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Commentaries on this Media!

The Lying Game and Game Theory

by Ethan Tussey

by Dana Och for IN MEDIA RES


While many ABC Family teen shows reflect concerns of new media (ranging from the endless surveillance to the radical narrative amnesia promoting the momentary over continuity), the element of game theory in The Lying Game engages the circulating theories of multiple subjectivities through the "twins separated at birth" trope.  When Emma (raised in economically disadvantaged foster homes) adopts the identity of Sutton (adopted by affluent couple) in the pilot, the breakdown of identity is accomplished on 2 fronts: the twin storyline and the use of technology, invoked not only through the video chats between Emma and Sutton on laptops, but through the name of the show itself.  Vague gestures are made that Sutton and her friends played something literally called The Lying Game, and these games had real consequences on the lives/identities of their targets. Nothing more specific is ever offered. Thus, metatextually, the show becomes “The Lying Game,” a concept that engages strongly with Gee’s work on the identity principle in video games. It becomes a game of identity exploration.

Structurally, the show rejects the notion of an autonomous identity by highlighting how easily Emma is able to occupy Sutton's life. As part of the “game” that Emma plays, she serves as a test case player that the audience can relate to in terms of adopting an avatar. She is inserted into a world for which she must then learn the rules and how to behave within the parameters of allowed behavior (evidenced in the clip with Emma observing, practicing in front of mirror, and taking direct dance instruction).  As a child who has moved though the foster system and changed families/ schools frequently, Emma is habituated to learning the rules of a new game space. The distance between her real identity and virtual identity as Sutton was massive at first. At this stage, Emma moved passively through Sutton’s world – listening and looking while accessing clues to learning the established relationships, correct lingo, fashion, and Sutton’s mannerisms.  Later, after Emma learns the rules of the game (like any new player), her projective identity emerges as Emma deliberately reshapes Sutton’s identity into being a better person, into being the idealized version of both Sutton and herself simultaneously. This new Sutton is neither Emma nor Sutton but a conglomerate personality identity of both.  

The Lying Game

clip from The Lying Game

from The Lying Game (2011)
Creator: Sara Shepard
Distributor: ABC Family
Posted by Ethan Tussey