The first time I got involved in a focus group was for a video game. My friend had already secured a spot and gave the company my phone number. I was broke at the time and they were paying a hundred dollars cash for three hours of my opinion. His advice was to “Just tell them you play a lot of video games.”
Seconds later the marketing company called me. Their first questions were about my name , address, and social security number. I answered all these questions correctly. Then they asked, “How many hours a week do you play video games?”
“Ten.” I said. This averaged to a little less than an hour and a half a day which to me seemed excessive.
But they said, “I’m sorry sir, you’re not an active enough gamer for our purposes.”
I reacted quickly. “Ten hours a day isn’t enough?”
“Oh, ten hours a day! I thought you meant ten hours a week. So would you say between sixty and eighty hours a week?”
“Yes. More if I don’t have to do my laundry that week.”
“Good. Now I’m going to say titles of video games. Would you please say whether you play that game and how many hours a week you generally play it. Prince of Persia.”
“Yes. Ten hours.”
“World of Warcraft?”
“Yes. Ten hours.”
“Good. Could you describe each game to me?”
” I’m having trouble hearing you. Can I call you back in five minutes?”
“I can hear you fine.”
I quickly hung up and called my friend. “What happens in these video games Prince of Persia and World of Warcraft?”
He gave me the lowdown. I called back the vetter and qualified . Three days later my friend and I drove to an office building in Sherman Oaks. It was night so the building was empty save the other participants in the study. We sat at a table, all ten of us, underemployed perpetual adolescents in t-shirts brandishing comic book logos.
An energetic woman had us introduce ourselves by sharing our names and what games we were playing right now. We were supposed to not repeat games other participants said. Every game I’d heard of was taken by these other goobers, so when she got to me I said, “This might sound silly, but I pulled out my old childhood Nintendo and have been playing RBI Baseball, Super Mario Brothers, and Mike Tyson’s Punch Out.”
I continued to express half truths throughout our session. We were shown clips from a new Conan like game. I expressed so much opinion (overusing the word homoerotic) that I was told to give the other members a chance to have their say. When the three hours concluded I was handed an envelope with a crisp one hundred dollar bill. Content with the knowledge that a video game would be perfected due to my input I told my friend “You know, I could do this for a living.”
Years passed. A Black Man was elected president. Pigs flew. The New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl. And last week I was given another invitation to participate in a focus group. This one was about television.
I drove to Marina Del Rey Thursday night. The group was mixed. Five women (one pregnant, one waif, one Asian with blonde hair, one annoying, another big breasted), five men (an Indian, an emo, an Asian with bad acne, Lenny from Of Mice and Men, and myself). We sat around a board room table. The moderator was a woman who took her vocabulary and fashion from the comic strip Dilbert. She peppered her questions with phrases like, “outside the box”, but she kept the conversation flowing. She told us from the top that we were being recorded and the mirrors behind her were two way. I tried to spook the people behind the glass by staring directly at the mirror. I hoped my gaze was firmly on one of the voyeurs and that it gave them a spine tingling creepy feeling. I’ll never know if I succeeded.
We were shown two reality shows. One was about a group of people who contributed to society called, “The Givers.” The other was about paraplegic skiers called “Real Strength”. I found it hard to believe anyone would watch these shows, but one could say that about most of television. And so I spent most of the evening staring at the mirrors wondering more what was going on behind that glass. Could this be the elite’s entertainment? See what ten random people have going on in their heads if you trap them in a room together for three hours.