No pain, no game

The latest electronic games test players' reflexes to the limits - punishing them with electric shocks for every mistake. Patrick Alexander gets a (cautious) grip

This device is clearly an evil one. Sitting in the middle of my friend's living room, it looks like a futuristic torture implement. It is, explains Peter, a game called Lightning Reaction. He detaches one of the four curved handsets, which lend the apparatus its cruel, claw-like appearance, and sits back with a smile on his face. "Wait until the red light turns green and then press your button," he says.

This device is clearly an evil one. Sitting in the middle of my friend's living room, it looks like a futuristic torture implement. It is, explains Peter, a game called Lightning Reaction. He detaches one of the four curved handsets, which lend the apparatus its cruel, claw-like appearance, and sits back with a smile on his face. "Wait until the red light turns green and then press your button," he says.

When you are a twentysomething male and you are told by another twentysomething male to push something, pull something, taste something, smell something or to interact in any way with anything, it is only reasonable to expect the results to be unpleasant. As such, I'm not surprised, upon pushing the button, to receive an electric shock from the handset.

It turns out that it's all part of a very simple game. Four players each hold a handset and, after the red light turns green, the last person to press their button gets a shock. The most surprising thing about this was my immediate desire to have another go - this time with more players.

As we played, it became clear that the expectation was far worse than the shock. With eyes rivetted on the red lights, thumbs poised over our buttons, we tried to drown out the device's unsettling electronic wail and to focus on not being last. As the evening progressed, the air filled with helpless laughter, shrieks of pain and the occasional buzzing handset flung away on instinct.

Peculiar as Lightning Reaction may seem, it is a model of rationality next to Shocking Roulette. The former at least demonstrates some Darwinian logic in that it punishes the slowest player. One could argue that the game helps develop quick reflexes and nerves of steel. Shocking Roulette, on the other hand, is a game of chance; each player puts their finger in one of four holes to receive a shock at random. Why would people do this for fun?

Firebox.com, an online gadget retailer that sells both games, offers these words of wisdom: "Electrocution is no laughing matter, especially when you're on the receiving end. But like so many things in life, pain can be exceptionally close to pleasure." The website warns that the games are not suitable for children or epilepsy sufferers and "may interfere with devices such as pacemakers". Do these games mark the arrival of a slew of sadistic toys for our "entertainment"? What next? Cardiac Arrest, the game?

Apparently not. Paladone, manufacturers of Lightning Reaction and Shocking Roulette, will only develop games that deliver a 0.1 milliamp shock - the British Standard-approved safe level. "Before launching, we sent samples to trading standards companies and had nothing but positive responses," says Lee Eckworth, a spokesman for Paladone. "We want to leave no doubt that these are not toys. They are clearly labelled as being for over-14s." The games are clearly aimed at people enjoying their second childhood. Reading the customer feedback on the Firebox website, it becomes clear that the target audience for these "consequence games" consists of people for whom Monopoly, Scrabble and Trivial Pursuit have insufficient punishments for failure.

It is not hard to make the jump from extreme home entertainment to popular television programmes such as Jackass and its Welsh equivalent Dirty Sanchez, in which young men torture themselves and their friends by various means (from paper cuts between the fingers to being shot in the stomach with a baton round) for the amusement of viewers. To a lesser extent, the same phenomenon can be seen in more mainstream shows such as Survivor and I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here! where consequences for failure include being plunged into a bucket of eels or having to eat insects.

Charlie Morgan, spokeswoman for Firebox, says the games' attraction is that they are outlandish. "We're always looking for quirky products, things that are fun. These are very much bar and party games. They're real ice-breakers and have proved massively popular at a number of bar events we've organised around the country."

Alcohol is central to the enjoyment of such games, as can be seen from the customer feedback on the Firebox website. Various means of incorporating the devices into drinking games are suggested and pictures sent in by appreciative fans more often than not show players with flushed cheeks and bleary eyes - some far gone enough to subject their tongues to the shock.

Some may try to read too much into this new trend; arguing that modern society has so anaesthetised its youth that they are seeking to break through the numbness by any means possible. Such an argument would ignore the fact that young men have always sought novel ways to cause pain to their peers. One need look no further than rugby for an example.

Gary Grant, president of the Toy Retailers Association, says: "Things push boundaries. With many games there is a sense of 'been there, done that'." Grant predicts that games that deliver shocks will become more elaborate. He also expects such games to be available in more traditional toy shops next Christmas. "At the moment, most of these games are sold through the gift market rather than the toy industry. There is tremendous growth in the late teens, twenties and thirties market, and we are not looking to offload our customers on to gift retailers. I run a chain of 36 toy shops called The Entertainer and we are looking at introducing these games. Of course, things have to be suitable for the toy environment and these things will not be going into the stockings of eight and nine-year-olds."

What is the future for consequence games? Eckworth says Paladone wants to bring out a further three to five "shocking" products for sale next Christmas. Where such games are heading may hinge on the success of one of the company's latest variation, Shocking Tanks, which provides each player with a remote-controlled tank topped by six lights. When one tank is shot by another, it loses a light while its controller receives an electric shock from their handset (Velcro straps are provided to prevent handsets being dropped and broken). The first player to lose all six lights is the loser.

In Never Say Never Again, Sean Connery as James Bond is challenged by the arch villain Largo to play Domination, a game similar to Shocking Tanks, in which failure is punished by electric shocks. The backdrop for this 1980s tongue-in-cheek action is a Monte Carlo casino. Perhaps yelps of pain will join the clatter of fruit machines and the rattle of the roulette wheel as part of the background noise of any casino. And how long will it be until we see gamers shocking each other while playing shoot 'em up video games such as Halo 2 and Resident Evil? Between these extremes, interactive television could pick up on the technology with thousands of people tuning into The Weakest Link and Who Wants to be a Millionaire? to watch contestants being shocked for wrong answers or even to plug themselves in to share in the pain of failure.

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