Book Review: Rules of the Game: Quiz Shows and American Culture by Olaf Hoerschelmann
Ever wonder why game shows in all their frivolity are enjoyed by Americans? Even deeper than this how do they depict us as Americans? Is that important? What can be defined as a game show? What are its categories? How did the genre survive after the 1950s rigging scandals? These questions and more are addressed in Olaf Hoerschelmann’s book Rules of the Game: Quiz Shows and American Culture.
Hoerschelmann is the Associate Professor of Media Theory and Criticism at Eastern Illinois University. His approach makes for an interesting meld of game study and media study, of course he could not ask for a more perfect example. Hoerschelmann begins each chapter with a reference to a film that corresponds with the topic and era of the chapter. Films about game shows, the implications of being a successful contestant, and their sketchy past have been prevalent throughout film history. The use of the films as a way to frame the intended topic was novel and appreciated. Makes you want to start watching! More than this it allows the reader to understand the author’s perspective while approaching his subject matter. It gives the reader the impression that the author is invested and interested and thus makes the reader follow suit.
The entire book hinges on whether or not the reader understands Hoerschelmann’s weighty discussion of genre, probably the most interesting portion of the book. Hoerschelmann, in his opening chapter, “What is Genre,” describes the numerous sub-genres game shows have been placed in over the years, with more being added even today. He also raises the interesting question: What is the importance of genre assignment? Furthermore what does genre specification do for entertainment pieces and their audiences? In the case of game shows it enabled their survival. Hoerschelmann explains the devastation that the 1950s game show scandals had on the industry, with several shows being canceled. No network wanted the bad publicity, but could not deny the ad revenue that game shows brought in. Networks, in an attempt to save game shows, rebranded them from their former name “quiz shows” to “game shows.” Their new genre led to numerous changes in the way game shows were perceived. The academic knowledge that was rewarded in “quiz shows” was replaced by human knowledge in “game shows.” One example of a human knowledge game show is The Newlywed Game, during which contestants are rewarded for their knowledge on their spouses. The cultural perception of the “quiz show” as high culture due to its educational value, was replaced by strictly entertaining low culture “game shows.” Interestingly, broadcasters viewed the change in knowledge and cultural perception as a way of incorporating women viewership. Thus the prime-time slots rewarded most “quiz shows” was change to daytime “game shows” for the convenience of the numerous board housewives sitting at home. Game shows were then allowed to remain on the air, while quiz shows were strictly forbidden, especially those with large prizes. Hoerschelmann’s discussion of the effects of genre placement portrays the significance something so simple has on the way viewers and players perceived game shows.
The rest of the book addresses a series of issues. The themes revolving around gender, race, class, the definition of average, active versus passive participation, advertising, and gambling are all covered in way or another. These themes are used as a general reflection on American culture. More interestingly, Hoerschelmann, uses games shows as a way of displaying the shift from conservative to more liberal social relations. Hoerschelmann also has an interesting discussion of game shows reflection of the greater economic and political atmosphere of the United States. Games shows are rooted heavily in their early days. Born in the midst of the Great Depression, game shows never really shook their devotion to the little man winning big. With their emphasis on the commoner, rules remain, for the most part simple and accessible to encourage participation. The 1950s game show scandals forever tainted the believability of the shows as well. Everyone watching is asking “how can this be true.” One particularly interesting historical remnant in game shows is the continued use of product placement. Hoerschelmann traces it back to the beginning of radio game shows, but it really became ridiculous with the coming of the Cold War. Hoerschelmann quotes Elaine Tyler May when he says, ‘“Although they may have been unwitting soldiers, women who marched off to the nation’s shopping centers to equip their new homes joined the ranks of American cold warriors”’ (73). Game shows were a perfect way to reinforce the fabulous wealth that capitalist countries are capable of producing. So much they just give it away!
Hoerschelmann claims that he was pushed to write his book after he described to a colleague a paper he had written on game shows, he recalls that “she said, “Oh, I just hate those,” and turned away (1). Game shows do seem to fit nicely into people’s guilty pleasures; enjoying them is not usually something that comes up in a first meet. But, if they are guilty pleasures they must be everyone’s because they are popular and have been manipulated to fit almost every genre. Rules of the Game, Hoerschelmann hopes will exhibit the role that game shows can play in serious academic inquiry, and he ends the book in the hopes that more studies like his will be created in the future.
Hoerschelmann, Olaf. Rules of the Game: Quiz Shows and American Culture. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006.