In Brooklyn’s Coney Island, there’s a bizarre Boardwalk attraction called “Shoot the Freak,” which lets beach revelers fire a paintball gun at a guy scurrying in a pit below as he tries to dodge pellets and ward them off with a splattered, makeshift shield.
It’s low-rent, sadistic – and almost impossible to stop watching.
Which is also what you could say about much of Reality TV.
Well, get ready for a strange, new reality: An interactive, Reality TV-inspired website called Prank House, which, as clever as it might seem, is even more cruel. Billed as “the first reality video game,” computer users can buy virtual tokens allowing them, via robotics, to shock, toss water balloons and, yes, shoot paintballs at “YouTube celebrities” living in a house, “Big Brother”-style.
Let’s consider for a moment what constitutes a YouTube celebrity. Prank House residents include the likes of ShayCarl and Onision, whose videos have a following – but not enough success that the participants could pass up this exercise in live-streamed humiliation.
Prank House is a creation of its time, tapping into “Big Brother,” “Survivor,” “Punk’d,” Burger King’s Subservient Chicken
But the site seems more like a twist on a Stanley Milgram-type exercise gauging human cruelty delivered from a distance – even if nobody really gets hurt badly by “pranks” that include delivering light shocks during foosball games and using robotic arms to smear faces with Magic Markers. Adding to the group psychology element, Prank House is divided into teams – red and blue – and your remote actions ostensibly are aimed at helping your crew win competitions.
We’re a little surprised that Prank House is being promoted on YouTube, which has used the considerable power of its platform for such nobler efforts as assembling a virtual orchestra, a digital art competition and the “Life in a Day” movie project. But there’s a wide tent, we suppose, in the do-it-yourself circus.
Prank House isn’t the worst thing we’ve ever seen online – or even in Coney Island. But we’ll ask the same question that wafts along the Boardwalk when we find ourselves thinking about grabbing that paintball gun: Is the real freak the one dodging the paintball pellets or the one firing them?
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.