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What Survivor can teach us about emergent game design

If you were inclined to pare down the reality TV show Survivor (2000-present) to three key terms, they would likely be “tribal council,” “immunity,” and “alliances.” The first two are part of the core Survivor game template. Every three days, there will be a challenge—early on between two tribes and later, after merging, as individuals. The winner is safe at tribal council, where a person must be voted out of the game. “Alliance,” meanwhile, did not come from Survivor’s creators, but the revolutionary machinations of its first winner, Richard Hatch. “Richard Hatch was so far ahead of us in the first season,” said host Jeff Probst to Ben Blacker on the Writers Panel podcast. “He started the first alliance, and I remember him doing it in front of me… I think it was Sue Hawk he looked to, ‘You know we should vote out so and so.’ We had never considered people would work together. It seems so basic now.”

Executive producer Mark Burnett imagined the show as a survivalist adventure, where voting was meant to knock out weak links and negative personalities for the good of camp life. It was a fantasy about Americans being shipwrecked and cultivating an effective civilization in harsh conditions. But with a million dollars on the line, Survivor quickly turned into Ayn Rand’s wet dream; the story of a bracingly naked man using people like toilet paper on a quest for (monetary) glory. It seems so quaint now, but at the time, creating an alliance was looked down upon as bad sportsmanship. Because of Richard Hatch—a snake according to Sue Hawk, his first alliance member—Survivor went from Gilligan’s Island (1964-1967) to Lord of the Flies (1954). Building a camp, starting a fire, gathering food: now all a backdrop to the scheming and conniving of Hatch’s children.

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I can think of no better modern definition of emergent gameplay than Survivor. A nebulous and ineffable design concept, emergent gameplay refers to a style of play not necessarily intended by the creator. The ubiquity of board games like chess, and sports like soccer, can succinctly be explained by emergent gameplay; these are systems rich with possible strategies for success. They offer a problem to players who can intuit multiple solutions. The book Moneyball (2003) could have very well gone with the far more clunky title Emergent Gameplay in Baseball, as it finds General Manager of the Oakland Athletics, Billy Beane, devise a new way to scout and analyze players in order to compete on a pitiful budget.

Esports like League of Legends (2009) similarly stick around due to player innovation. An essential lesson for any League of Legends player is learning the allocation of roles and their place on the map. Tanks go top, mages go mid, rangers go bot with a support, and a mixed stat champ roams around in the jungle. This was not always the case, though. The meta was pioneered by European players like those of Team Fnatic, who won the Season 1 World Championship employing the strategy. The question of whether the recently released shooter Overwatch can translate into an esport comes down to whether the game has enough room for emergent plays or not. Survivor can thank its players for its staggering evolution as a competitive game over 16 successful years of broadcast.

I can think of no better modern definition of emergent gameplay than Survivor.

“I don’t think there’s any sort of guidance from production even now, to say, alright, make alliances,” said former Survivor player Rob Cesternino. “People coming into the game know right off the bat what they need to do, and there doesn’t need to be any sort of help from production to sort of tell them to either get their camp life into order or to get their strategic games in order.” Cesternino, who played two seasons of the game—Amazon and All Stars—and now hosts his own podcast about Survivor and other reality television shows, patented his own self-interested tactic informally known as alliance-switching. An inflexible caste system inherently exists within any alliance. As Kanye said, there are leaders and followers, and many players are under the false illusion that they can work their way to a level of prominence in their little society. Everybody’s always the hero of their own narrative in their head,” Cesternino said.

Nobody figures themselves a bottom feeder simply dragged along for votes. Seasoned leaders like “Boston” Rob Mariano make sure of that, buffing up the self-worth of these lowly tadpoles before systematically cannibalizing them near the end of the game. Basically, Boston Rob became Survivor’s own incarnation of Vito Corleone. Cesternino took this known element of the game and innovated a new way to play. “I was one of the first people that was able to identify, well, if I can show people that they’re in the bottom of this group, then it’s not in their best interests to keep voting with that group, come vote with me,” Cesternino said. “I was able to flip the groups I was in a couple times, and then I think that’s sort of something that really helped to change the way people were playing, especially in the second part of the game where people were more self-interested as opposed to what is for the good of my group. So I think that’s something that really has stayed within Survivor, and I think that the point in which people are playing that way has gotten earlier and earlier.”

The strategy goes hand-in-hand with a known quantifier for supposedly winning the game. Soon after the initial two tribes merge, the people voted out return as a jury who decide the winner of the game, usually between the final two or three players. To convince a jury they deserve the title of sole survivor, one must make a demonstrably big move. Thus, players self-aware enough to realize they sit at the bottom of an alliance will look to join up with others to backstab the big timers in the game. Simple enough, except another little evolution occurred last year during the phenomenal Second Chance season. Fans voted in a cast of past players who came up short during their seasons. These vets unknowingly crafted a new form of play: voting blocs. Instead of two alliances, a majority and minority, there was a proliferation of many small alliances who temporarily worked together every three days to vote out common enemies. The majority did not slowly eliminate the minority, nor did the majority cannibalize itself. Survivor become less of a Cold War, more of a UN conference.

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When emergent gameplay works, it feels almost as if the player is conversing with the unseen creator, and in the case of Survivor, the producers play off the players to help introduce interesting new twists; some more successful than others. “I think people like the little bit of a wrinkle as opposed to a wholesale redesign of the game structure,” Cesternino said. Case in point: the much maligned Redemption Island. Instead of leaving the game after being voted out, players would instead head to Redemption Island, where they competed with other ousted players for a chance to re-enter towards the end. “They have a difficult chore on their hands,” Cesternino said. “They want to change it up just enough so that it is fresh to the viewer but not change it too much so that it’s foreign to the viewer… I think that people just felt like it was too foreign from Survivor where somebody gets voted off but they’re not actually gone, they’re going to this Redemption Island.”

One of the enduring additions to the game by the producers is the hidden immunity idol. Whereas previously the only way to stay safe at tribal council was to come up victorious at challenges—tough to do if one lacks physical strength, endurance, or puzzle-solving skills—players could now find clues to immunity idols tucked away in the wilderness. Even better: they could play the idols after the votes had been cast. Their surprise use at tribal councils have led to some of the most memorable moments in Survivor history. Russell Hantz—a diabolical, cocksure mastermind—figured he didn’t need a clue. Naturally, the idols would be hidden around landmarks. How else would people find them? So as the rest of his tribe laid in wait at camp hoping to win a clue, Russell simply sauntered off into the jungle and found an unprecedented number of idols without clues. As an underdog, he used them to blindside members of the majority tribe. He also told them to kiss his ass as they left, which cost him the jury votes needed to win.

When emergent gameplay works it feels almost as if the player is conversing with the unseen creator

In subsequent seasons, players follow Russell’s lead in simply scrounging for the idols. But as a response, the producers recently “patched” the hidden immunity idols, something they tend to do when players find a dominant strategy. The show used to always do a “Survivor Auction,” where players were given a small budget to bid on food items. After a few iterations, Probst began offering a clue or some other advantage at the end of the auctions. Players caught on and stopped bidding for food, making for a rather boring sequence. Thus, the Survivor Auctions ended. “It may be broken at this point and time,” Cesternino said of the Survivor Auction, sounding a lot like a pro League of Legends player discussing an overpowered champion or item in need of a good nerf. On Second Chance, idols were instead hidden at challenges, and players who found clues at camp would be told where to look; an amazing wrinkle that forced people into do-or-die moments in the heat of battle. However, the most recent season included a controversial final reward challenge: the winner could vote out a jury member. “It’s a bit of a cat and mouse between production and the people playing the game, because once the people catch on to that, then production needs to figure things out,” Cesternino said.

All of this comes back to how the players use these little additions, and the truest testament to the depth of Survivor is in the breadth of playstyles employed by the winners, who consequently come in all shapes and sizes, races and genders, sexualities and creeds. Some players win challenge after challenge, remaining perpetually safe at tribal council. Others backstab their way to the top. Some lead a strong coalition to the end. Others coast along under the radar before making a big play at the very end. Then there are the few who simply socialize and make real connections with future jury members. “There is no sort of, this is exactly what you do to win the game,” Cesternino said. “It really is so dependent on the circumstances and the other players that are in the game… Every single person has different things that motivate them in terms of the game, and I think that’s one of the reasons also that it makes it such a fun, human experiment to watch.”

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Survivor changed the landscape of television and remains popular nearly two decades after its inception on the strength of its players, who continue to innovate season after season. Many games come and go, plenty with merit, but often the experiences that linger trust players to solve a problem by their own volition. In the online multiplayer browser game, Town of Salem (2014), I thought I hated being a Jester; a rather insignificant member of a society trying to suss out a murderous mafia ring and psychopathic serial killer. While those devious few kill at night, the good townsfolk must determine their identities during the day, sending suspicious players to a trial for execution. Jesters do no such thing as their motive is to hang by the neck at the gallows. If you succeed, you may haunt and kill someone who casted a guilty vote—like the vindictive high plains drifter riding in on a pale horse. It seemed shallow. You either accuse yourself of being a murderer or you act nuttier than squirrel shit. In either case, the townsfolk will assume your identity as a Jester and disregard your every word from then on. They may be fearful of your true intentions, but they’re certainly not stupid. No one believes a loudmouth.

Every single person has different things that motivate them in terms of the game

But for some reason, they fear whispers. During the day, a player may speak privately with another, but everyone can see when the whispering occurs. Suffice it to say, no one in their right mind would discuss murder among the populace. If you’re part of the mafia, you may speak to your people in secret at night. No need to bring it up while the sun’s in the sky. Nevertheless, paranoia permeates the air whenever a hushed conversation ensues. No one believes a loudmouth, but someone who wants to keep their business to themselves? To most, that’s an honest, albeit stupid, person. So when I “accidentally” failed to whisper by using the incorrect slash code (“w/” instead of the proper “/w”), people took notice. They believed me. It confirmed their suspicions. If everyone who whispers is an absent-minded suspect, then the moron who publicly states in chat, “w/ Thomas Danforth I think you should kill Samuel tonight,” is undoubtedly a member of the mafia. Imagine the town’s horror when I revealed myself as the Jester while choking to death. The chat blew up with shocked awe, and I sat laughing to myself for managing such treachery. I felt like a mastermind. An innovator. A pioneer.

I felt like Richard Hatch.