By Austin Bunn
(From Reality Matters, 19 Writers Come Clean About the Shows They Can’t Stop Watching, Ed. Anna David, HarperCollins, 2010)
(This is essays is about my time working as a "challenge designer" for The Amazing Race. Yes, you can call Antarctica by phone.)
The summer you turn thirteen, an invitation comes to attend “gifted and talented” summer classes at the community college. You paw over the catalogue as if this is it—the sign that you’re destined for greatness. Your twin brother can’t understand why you want to spend a month in a classroom because all he wants to do is play tennis, and he’s better at it than you, so fuck him. You sign up for two classes, “How to Win a Nuclear War” and “Game Theory,” and begin to count the days.
See: You are a gamer. You game. Not well but often, and with a love and focus that will astound you in your life to come. In your bedroom, the Dungeons and Dragons die-bags tuck against the shelf of original-series Choose Your Own Adventures. You have blasted through the entire series, drawn maps of the story outcomes, even written a winsome letter to Bantam on graph paper pitching your own (“bomb squad!”). Bantam never writes back. Like most Chess Club members, you think winning—and when you say “winning,” you mean “pure unadulterated happiness”—is a series of moves executed with a smirk. On the computer in the basement, your masterwork emerges: ’NAM!, a video game about the war with mama-sans and babies on fire that you saw in a Chuck Norris flashback. The hard fact that you are an unexceptional player at everything but War and Old Maid doesn’t matter. You smirk all the same. The game itself is the point—the awesome hours of vanishing into play.
Summer classes start and your mother drops you off every morning with a three-ring binder and calculator. In “How to Win a Nuclear War,” you learn that, with the right outlay of ICBMs, Guam rules the world. Also, that 55378008 on the calculator spells BOOBLESS upside down. When you ask your mother if you can fill a trashcan with spring water and stash all batteries and flashlights into a “go bag,” she is concerned. The coming blast will change her mind. In “Game Theory,” a professor in sandals and Izod polo’s sits cross-legged on the end of the desk. He has weirdly hairy calves, where your own father’s are moon-bald. He explains the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the Nash Equilibrium, and payoff matrixes. You perch in the front row and make charts you only half understand. Before long, this professor, the master of scenarios and self-interest, becomes a kind of father figure, since your own father doesn’t get games—he only likes the Indy 500 and Flight Simulator, in which you can’t even shoot things. You wear your own Izod polo shirts in secret allegiance. You learn that everything is economics—every choice a matter of incentives and rewards. You think that you’ve never really made any choice, of any consequence, but it’s about time. On the drive home, you tell your mom (in barely veiled terms) about your crush on the prof. This is, in a way, the choice. You are thirteen.
She asks, “If he’s so smart, why is he teaching at a community college?”
You can’t answer. But your zeal is fervent and true. When the grades come in, you receive two A+s . Never again will you feel such a sense of achievement. You write, on beloved graph paper, a winsome letter to the professor, confessing your deep like. He never writes back.
In retrospect, it’s predictable that Survivor would hook you. It is everything you’d studied that leafy Jersey summer, but playing out like a devilish Gilligan’s Island or a tropical And Then There Were None, the Agatha Christie novel you once adored as a book on tape: Ten murderers get invited to an island off the coast of England and are killed, one by one, by an unseen murderer. Of course no one dies on Survivor, but getting voted off the island is a kind of fame-death, a flame-out for millennial-culture: proof that your persona doesn’t “work.”
It seems, too, that that long-ago professor has made his way to Pulau Tiga. While Rudy and Sean and Kelly scrape coconut pulp and stare like zombies at the fire, Richard Hatch is the gamer, a schemer gone to seed, and his video diaries teem with private significance. Hatch is creating Survivor’s subtext and you want in. By studying the credit sequence of the show, you discover Survivor’s tell: On the day of the marooning Hatch was clean-shaven, but the opening credits clearly show him with an almost-full beard—easily weeks of growth. He would last. (The producers have since learned to shoot all the character intro montages on the first day.) And while the culture rallies against the easy villain, you find yourself improbably, involuntarily, swept away. You don’t even have a thing for bad boys. By this point you’re out of the closet and fairly well adjusted, with a favorite bar, a bottle of massage oil, and one or two cool shirts. Yes, you are a little bit of a player, and a player should be above a television fixation. And yet, there he is, on Wednesday nights, bare-ass naked on the shore.
Look, you always had a thing for Poseidon, for the Norse gods in the monster manual. And Hatch is Poseidon, burly and unashamed. The one that could spear fish. The one with the dolphin tattoo, which suggested both tribal edge and cuddle puddles. You study him closer than you have ever studied anything on television. You con CBS for videotapes of all the episodes and watch them twice. You find the email address for Hatch’s consulting business in Rhode Island and gin up an excuse to write him. You know by now how this will end, the zero sum of an unanswered letter. Still, still. . .
A friend of a friend is traveling the world, working as a producer on a newtelevision show, a “Survivor killer.” A race around the world, with two-person teams. That’s enough to make you convince your best friend Josh into making an audition tape. In the park next to your Brooklyn apartment, you sail down the granite stairs in bread crates trying to look balls-out. You nearly sheer off two fingers. You do pull-ups together on the swings—actually, you dangle. You and Josh decide it would be a good idea to walk and talk about friendship, the straight-jock-and-gay-writer type, and crack juvenile jokes that no doubt earn you a quick dismissal from Casting. These kinds of audition tapes, you will come to learn, are wastes of time. No show wants people who are ironic about their participation, who might test the comfortable lies of production: the negotiated presence of cameramen, the coercions of unseen producers.
Months later, you get a call from the friend of a friend. It’s the summer you turn twenty-eight, and you’re living on an island, alone with the cats, doing boat carpentry. The magazine that employed you went under and you decided to pull the ripcord on your life and relocate. The friend of a friend says that the show, the Survivor-killer, got into trouble with their game engineering. Contestants went rogue on Season 1—hoarded cash, skipped stopovers, and took cabs instead of trains. Now, as they’re trying to fix everything in the edit, the show’s executive producer has decided to hire a team of game designers to avoid these problems in the future. Since no one has done this kind of thing before, apparently your eighth-grade summer class in game design sounds like the Rand Institute to these LA people. Are you willing to come out to the coast? You can make four times what you are making on the band saw setting bungs into screw holes. You might even get a trip around the world out of it. The Izod professor, the one inside you, says Hells yes.
The show operates out of the former offices of a defunct dot com in Marina del Rey; what’s weird is that nobody has changed the furniture, and a pipe-dream mood haunts the space. There’s a fairway tea-cup from an amusement park ride in the front office. All the desks are planks in a long room, and at the back lurk the dark caves of editing consoles, where the Season 1 triage is taking place. The executive producer is this older Dutch fellow whose skin is eroding in the Southern California glare. Often, he has a Band-Aid across his face, which nobody mentions. He used to run Cops, and people treat him like a god because Cops is “syndicated as fuck.” His much younger, beautiful wife transits the office like a visiting dignitary. She came up with the idea for the show, has executive producer credit, but does nothing except get looked at.
As part of the pre-production team for Season Two, you spend your days coming up with gimmicks. Already, the trip route has been decided, so you are given countries and it’s your job to research and pitch possible activities—mystery caves, little statuary finding missions, canopy zip-lines. Everybody loves zip-lines, they make great TV, but they have this problem: the race stops. No team can pass another team. It’s what’s called the accordion effect. When you bring this up in the meeting, the executive producer looks at you and says, “Who the hell are you?” You tell him and he says, “Well, then, let’s just have them make sandwiches!” You can’t tell if he’s joking or brainstorming or what. Notes are taken. What’s clear is that the show isn’t really about gaming—it’s about conflict engineering, ways of getting people to reveal themselves. Soon enough, you’re calling McMurdo Base station, on Antarctica, to see how long human skin can be exposed to the chill. Would it be possible for people to make igloos in jeans? The woman at McMurdo says, “Who the hell is this? Where are you calling from?”
“I’m from TV,” you say, like it’s an answer, like it’s a place.
In the entire city of Los Angeles, you have one friend and she sits across from you every day. Katie drives a pickup with a surfboard in the back. Often, she comes to work wet, having surfed already. She wears this knee-length cardigan that she clutches to herself like a refugee. When you ask her if she considered modeling, she says, “Shut up.” After renting a convertible Jeep for a month—and getting the worst sunburn of your life just commuting to work—you buy a used Honda Accord and Katie takes one look at it and pronounces it lame. She is right. You always go out to lunch together. After a couple of months, Katie tells you that firings are coming. The show is about to go on location, and production for the race will start, which means some people will get tickets to fly around the world and some people will be let go.
“You’re going to get cut,” Katie says. “You don’t have production experience.”
You tell her you can guard a clue box in Brisbane or Cotopaxi as well as anybody. The entire point of this boondoggle in LA is getting a trip around the world. You have actually reported from abroad, which is way harder than dealing with a clue box! Katie shrugs and downs her taco. “Look, I’d quit if I were you,” she says. “Don’t let these tools fire you. Keep your fucking dignity.”
Except that you have no income, no prospects. You don’t even have your own apartment, anywhere. You have been crashing on the friend of your friend’s floor. Quitting would mean freefall. Then Katie tells you a secret: She got into grad school, Columbia’s International Something Studies program. As soon as the race ends, she’s going to quit and move to Manhattan. The ridiculous television money she will make during production will cover her ridiculous tuition. You are happy for her, but you also resent the coherence of her life. She’s smart, beautiful, she has grad school and will be spending the next three months transiting the globe on CBS’s dime.
Then you realize that Katie’s dates don’t work. Production is going to spill into her semester—she’s going to ditch the race halfway for school. Make as much money as she can and then bolt. Which, if you were in her situation, is precisely what you’d do. Except you know that if she quits, it’s a huge pain for the rest of the production team, trying to hire somebody from the road.
And so you scheme. All that training, in game theory, comes down to self-interest. This is what the professor and Richard Hatch have taught you: Self-interest and knowing exactly, if not more than, what your competitors know. The Nash Equilibrium proposes that a game will remain stable, with a neutral outcome, if all players choose for their own benefit and know the same amount. But you figure that if the producers knew Katie’s plans, they might fire her before production starts . . . and a plane ticket to travel the world will open up. You’d be next in line. And so you stand on the blade of a choice: Do you choose to maximize your life? Or do you, by quitting, concede?
It doesn’t take much to decide. One night, over drinks with the friend of a friend, you let Katie’s plans slip. He is shocked. Katie is just the kind of steady, practical presence you want on the road. He was counting on her. He says he has to tell the executive producer. You had no idea things would move this fast. By the next day, Katie gets called into the main office. When she returns to her desk, she stares you cold in the eye.
“Can I talk to you for a minute?” she says.
You head outside, to that curb in the parking lot, behind her truck, where you ate all those tacos together, under that full-bore SoCal sun. She sits down. She fingers a rip in her cardigan elbow, where the knit is fraying. You stare at the back wheel hubs of her truck, surrendering to rust. Like all good reveals, what you now understand changes the outcome. You haven’t just gamed her. You’ve undermined her escape. Columbia, the trip—they were her way out. She’s as poor and lost as you are.
“Why?” she asks. “Why did you do it?”
You don’t have an answer. You float a bunch of excuses—what’s best for the show, some false loyalty to the friend of a friend—and she just shakes her head. You will never forget her shaking her head.
Next night, over drinks with the friend of a friend (all you ever seem to do together), you broach the subject of the trip. Now that Katie’s getting fired, you wonder aloud if you they’ll need somebody to fill in, someone with gaming experience and fresh eyes, who—
“Oh, they’d never pick you,” says the friend of a friend matter-of-factly. “You don’t have production experience.”
Four weeks later, you request a meeting with the line producer and quit. “That’s funny,” he says, “because I was just about to let you go.” You head out for a celebratory beer alone, at a gay bar in Silverlake. You have just enough money for a couple of months here, and by then, with luck, you’ll find out who you are. It’s haircut night at this place, and there’s this line of men getting their head shaved. Somewhere in the middle of the line is this fellow who looks like Poseidon. You brave up, introduce yourself, and get his email address. You decide, no more games. You are going to be as direct as you can be and ask for what you want. Happiness and winning—two totally separate feelings, really.
You write him an email. By this point, you know it goes.
Except the next day, when you least expect it, he answers.