Let’s Make a Deal

When you hear the term “game show,” what comes to mind?  A theme song? A colorful set? Enthusiastic hosts and fabulous prizes?

Whatever your answer, chances are you’ve watched a game show at least once. Growing up, my mother and I often watched game shows together and our viewing included everything from $25,000 Pyramid and The Price Is Right to Wheel of Fortune, as well as old black and white episodes of Password featuring the comedic—and now iconic—Betty White. Now daily life is being turned to game shows that favor cutthroat competitions of every sort. Job hunting has transitioned into the long-running hit show, The Apprentice. If you’ve ever been stranded in an exotic location, you might be a perfect contestant for Survivor. Looking for love? Perhaps The Bachelor or The Bachelorette is what you’ve been waiting for. And of course, if you’re a struggling singer you have countless options, including American Idol or The Voice, just to name a couple.

Whatever the era, whichever show you favor, game shows have a way of moving beyond the television screen. Many popular game shows have been adapted into more accessible at-home versions, allowing you the opportunity to be a contestant in the comfort of your own home. Games such as Wheel of Fortune appeared in both board game and electronic formats (I recall playing countless rounds on our Macintosh SE/30 computer). Numerous teachers adopted Jeopardy! as a playful way for students to learn and share facts in the classroom.

Although making ordinary events into a game can be entertaining and competition can be healthy—driving us to try harder and to do better—I can’t help but wonder, when is enough enough? In some of these programs, it appears that the level of competition continues to increase from one show to the next, often bringing contestants to their breaking points, sometimes resulting in long-term effects years after the show has ended. Where’s the fun in that?

Now consider truly playful competition, without the incentive of a prize, monetary or otherwise. For instance, think about children playing a simple game of tag. Most of them are more caught up in playing the game—running, laughing, squealing—than winning the game, which doesn’t have a prize. Research shows that play can encourage us to engage in similar but less stressful ways, valuing enjoyment over winning. I’ll bet that, if asked, Betty White would attribute the fun of Password to the unscripted occurrences and laughs brought on the game play itself, not the competition or prizes.