I think night time is dark so you can imagine your fears with less distraction.
Strap in and prepare yourself for an emotionally-charged post about life philosophies drawn from playing online versions of reality TV shows. I tend to teeter hard between introspective insights and cringey over-sharing and this post is no exception! I’ve avoided talking about my experiences playing ORGs (Online Reality Games) for the longest time because I thought it was too nerdy or too niche for anyone to respect or relate to. I didn’t expect a weird little hobby of mine to transform into a driving force on how I view humanity and approach my life. But to quote Bill Watterson, as I will throughout this entire post because he’s one of the world’s greatest modern philosophers, “The truth is, most of us discover where we are heading when we arrive.”
I’ve touched on this before in the short-doc A Game With No Prize. The TL;DR of it all: I experienced a lot of darkness in my life in a short amount of time. Within the span of three years I had a close teacher commit suicide, witnessed a murder and was expelled from Bible College. This brought me down a dark path in my young-adult years that buried me in alcoholism. It took me eight years to get one year sober. I was at a point in my life where I thought I was beyond saving. It wasn’t until a friend of mine introduced me to a complex reality television show called Big Brother that I woke up to how I could change my life.
The initial appeal of the show was the simple fact that there were so many episodes. I wanted to replace my unhealthy addiction (alcoholism) for a healthier-ish addiction (reality television.) I was playing a personal game of harm reduction and this was the beginning of a very long path for me.
For those who don’t watch Big Brother I will summarize it for you. Big Brother is a social experiment where strangers live with each other in a house for three months and take turns fighting for power and eliminating housemates. It’s essentially a game of social chess where the players are also the pieces. Survivor has the same genetic makeup and in many ways in the superior game, but for chronological reasons, I need to start with Big Brother before getting into Survivor. Though, both will blend.
After watching a few episodes of Big Brother, I was hooked. I loved the idea that it was a zero sum game. There could only be one winner. You’re technically against everyone but will have to work with the people you’re against to get yourself ahead. Everyone has the same goal: To be the last one standing. And everyone else is in the way of that goal. What do you do? How do you survive week-by-week? More importantly, how do you win? The people you voted out now have the responsibility of crowning a winner. There’s a lot of social intricacies that go into voting people out. You are the reason they’re didn’t win the game and now you’re going to turn around and ask them to vote you for the win? It’s kind of sick when you think about it…
But this was the kind of sickness I was looking for. Embedding myself into the reality TV community brought out a lot of different personalities, all tiny shards of my own. I met misfits and attention whores, underdogs and narcissists. Good people doing bad things and bad people emerging renewed. There was an overwhelming sense of personal transformation I got not only from watching the contestants on TV but from the fans who went on this voyeuristic journey with them. It’s like you’re Monday-morning-quarterbacking someone else’s life. That’s because each season of Survivor and Big Brother is a trial by fire. People submit themselves to an experience they may or may not be ready for. There’s no way to know unless you just do it.
The following is a look at my experience playing Online Reality Games and how that has shaped me as a person. I’ve said this about stand-up comedy but the same goes for these games: They force you to confront yourself or delude yourself. I’m starting to think this is an automatic response to putting yourself out there.
No matter how you choose to do so.
Stepping Onto the Metaphorical Beach
To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.
I’m not sure I would ever put myself through this again but it was worth it for the wisdom. On real-life Survivor, when Jeff Probst welcomes the new contestants to the game, he welcomes them to a 39 day journey that will force them to face themselves and fight for their life in the game. It’s a life-changing experience and you might think an internet version over social media wouldn’t have the same impact but you would, of course, be wrong. (Duh!)
A new journey starts the moment they step foot on the beach. The same went for me. But metaphorically. (There obviously wasn’t a physical beach… I was at home in my underwear playing pretend from the comfort of my favourite chair.)
I wanted to play by my own rules and challenge myself to be like the heroes and villains I admired on TV. I love complex personalities that forward the narrative of any given season and was looking forward to seeing who I would become.
My very first game was in an ORG series called Johnny’s ORG hosted by this cool dude named Johnny. It was Survivor: Sri Lanka. We could go in with our real names or not. Instead of profile pictures, we played with mangatar versions of who we are or who we wished we were. Many of the ORGs are structured this way unless you’re playing Skype games where you’re playing with your own face under your own identity. I went under the name Big Poppa Cliffy and wanted to be a fan favourite Rupert Boneham type but turned out to be a Russell Hantz in a Rupert body.
My first game, I had one clear advantage: no one knew who I was. Anonymity is king. No one knew my strategic ability or personality so I could play any way I chose. I tend to leave room for fluidity when I’m playing that allows the game to dictate how I respond to my opponents and the circumstances they put me in.
You have to remember, in my own life, I felt like a villain. I still do. This is something the games have made me confront. Why do I always feel like the bad guy? Why am I playing a game that justifies being the bad guy? A more pressing question: Do I glorify villains?
Oh boy… I got problems.
And those problems should stay in the real world where the dead soldiers and hydrogen bombs live. You don’t see tennis players crying in the middle of a game because of something that happened at home. Rarely do comedians lay down the mic to be alone with their pain. Instead, they stay on stage and do what they can to make a mob laugh. Games like Big Brother and Survivor don’t divide “real life” from “game”. The game is a microcosm of life and everything is heightened. Human nature’s ugly warts pop out like lightening bugs in the dead of night.
Teaching Myself the Art of War
“How come we play war and not peace?”
“Too few role models.”
I experienced a rude awakening (the first of many) when I started to think in terms of Big Brother and Survivor. These games may be a microcosm of life on a social-experiment level but the game itself is not indicative of real life because real life is not a zero sum game. There are many winners and many losers.
There are two different forms of success: monetary and emotional. What you achieve and how you grow/develop on a personal/emotional/spiritual level. The banker may look at the beggar and say, “Look at all I have and here you have nothing!” Where the beggar, content with a life of very little and wise beyond his years may say to the banker, “Look at all I have and here you have nothing.” Funny, that perspective, the one of the “winner” and the one of the “loser”. What a topsy-turvy post-modern world we’re living in! Where winning is losing and losing is winning and up is down and black is white! How does anyone live a fulfilling life free of false ideals and destructive influences?
The way I aim to achieve this on a day-to-day level is to strip away the access, the fluff, the unnecessary stuff and get to the heart of who I am. I’m a huge advocate of embracing struggles as a positive thing and taking all the lessons and nutrients from those experiences to pay it forward toward the universe. This isn’t some hippy-dippy nonsense. I just believe if I can take what I’ve learned from my mistakes and hardships and approach it in a different way, whether that be a teachable blog post or an immersive one-to-one conversation with a friend or towards positive actions that benefit another human being, then I’m validating those experiences because something good came out of it.
That’s the only way I can stomach something bad is by seeing how I can turn it into something good.
But, back to that rude awakening.
The games rewired my brain because I had a misconception. I believed the game, not just the social experiment, was a microcosm of real life. I saw the government keeping the poor poor and the rich rich, I saw celebrities being praised for depravity. I saw a culture that enjoyed books about children killing each other for sport. The world, to me, just seemed like a place where you eat or get eaten. And in many ways, it is. But more and more, everyday, I don’t believe I need to live in that world or be apart of that behaviour. We’ll get more into this a little later.
This idea of “life is war” took over for three years. In a way, the obsession was a good thing because it got me sober and rethinking how I view the world. In another way, the obsession was disturbing because I stopped viewing people as people and started viewing them as pieces on a board. That life was a succession of pieces and moves. I got promotions this way, I chiselled off a significant portion of my debt this way… by all intents and purposes, my “strategy brain” was effective. The moves were working and I was getting the desired results. But at what costs? I worked for the same company for five years and when I left I didn’t have any friends. That much time being around other humans and because I was so consumed with myself and where I was landing, I had zero regard for those around me.
What if I died at year five? What kind of person would I be? I can see my funeral now…
“Well… we all know Clifford. What can I say? The dude was a selfish prick…”
I don’t want to go out like that. I don’t want to be known for that and I certainly don’t want to be glorified for that. A weird bi-product of this reality game world. Certain players are glorified for bad behaviour. Dr. Will Kirby is put on a pedestal for his ability to manipulate others through the art of charm. Dan Gheesling preyed on weak and impressionable minds to manipulate their actions. Richard Hatch stands out amongst them all because he was the first example I’ve seen of a regular person winning as the bad guy. Hatch manipulated the reality around him. Most of the players thought the game was one way when it was being played differently, unbeknownst to them. This sounds a lot like current culture. We use Facebook not realizing how many millionaires are benefiting from us disclosing our personal information. We’re susceptible to advertising and subliminal suggestions. We think it’s one way when it’s another.
These are men I glorified and wanted to emulate. I was coming from a weak place. The bullied kid, the depressed loser, the down-and-out comedian… I wanted to “get what’s mine” and I didn’t care who I stepped over to get there. Because that’s the way of the world right? Hey, if everyone’s doing it…
I was teaching myself the art of war. Some of the key strategies I used throughout my gaming experiences were:
- Emotional manipulation – people perceive emotion as a weakness and don’t tend to appreciate that someone can be both emotional and cutthroat. It’s the oldest rule in the book: “When you’re strong, act weak, and when you’re weak, act strong.”
- Polarization – this is the Trump method. Saying and doing things that polarize people into making a decision, it’s easier to see true colours that way. By being a figure of intimidation or control, people will either align with you out of fear, oppose you out of insurgency, or polarize you at your level. These are the people with egos that match the size of yours.
- Narrative – when playing with other people’s perception of you, self-representation is vital to how you guide the narrative other people create for you. We are a storytelling society and tend to follow narratives with one another. If you can control that narrative, AKA create a false understanding of the reality at hand, then you gain advantage by operating in the shadows of other people’s minds.
I took pride in mastering these techniques and thought to myself, “If only I could apply this to the real world. To make more money, to get more respect…”
I read Death of a Salesman in high-school so you think I would have seen the Willy Loman levels of desperation seeping into my own life but without proper contemplation — I just didn’t see the forest from the trees.
The art of war is all about tactically getting what you want. It doesn’t address virtues like grace, kindness, or forgiveness unless applied to principles that use those virtues as weapons.
I lost the game the moment my fingers touched the pawn.
Standing Out From the Crowd
People pay more attention when they think you’re up to something.
Now, lets look at this from a different perspective. As a stand-up comedian it is my job to stand out from the crowd. The entire job is built around attention seeking. Even the modern day comedy prophets who are “speaking truth” and “challenging culture” are usually doing it for their own ego. Like a selfish Jesus. When Jesus was preaching his sermon on the mount, he was doing it for others, not himself. But anyone could impart the exact same wisdom for personal gain. They like the attention, they like the power and control, they’re opportunists of the worst kind and want to prey off the listening crowd. Televangelists have been selfishly reaping benefits from the words of Jesus Christ for years when the words themselves beg just the opposite.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
There’s a lot of wisdom and good stuff that can be taken out of Christ’s famous sermon. But you can see how some things can be misinterpreted or used to guide impressionable minds. Like Dave Chapelle says, we’re living in the Age of Spin. This is the truth-non-truth I was talking about earlier where we’re the ambassadors of perception and impose our own meaning instead of approaching a universal acceptance of any one thing.
The comedy business is hard. If you don’t stand out, if you’re not what people are looking for, if you’re not the right amount of different, you’re just not going to make it. But how much of it is for yourself and how much of it is for others?
This got me thinking: “Have I been playing these games in comedy? Why do I do this?” Seriously. Why do I stand on stage in a spotlight and get other people to laugh at my words? Is it for the confirmation? When they laugh, I feel like I have purpose and meaning and therefore am worthy of life? What is this?
You ever get so caught in your own head you reach a state of paralysis where you feel like you’re screaming for help, screaming for answers, but no one can hear a thing?
At some point we have to admit defeat. We can’t beat society. We can’t beat the world. So then victory is small and tangible and day to day and it starts with you, learning from your mistakes, and doing good. #EasierSaidThanDone
The games taught me on a tactical level how to stand out. How to be “iconic” as the kids say. Again, it’s the polarization method. You build up your “character” enough to the degree where some people love you and some people hate you. You never want to be the subject of indifference. The middle equals death.
All the lessons were there. The recipe for success. I could take these strategies and apply them to comedy. Or? I could think twice…
Blurring the Lines Between What is Game and What is Life
Life’s a lot more fun when you aren’t responsible for your actions.
I wasn’t prepared for the emotional experience, and when the time came to go through it, I saw my weaknesses as something I could use to my own advantage. That’s sick isn’t it? I have no excuses for myself. I was just being perverse. I was looking at the relationships I was building as a smoke and mirror show to best my “opponents”. But, that creeping chill got the best of me. “Am I treating people in my everyday life as opponents?”
It was weird because I was pretty open about it too. Telling people to my face whether they were an ally or an enemy.
I even wrote a post a while ago breaking down all of human relationships to four roles: enemy, ally, temporary ally and pawn. I constructed this long visual essay to express my points and would fluff off breaking people down to their parts as admittedly stark but true. (I have since deleted that post.) And I won’t go as far to say that I don’t believe it still but I don’t think I need to live in response to that. If that makes sense. It’s unfair to compartmentalize people for their actions when we’re complicated beings and ever-changing. There needs to be room for nuance.
There needs to be room for just being people.
You can make all the excuses you want to justify the way you live but your decisions will catch up to you. Owning your bullshit and taking responsibility for your actions is hard. That’s why most of us avoid it at all costs. But take the hard path. You’ll be better for it. I feel like such an embarrassment for the way I’ve acted in the past and I’m actively looking to change myself for the better. I wish it didn’t take me so long to realize that.
But here we are.
I’m Not Here To Make Friends, Except, I Am
Reality continues to ruin my life.
I was attracted to the ORG community initially because it was full of like-minded people. People who had something to prove or something to overcome in their own life. A lot of complex personalities with compelling journeys. The vulnerability levels were high and you don’t see that often in gaming communities. You put yourself out there and then everyone else was free to judge you for your actions and criticize you for your gameplay. The community at a very basic level kind of revealed that when left to our own devices, human nature leans towards the habitual. This was our community and we could re-write the rules. We could make it anything we wanted it to be but it ended up being what everything is: high school. Cliques, pettiness, judgement, social hierarchy, popularity and reputation. I saw the same in every job I’ve ever had. Even in the world of stand-up comedy.
I have been plagued by community ideals for a long time. I kept thinking a community is a good thing but once you’re too involved it becomes a bad thing. This happened to me in church, at Bible College, in the film industry, in the comedy world and even in the online reality games.
I’m starting to see the double-edged sword. Humans crave community but lack the ability to balance themselves.
I was closing up at the Brantford Comedy Festival recently and a friend asked me, “Are you applying for Big Brother Canada this year?” And in a moment of clarity I just said “No. I don’t want to step over people to get ahead anymore. If I’m going to make 100k… I’ll do it in a different way.” This was the first time I took any responsibility for myself as a community leader.
I build crowds. It’s what I do. It’s my skill-set. I create a sense of belonging in small communities through comedy shows and various other initiatives and it’s all genuine. It’s all me to the core of who I am at my best self.
I need to fight my nature and tap into that person who takes responsibility for creating communities of belonging, where strategies are used to benefit everyone and it’s not about ego or infamy. It’s just about each other.
I’m not naturally an optimist so a big part of me says, “Yeah, never going to happen.” But I’d rather live towards that than live the other way. What’s the end game? I get a big house, a hefty nest egg and ride out my days wearing the bones of the people I devoured along the way?
I don’t think so.
I Am a Rock, I Am an Island
God put me on earth to accomplish certain things. Right now, I’m so far behind, I’ll never die.
This is about purpose. I’ve struggled with understanding my purpose for so long. During Bible College I thought my purpose was pre-destined from the Devine. In comedy, I thought my purpose was fulfilled through the free will of my own ego. Now, I look to old Calvin and Hobbes strips for wisdom.
“The truth is, most of us discover where we are heading when we arrive.”
Just go. Move. Don’t let yourself be paralyzed by the unknown and don’t accept your reality if it doesn’t make you feel right.
In grade 10, my English teacher played us some Simon & Garfunkle and discussed the brevity behind the lyrics to Paul Simon’s ‘I Am a Rock.” I didn’t understand it at the time but the song explores the sheer loneliness of human existence.
I’ve built walls
A fortress deep and mighty
That none may penetrate
I have no need of friendship, friendship causes pain
It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain
I am a rock
I am an island
I heard that song on the radio the other day and reflected on who I’ve become and how I lived my life. I wasn’t proud. So, it’s time to change…
“In This Game, Fire Represents Your Life…”
If people sat outside and looked at the stars each night, I’ll bet they’d live a lot differently.
The first time players silently march into tribal council, Jeff Probst begins to instruct them: “Grab your torches and grab fire because in this game fire represents your life. When your flame is out… so are you.” I saw losing as watching my torch get snuffed. That it was about placement. It wasn’t until halfway through my last game that I realized I was playing so cutthroat, so ruthlessly, that even though I was climbing in placement, I was waiting to lose. All my power and all my strength meant nothing because of the way I treated other people. I don’t want to sit around waiting to lose because I think I’m doing what I have to do to win.
Life isn’t a game and fire doesn’t represent my life. I represent my life.
My torch may be snuffed but I’m ready to burn brighter than I ever have before.
I think I get it now.
This post was long and I commend your for reading the whole thing. This was cathartic for me. I wanted to talk about these experiences and free-write. I didn’t care about coming off tacky or sappy. I want to own that part of me and kind of understand why I tinkered with it all in the first place. I feel renewed and want to move towards a quieter existence with my family and the communities I believe in. To be a stronger leader for those who need guidance. This is where I’m walking towards and I’m happy to share my thoughts with you.
Now, it’s your turn to share your thoughts with me! What did you think about this week’s post and how has your journey compared/differed? Do you agree on some of these concepts? Do you disagree? I want to hear from you! Write in the comments below and let me know what you think! Also, sharing the post on your social media outlets is helpful. You never know who can be impacted in a positive way.
Clifford Myers is a father and husband living in Hamilton, Ontario.