'Drag Race': Games, Competition and the Failure Gambit

What can reality television teach us about self-sabotage in gameplay?

Okay, so this isn't all that related to gaming. But if my senior editor G. Christopher Williams can write about Dancing With the Stars, RuPaul's Drag Race should be an acceptable subject. It is, after all, a competitive reality show emphasizing craftsmanship and performance, two skills we should find recognizable as players.

One of the more interesting, idiosyncratic features of Drag Race is the "Lipsync For Your Life" segment, in which each week's bottom two contestants must present a choreographed lipsync routine to a designated song to avoid elimination. These routines can range from the sad and pitiful to the stunning and glorious, but none of them seem to compare to the elimination in Season 3's "Jocks in Frocks" episode between Carmen Carrera and Raja.

In this episode, the contestants were challenged to create drag makeovers for their straight male athlete "sisters." Carmen, who has never displayed much creativity in costume design, unsurprisingly fell into the bottom rank again. That this should happen after she had already been eliminated and voted back on for a second chance is disappointing but not entirely unexpected. Raja, on the other hand, had always been in a league of her own in this season. Before this episode she had never been in the bottom and had frequently come away with high honors, including several wins. So the lackluster look she presented for her drag sister not only came as a shock, it smacked of self-sabotage.

I'm not here to speculate about something as old and tired as sincerity in reality television, however. What interests me is that Raja and Carmen's lipsync elimination, engineered or authentic, produced one of the highlights of the season. Their fellow contestants and several of their drag sisters called it soft porn. It teetered just on the edge of parodic and lascivious so much so that I really had to wonder -- especially given the outcome -- whether Carmen was brought back just for this moment.

If this elimination was engineered, then it raises a few questions for me far more related to games and competition in general than with Drag Race specifically. The lipsync portion of the show is usually treated as humiliating, even degrading. Another contestant, Delta Work, previously contemplated simply forfeiting rather than performing. In particular, the tendency for desperate contestants to start undressing to appeal to the judges was by then considered a cheap ploy and one that was likely to backfire. In other words, it's an undignified way to lose.

But this elimination between Carmen and Raja contained a great deal more chemistry than we're used to seeing from Drag Race contestants. Several eliminations have involved the queens interacting and trying to upstage one another, but it's hard to tell who really steals the show by the time the two are half naked and crawling over one another on stage. This seems more like the contestants playing off (some would say with) each other than trying to gain the upper hand.

What could the reasoning here be? It may be that Carmen Carrera, as someone who had already been eliminated once, had far less to lose, and it would have taken a much stronger competitor than her to send Raja home. There is also the failure gambit side of things, supposing Raja sabotaged herself the same way that another contestant did in Season 1, in order to show a side of herself to the judges that they wouldn't normally see. This latter theory, coupled with the sexual pantomime of Raja and Carmen's act, reminds me of nothing so much as the "Bad End" in hentai games, where self-sabotage is a central component.

A "Bad End" in a hentai game usually involves the (typically female) protagonist failing in her objective and falling prey to some horrible fate -- say, sex slavery at the hands of the villains and other things I don't wish to mention here. Bad Ends are frequently more alluring than "good" endings for reasons of elusiveness, taboo, or a sinister tone. There is frequently an element of humiliation and degradation, and if that is a kink present in the rest of the game already, the Bad End escalates it in some outrageous way. They are not usually something the protagonist escapes or can recover from, hence the "End" part, but every now and then they're more of a near miss that the player can survive, either because of the mechanics of the game itself or as a result of the use of cheat codes.

I don't bring up hentai games to suggest Raja and Carmen's lipsync on Drag Race was something besides performance, as it most certainly was, but the elements of self-sabotage, risk taking, and ritualistic humiliation seem quite resonant with the fan practice of seeking negative character endings in adult games. I'm sure some version of Bad Ends exist in genres besides porn as well, mind you, although few examples come to mind. Perhaps the over-the-top deaths by necromorphs in Dead Space would qualify, given our dual pornographic obsessions with sex and violence. There are also more permanent, story-driven bad endings, like failing to save kingdoms or sacrificing party members, though the Bad Ends I describe here deal more chiefly with an individual's plight. With that in mind, we can see that there are indeed traditions of character abuse among gamers as well, whether the subject is a player charcter or a non-player character, and exploring the limits of a game to wreck untold suffering upon its virtual inhabitants can be a popular pastime, especially in multiplayer. But none are so codified as the way threads on image boards will pop up exchanging pornographic stills of heroines (and the occasional male lead) ensnared in some grim fate or imminent danger -- where doom and other savage predicaments become a fetish in themselves. Nicolau Chaud's Beautiful Escape: Dungeoneer wouldn't seem to be too far from real, live fan practices at all.

Nevertheless, to return to my central point, the idea of a failure gambit (risking elimination in order to "unlock" a scenario not otherwise open to the player) seems more "game" to me than many of Drag Race's other challenges. It very much possesses that twisted edge of the "beautiful escape" in Chaud's game, although I should hope reality show contestants don't walk away literally on the verge of death as they do in Dungeoneer. And, really, there is every chance that I am reading too much into what was genuinely a profitable accident on set, although win/lose conditions in games and especially on television have long made me doubt the existence of such things. Raja may have gone on to win Season 3, but it was her moment that came closest to failure that remains most memorable for the viewer, which says something about the pleasure we derive from success and failure in competitions -- if nothing else.


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