Plenty of people play video games on TV screens, but soon we could be playing games on TV shows. And I, for one, am absolutely thrilled. Interactive TV is an idea that has been tossed around for some time now, with game shows where viewers call in to answer obnoxiously easy trivia questions, but this retirement home-esque chipper activity is hardly groundbreaking or innovative. But if a recent Sony patent is a sign of things to come, the whole meaning of interactive TV could be changed drastically, and most certainly for the better.
According to an article on LiveScience.com, Sony has filed a patent for a game of sorts in which viewers can control on-screen avatars, using them to chuck tomatoes at actors or kick them in the pants (“Interactive TV to put you in the show,” 11/08/2009). This is obviously just a first step, and it’s not clear how many people would jump at the chance to throw tomatoes at actors — especially if the technology required special movie discs to use, which is up in the air right now.
Possible future forays into the interactive TV world are speculated to include adding cartoon shootable characters to otherwise live-action war movies, and, more interestingly, the ability to race actual NASCAR drivers in actual NASCAR races. Yes, that’s right. They may have just found a way to make NASCAR entertaining. And any idea that can accomplish that seemingly impossible task deserves all the attention and investment we can give it.
Game shows are an obvious start, and producers know it. There are late-night Game Show Network interactive programs in which viewers at home serve as contestants via phone. Let’s combine everyone’s desire to play along with some kick-ass tech. Could there honestly be anything more enjoyable than playing along with a full episode of “The Price is Right?” To bid on every show, to play every pricing game, to spin that lovely illuminated wheel — oh, ‘twould be rapturous. And to play “Lingo” and “Chain Reaction” against those nincompoops they disguise as contestants, even just on my computer screen where only I would know, would be the greatest vindication against GSN I could ever imagine.
The LiveScience.com article also cites data from Nielsen Media Research — for which I made my feelings quite clear a fortnight past — that many people are also interacting with other viewers online while watching shows. This is called an “interactive experience,” though taking a shot of your favorite mind-number every time “Family Guy” pulls a cut-away gag or references a previous episode seems more interactive to me. But there are plenty of TV shows using the Internet as well. ESPN’s “SportsNation” uses online polling to the point of irritancy. Maybe someday live online polling could actually guide the course of a television show as it airs. Multiple endings are often filmed for movies and TV shows alike — why not make a veritable vote-your-own-adventure show? Sure, it would be extremely time-consuming to shoot, and a lot of footage would be wasted, but it would also be, without question, the best thing to ever happen to my TV screen. Ever.
The best thing, that is, before we combine these two kinds of interactivity. The pinnacle of television and the ideal future of new media (a vague term to which this column should also supposedly pertain) would be participating visibly via avatar in a television broadcast in a way that can actually change an outcome. Sure, racing in NASCAR would be fun and gratifying. And voting the outcome of a TV show could be incredibly intriguing, both seeing the show unfold and seeing how America tends to vote when it comes to potential moral dilemmas. But the ultimate enterprise would be to combine the two, watching a character you control yourself going through one of many possible live-action stories written by some of the best TV writers in the business.
Some people would argue this has already been done. Video games follow generally this formula. Obviously, some distinctions between the two exist, and more would have to be made. In the new-media utopia of interactive TV, you aren’t able to “lose.” Also, there are no save points or going back and trying again in interactive TV — if you fuck up your character’s life, you have to deal with it, because there’s no rewind or load button on interactive live TV. It essentially becomes “Second Life,” but with well-written plot twists, pretty celebrities and a half-hour time slot to stop you from pissing away your life.
So that’s probably way too ambitious for right now, but hey, why not put it out there? For now, let’s start kicking “Law & Order” cast members in the crotch and throwing tomatoes at the little tykes of “Secret Life of the American Teenager.” It may not be able to alter world just yet, but dear lord would it be satisfying.