PARIS — A state-run TV channel is stirring controversy with a documentary about a fake game show in which participants obey orders to deliver increasingly powerful electric shocks to a man, who is really an actor, until he appears to die.
The producers of “The Game of Death” wanted to examine both what they call TV’s mind-numbing power to suspend morality, and the striking human willingness to obey orders.
“Television is a power. We know it, but it’s theoretical,” producer Christophe Nick told the daily Le Parisien. “I wondered: Is it so important that it can turn us into potential executioners?”
In the end, more than four in five “players” gave the maximum jolt.
“People never would have obeyed if they didn’t have trust,” Nick was quoted as saying in the paper’s Wednesday edition. “They told themselves, ‘TV knows what it’s doing.’ ”
While “Le Jeu de la Mort” (The Game of Death) is mainly an indictment of television’s alleged power over society, Nick also takes issue with viewers who let themselves get taken in by today’s TV’s universe — such as with talk shows.
“People are put on a set, where they speak even about their sexual problems,” he told Le Parisien. “We wait for the admission, the flaw. Faced with exhibitionists, TV viewers have become voyeurs.”
The experiment was based on the work of late psychologist Stanley Milgram, who carried out a now-classic experiment at Yale University in the 1960s. It found that most ordinary people — if encouraged by an authoritative-seeming scientist — would administer ostensibly dangerous electric shocks to others.
Recruiters found 80 “contestants” and said they would take part in a real TV show called Zone Xtreme. Each was presented to a man said to be another contestant — but really an actor — whose job was to answer a series of questions while strapped into an electrifiable chair in an isolated booth.
In a game of word associations, the actor identified as “Jean-Paul” was told that any wrong answers would merit punishment in the form of electric shocks of 20 to 460 volts, zapped by a console operated by the contestant.
As the wrong answers invariably roll in and the voltage increases, the presenter, a well-known TV weatherwoman on France-2, at times exhorts contestants not to bend to his cries of agony, and says the production house takes all responsibility. A goading studio audience adds to the pressure.
The contestants’ identities are protected, with their faces blotted out.
According to a book on the experiment, “L’Experience Extreme,” at times Jean-Paul pleads: “Mr. Producer, get me out of here, please! I don’t want to play anymore” — which apparently wasn’t enough to get most contestants to walk away.
In the final tally, 81 percent of the contestants turned up the alleged juice to the maximum — said to be potentially deadly — level, according to the book. Only 16 people among the 80 who took part backed out.