semblance of authority.

Paul said...

Personally, I prefer Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma.

Even if the most effective strategy is simple old Tit For Tat:

Round 1: Cooperate
Round N+1: Copy what your opponent did in Round N.

Although Tit-For-Tat can never actually win a game, in a non-zero sum game like True IPD it brings home more points on average than any other strategy.

PaulT said...

Have you been reading Dawkins too, or just pissing around on Wikipedia? I hate Wikipedia; makes to so much harder to feign superior intelligence.