The Lying Game and Game Theory

Curator's Note


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.  


Dana, Thanks for this fascinating post. I'm wondering about the historicization of this phenomena you describe. Is this a unique moment--enabled or advanced in a new way by digital technologies that blur the lines between identities, between the virtual and the real? How you would position this program within the history of the pseudo-genre of "mistaken identity" programs? It seems that Emma's proficiency at this game is unique, and I'd love to hear more about that

Hi Dana and thanks for the interesting piece! There are a lot of things to discuss with this show, and I'm curious about whether or they ever deal with Emma taking Sutton's place in the economically disadvantaged foster homes? Or does she just sort of disappear? How does the show deal with those more difficult class issues? Or do they just choose not to?

Karen, As a lover of twin stories and mistaken identity from my teen years (and my young adult fiction), I think that 1) the interest in multiple identities and doppelgangers is happening more broadly (Revenge, The Vampire Diaries, Awake), and 2) this text is doing something different (at least it WAS in the first episode set; it disappears when the show returned for the second half of the first season). The show has Emma talk about the difficulties directly and has a teacher built into the show, Ethan who was Sutton's secret lower class boyfriend. I think the shift I see here is tapping into how natural the multiple identity dilemma (or opportunity, I prefer) is for young teens who are very proficient in managing multiple identities online in social media, gaming, etc. My utopian impulse is that the show is navigating how to lessen the gap between ideal and real identity through a projective/composite identity (my pessimistic take is that Emma stands in for a larger project of idealizing wealth and such).

There are a lot of ethical dilemmas here. The show locates the lower class characters as more successful/admirable than the wealthy characters, in particular for the ways that they all understand performing identity. The lower class characters (mostly working class) can see through the facades of people and wealth. Sutton is forcibly taken into Emma's foster home life for only one episode, in which she quickly conforms and becomes popular by manipulating people and sexualizing herself (the antithesis of Emma). Her performance is an utter failure, though, as we find out that Emma's lower class best friend knew she wasn't Emma the whole time. The ethical dilemma I see in the show, really, is how despite locating the lower class characters as more successful, it fetishizes wealth. The show never questions the class system (which to me would be a further elaboration of de-essentializing identity and identity politics); it just seems to suggest the lower class characters are more deserving of wealth because they would use that privilege more thoughtfully and without taking advantage of others. Sutton dies at the beginning of the first book in the series, but she lives in the series. She gets utter freedom of movement. She doesn't have to adopt Emma's life, except for that one episode. (This choice reinforces the above problems with idealizing a lower class mindset while still condemning the lower class.) Rather, her privilege allows her to go on an investigation into their mother (first episode set had their rich but quirky mom being raped by the rich foster father in high school; the second set of eps in season one completely erased this whole storyline!). She then comes back to reclaim her life -- this is the storyline that will pick back up in season 2.

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