A poster of "The Genius: Rule Breaker." Players in the survival game show are allowed to use deceptive measures, steal or conceal rivals' game items and forge a "strategic alliance" to bully rivals. / Korea Times file
Survival show under fire for jungle-like game rules
By Park Si-soo
Cable TV channel tvN's survival game show "The Genius: Rule Breaker" recently stirred an online controversy for what critics called "inhumane" playing rules that permit contestants to employ deceptive tactics to "kill" rivals and win big prize money reserved for the last survivor.
Angered viewers launched online campaigns, calling on the broadcaster to discontinue the program that encourages players to compromise their morality to get closer to handsome compensation. Yet there is another view claiming that the program was a miniaturized "real" society where people hardly come forward with bare-naked faces to survive in this jungle-like society.
Airing every Saturday night, the show allows contestants to deceive each other, steal or conceal rivals' game items and even forge a "strategic alliance" to bully rivals as long as it helps bring them closer to the prize of 100 million won ($94,000). As the title implies, rules of the game are there to be broken, so it's hard to expect fairness, sincere partnership or teamwork all the way through each episode.
On the Dec. 11 episode, Lee Doo-hee, a hacker-turned-computer programmer who was once considered one of the most competitive contestants, left the the race due to consistent bullying of other contestants. His nametag, a crucial item to engage in the game, was stolen and concealed twice by rivals during the episode and, even worse, a player whom he believed to be on his side betrayed him at the last minute, leaving Lee helpless when it came to seeking survival methods.
Bidding farewell, Lee said, "The only mistake I committed (during the program) was that I trusted my rivals too much." Fighting back tears, he went on, "But I think it's not wrong at all to trust people, don't you?" His fellow star in the show, former singer Lee Sang-min, in response said, "What we did to you is not vicious. Real society is even worse."
The episode drew fierce criticism from viewers. Some angered people launched online campaigns, calling on the cable channel to discontinue what they described as an "inhumane" program. In response to the outcry, the program's director made a formal apology on Dec. 16. He said the show will continue with upgraded playing rules to ensure fairness of upcoming games.
"We truly apologize for causing concern," the director said in a statement. "The mishap took place while trying to look deeper into the minds of human beings through the show."
Culture critic Jung Deok-hyun said he was extremely uncomfortable watching the program, not because of "fraudulent tactics" the players employed to disqualify rivals, but because of the feeling that "the program revealed the true face of the society we live in."
"Let's think about how fair and transparent our society is," Jung said. "The program revealed an uncomfortable truth that we all know about." Professor Lee Taek-kwang of Kyung Hee University echoed the view, saying it was problematic for the program to show players' reckless dash toward winning the big prize money without editing, but at the same time it provided us with an opportunity to search our souls.
Various statistic data suggest the country still has a long way to go before labeling itself a "trustable" nation. What's worrisome is that an increasing number of children take less care of their morality and integrity.
According to a survey conducted in December by Rep. Shim Jae-chul of the ruling Saenuri Party and several civic groups, nearly 47 percent of high school students said they would willingly commit a crime and go to jail if they were given 1 billion won ($939,000) in compensation.
Perhaps the finding is one of the definitive clues explaining why the country's global transparency ranking fell for the third consecutive year to 46th place among 177 countries surveyed last year.
Broken family values
There are some other TV programs that mirror the dark face of Korea's contemporary society. But to date, they have been dramas, i.e., fictionalized stories that allowed the viewers to give the network or the writer some leeway to go too far.
"Love and War," a long-running Friday night drama series on the country's biggest broadcaster KBS, highlights a collapse of traditional family values, under which parents were always subject to respect and care of adult children, and the husband and wife were supposed to be entangled in love and care for each other in any kind of situation.
Shooting based on real cases filed with the court, the series has revealed various kinds of foul-mouthed domestic disputes that were not so long ago a taboo to talk about openly, including ones caused by frayed relationships between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law, extramarital affairs or other secret domestic problems.
The 2009 drama "Boys Over Flowers" showed students badly tarnished by the "rule of adults" to determine their status at school based on their parents wealth or social position.
It's hard to count programs beautifying careerism. Another ongoing KBS drama, "A Girl by Nature," demonstrates a good-looking smart man with a humble background who commits himself to luring and marrying a tycoon's daughter "against all odds," as part of an effort to get him into the upper class of society.
In explaining the high ratings of these programs, pop culture critics say it's because they show "reality" as it is.
"Everybody wants to become rich and powerful," said Hwang Ji-min, a culture critic, taking "A Girl by Nature" as an example. "But it's an increasingly difficult mission to achieve for ordinary citizens because social mobility has stalled. Perhaps marrying a rich or powerful figure is one of a few breakthroughs. So it seems that a program showing the reality and a feasible breakthrough draws viewers' attention."