Why People Like Sports and Game Shows

Why People Like Sports and Game ShowsWhen I was very young (less than 10-years-old), I loved game shows. I know why: I was good at them. Even into my teens, I wanted to be on Tic-Tac-Dough because I would have been on there for months. Then I just wanted the money and I couldn’t believe how ignorant the contestants were. But why do mature people like game shows?

And I don’t just mean the traditional game shows. Almost all “reality” shows are game shows. Dancing with the Stars is a game show. I find them mind numbing. But most people love them!

Watching the Money on Game Shows

And I know why. It was all explained at the end of the movie Quiz Show. Dan Enright (played by David Paymer, who you’ve never heard of but have seen everywhere — 233 credits on IMDb) gives the best speech of the film:

But even the quiz shows’ll be back. Why fix them? Think about it, will ya? You could do exactly the same thing by just making the questions easier. See, the audience didn’t tune in to watch some amazing display of intellectual ability. They just wanted to watch the money.

“Reality” TV Show Forged in Fire

My father loves a game show called Forged in Fire. In it, these guys with forges make swords and compete.

If I didn’t hate these kinds of shows so much, I would find it funny. The judges are so serious and make out that they are such experts. But they are really more like sports “color” guys who are constantly repeating the same things.

And the format is entirely typical: most of the show consists of interviews with the sword makers. First they interviewed before their swords are judged. Then they interviewed after the swords are judged.

The show runs 42 minutes, but if you cut out all the repetition, fluff, and ridiculously long dramatic pauses by the judges, you might have 5 minutes of material. That’s a lot of nothing to sit through to find out who wins the $10,000.[1]

It’s Probably All Fake

Last night I asked my father about the show. Because all my life I have lived on the outskirts (and sometimes right in the middle) of the construction industry. I’ve never met anyone with a forge. Now I know: it is probably one of those situations where if you know anyone with a forge, you know ten. They are a tight group.

But there isn’t a huge demand for swords and other things made in a small forge. Yet the show has had 66 episodes with 4 contestants on each. That is 264 people with forges who are willing to go on the show. I don’t buy that for a minute.

Andy Kaufman was on The Dating Game three times as part of his effort to become a successful entertainer. I won’t be at all surprised if one of the 264 people who was on Forged in Fire turns out to be a successful actor.

It Might Have Been Real at Some Point

I have little doubt that when the show started, they were using real people. But as time went on, they couldn’t find people. So they hired actors and had other people make the swords. At this point, I’m sure the entire show is scripted (in the same way professional wrestling is — not exact dialog, but everyone is told what to say, and it comes from some guy like me who doesn’t mind writing crap anonymously if the money is good enough).

When I mentioned this to my father, he pushed back. You could see their forges! Yeah, and one well designed set could be made to look a million ways by a professional art director. Did my father think the forge in Army of Darkness was a real one? No. He yielded the point.

But he will continue to watch the show. It makes no demands of him. And it gives him the ultimate American thrill: watching an absolute win and three absolute losses.

The Black and White of Competition

We Are All SisyphusOf course, even if the show is for real (and I don’t think it is), it’s just one competition.

It reminds me of something I heard someone say about Major League Baseball (roughly): “Each season, every team will win 50 games, lose 50 games, and its the last 50 that determines who does well or who does poorly.” (MLB now plays 162 games a year, but you get the point.) Similarly, it is often said of the National Football League, “On any given day, any team can beat any other.”

I like those quotes because they talk about reality. The truth is that there are thousands of great baseball players who are roughly as good as each other.

But Americans like things clear. That’s why soccer has had such a hard time here: most games end in a tie. (Or at least they used to. I don’t care enough to look it up.) Americans hate that kind of thing because there must be a winner who celebrate far too much and a loser who we criticize far too much.

Life Is Not a Competition

But my life and that of every human I’ve ever known is a mess of contradictions and general messiness. You never win because there is nothing to win. You just continue to live until you don’t.

To make up for the fact that you have to appreciate life at a higher level — that you have to work to find the sacred, as David Foster Wallace put it, in a crowed grocery store when you’re tired and grumpy — people make up games and pretend that life is one too.

Life Is a Process — a Struggle

The one sport I enjoy watching is baseball, because it is beautiful and subtle. But I much prefer watching amateur or minor league ball. The people in the majors make it look too easy, even though it is enjoyable enough to watch.

But I prefer to watch the struggle. Because we are all Sisyphus.

It doesn’t matter our wins or losses. To quote John Maynard Keynes, “In the long-run, we are all dead.” And in the short-run, I’d rather do something more edifying.

I’m not Capital One, so I’ll ask the ultimate question, “What’s in your soul?” I ask it of myself first.


None of this is to take away from people who try to excel at anything. I’m that way too. And in weird ways. I practice the clarinet each night. Why the clarinet? Because it is the most bizarre instrument known to humanity.

But there is a difference between pursuing mastery and simply wanting to win. And we live in a degenerate country where the primary motivation is winning. And you will never find the sacred in such an ignoble goal.

Oh how we need to evolve!

[1] That’s another thing about most game shows. On Tic-Tac-Dough, you stayed on the show until you lost. So you could win hundreds of thousands of dollars. But the people on Forged in Fire are setting themselves up to be humiliated for a maximum payout of what the median American makes in two months. Who would do that?! Well, idiots. Also: actors (see above).

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

10 thoughts on “Why People Like Sports and Game Shows

  1. Years ago, I had a really terrific coworker who loved “Survivor.” One of the nicest guys I’ve ever met; so nice, in fact, I found it hard to talk with him. I pointed out that “Survivor” represented the dark soul of America; the wish that, if I can’t win, at least I can watch somebody else lose. He had no idea what I was talking about; he liked the show because contestants made fire from rubbing sticks together. (He was just into that DIY stuff. At one point, he raised & killed & ate chickens, on the sensible grounds that if he liked to eat chicken, why make some poor person in dangerous working conditions kill it for you?)

    About the only time I could talk easily with him was on Sundays, when I’d go over to his house to watch the Vikings game. We’d get stoned out of our minds, BS about the stuff one BSes on when stoned, and occasionally look up at the screen to go “uh… touchdown? I think that’s our side?” And then his friend would talk about a job he had washing windows on skyscrapers, outside, in Minnesota, in the winter, 500 feet in the air. Not exactly something I can relate to, but it’s fascinating, and we were all stoned & felt good.

    And that’s the upside of sports. Football is morally hideous in pretty much every way, and I haven’t watched it since. Yet on those Sundays, I could use football as an icebreaker to hang out with people I’d generally be tongue-tied around.

    I’m always on the verge of quitting writing for the Vox baseball site I volunteer at, because it’s fucking Vox, it’s evil. And yet… I get to interact with people I normally wouldn’t. Including office folk & bartenders, struggling poets & furniture salesmen, Mormons & bondage fetishists. So long as I type, “did you see that throw? That was insane!” we’re all, briefly, on the same page. An illusion, to be sure. But a pleasant one.

    Incidentally my wife loves “Dancing With The Stars,” and doesn’t make me watch it, until a recent bit. The great NBA legend (and quality writer!) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was on. He did a dance routine with a woman who matched his height, which I assumed was impossible (he is a very tall person). Turned out it was one dancer stacked on top of another’s shoulders, hidden under the dress! Now, that’s clever. Naturally, Kareem was the first person voted off the show. But he’ll be fine. You got your month of dancing fun, sir. Now back to writing about systemic racism in athletics and America! Oh, the joy…

  2. Frank, have you heard of the British quiz show ‘Only Connect’? I think you might like it (no prizes involved whatsoever – the congratulations to the winners of about 30 episodes consists of a handshake from the host, filmed in shadow). A typical episode:


    Their attitude can be summed up with this:

    “In the first three series, clues in Rounds 1 and 2 and the connecting walls in Round 3 were identified by Greek letters. In series 4 Coren Mitchell announced that this idea had been dropped, ostensibly due to viewer complaints that it was too pretentious, and that henceforth Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs (two reeds, lion, twisted flax, horned viper, water and the eye of Horus) would be used instead. ”


      • But you are not taking into account the fact that I am old and increasingly senile. So repetition is good!

    • I’ll watch the video you posted. I don’t recall hearing about it. It reminds me of “Says You” on NPR where the point is to have smart people be clever and funny. That’s a much more common thing in the UK it seems. Isn’t that government-controlled media terrible — forcing all those people to engage with smart and creative people! (I know, it ain’t 1970 anymore, but it’s still better than what we have). The reason there are 400 shows and nothing on is that there is nothing on in the viewer’s mind. Whenever I visit my sister, I can just put on TMC and know something at least worth watching will be on (I first saw “F for Fake” on it). I saw “The Slaughter Rule” on IFC. But if all they want is a particular kind of crap, it’s no wonder they can’t find it. But really: you would think 24-hour per day courtroom shows (the modern equivalent of 1950s professional wrestling) would be enough for our battered, abused, and ignored prols.

      • That’s an interesting connection between courtroom shows and professional wrestling. Taibbi has made the connection between Trump and wrestling (not a hard one to make, as Trump’s been on wrestling shows, but Taibbi doesn’t do it in a condescending manner, and that’s important).

        There are the people who enjoy courtroom shows and wrestling, even though they know it’s all fake. They like the staged drama, more than they like “LA Law.” That’s simply a matter of what style of acting one prefers. I happen to prefer the “LA Law” style, myself, but that’s an aesthetic taste, not a reflection on how hard the performers are working to entertain.

        Then there are the people who actually believe wrestling and Judge Judy are real. I cannot find any common ground to talk with these people. Do I enjoy the antics of some wrestlers? Sure! It’s a performance bit, and I’ll never slag off somebody working on a schtick. If you think The Rock has some serious feud with the Arab Sheik, I don’t know what to say except “I think I’ll go dry the dishes now.”

        There are Trump voters who realized it was all fake, and wanted it anyway, because they enjoyed the show. (Some assumed the racism, sexism, & greed were part of the act, not real.) They have buyer’s remorse, now, and can be approached. There are Trump voters who still buy his act — and they’re unreachable, at least for me.

        • > That’s an interesting connection between courtroom shows and professional wrestling

          I have my moments. :) Hadn’t thought much about it, but I’ve so internalized Barthes, that’s it’s natural. People watch them because we live in an unjust world and those are both cases where justice is swift and certain. (Of course, I believe the court shows are every bit as fake as pro wrestling, but in a different way. I think the vast majority of people suing each other aren’t actually involved in a conflict. They want to get on television and make (for them) a lot of money. I haven’t watched many of those shows, but I’ve seen sever cases that were clearly friends just gaming the show. Not that the show doesn’t know. They just don’t care. They aren’t in the justice business any more than pro wrestling is.

          I have a very high opinion of the the pro wrestling industry: from the writers to the managers to the actors. I think it’s wonderful. It’s not my thing though. I love silly, but that kind of silly doesn’t appeal. I suppose it is that the emotional content is all negative: anger and boasting. On the other hand, when Andy Kaufman did it, it was so over the top that I thought it was brilliant. (And I think many if not most of the pro wrestlers loved it too.)

          What amazed me at the time was that people like us — educated, non-wrestling watchers — thought it was all true. How can you possibly think that was serious. He was playing a classic bad guy. And I think that’s one reason why I liked it was because he hearkened back to the wrestling of the 1950s. Now it looks like an episode of Dancing With the Stars. Of course, he and Jerry Lawler were having a ball. I don’t know if they were friends, but they were certainly partners. It was brilliant. And note, after all that, he made it a comedic part of his act where a woman would wrestle him and he would be losing. But he managed to grab a can of spinach and came suddenly back to defeat her as in the Popeye series.

          I would say the vast majority of Trump voters are still totally behind him. But he’s lost 5-10%. But his main advantage isn’t those people. It’s that the Republican Party stands for nothing but greed and corruption. So they are solidly behind Trump. By the way, if you haven’t read it, Matt Yglesias (as he often does), wrote exactly what had wanted to write but didn’t have the time, Why are we taking Donald Trump’s Korea diplomacy seriously? This was before the recent kerfuffle. Well worth reading.

      • I’ve never seen “F For Fake” — or even “Chimes At Midnight.”

        I have such a strong emotional response to Welles’s films, I don’t want to see a different one and not have as vivid a response. If that makes any sense.

        I did listen recently to that “War Of The World’s” broadcast, and it’s just a scary as ever. I used to have an LP of it. The thing freaked me out, even though my nine-year-old brain consciously knew Martians had not invaded. Guys on radio talking stuff, then mid-syllable… ten seconds of dead air. It’s still spooky.

        Welles always claimed that wasn’t meant to sound like a real broadcast, just like he claimed “Kane” wasn’t about Hearst and “Ambersons” wasn’t about incestuous rich families. Yeah, sure. Dude, you knew exactly what you were doing, and with the assistance of terrific talent, you did it well.

        “Fake” and “Chimes” are locked firmly in my Break Glass For Emergency vault. I don’t want to use them up, because I’ll then never repeat the joy of seeing them the first time. Like Steve Goodman recordings, there’s a magic so profound it transcends the art. Yet once you’ve seen the trick, it’s not as wondrous the second time.

        Here’s a cover Goodman did, in a bar, at closing time. You can hear the patrons throwing bottles into the garbage. And, then they stop. And they listen: https://youtu.be/Ot0vLv_4pFM

        • My entire comment was deleted. WP admin commenting is terrible. It is trivial to erase your entire comment.

          1. You can go without Chimes — it’s brilliant, but you don’t have to see it. You have to see F for Fake. It is technically a documentary, but because Welles made it, it’s a cinematic essay. Most of it is funny. And the serious parts are incredibly beautiful. Please, watch the film. I will send it to you if you promise to watch it. But I must admit that I don’t really understand the problem you are describing. I’ve seen it upwards of a hundred times. I have it down on paper shot by shot. It is the seed of all my plays. Of course, I’m not Welles, so they aren’t nearly as good (I’ve greatly expanded on his ideas) but I suspect they are more accessible than Welles. It’s kind of like Orson Welles meets the Keystone Cops — in the middle of a circus in the middle of a college classroom.

          Welles knew exactly what he was doing, but I don’t feel like typing it all in. He was, however, constantly unhappy with the script, requiring many rewrites and finally recorded it because, I think, they had wasted too much time and money on it and he was never going to like it.

  3. I’ll get it from the library, someday. There are certain artists whom, when I’ve experienced all their work for the first time, I feel a sense of loss that I’ll never get to experience something by them, for the first time, ever again. I remember finally catching up with the last Altman I hadn’t seen, enjoying it, then thinking, “that’s it, you’ve seen them all, now. No more new Altman for you!”

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