Inside Survivor contributor Jonathan Wilder takes a look at the Survivor social game and why it deserves more credit from fans.
Throughout Survivor’s 32 season run, the show has largely shifted away from the survival and cultural aspects and focused in on the strategic side of the game. Even though I have an appreciation for the way the older seasons were edited and played, as a fan of strategy, I thoroughly enjoy modern seasons. We have witnessed some of the most innovative and complex strategies on television through Survivor. In this shift in both the how the game is played and the way the show portrays it, we have forgotten about the most crucial aspect of Survivor: the social game. If we were to list the greatest Survivor competitors, perhaps our lists wouldn’t exactly match, but I have a feeling that the list would include mostly strategy-oriented contestants. I agree with praising good strategy, but it often ends up with the social game as just an afterthought.
Unlike the incredible South Korean reality competition show The Genius, winning a challenge does not decide the Survivor winner, nor is there any rule that dictates that the most strategic contestant needs to win. Survivor is a complicated strategic game because the players who make it to the Final Tribal Council need to hope that they can convince people who they have voted out to vote for them to win. If you’ve read my previous article about the Final Tribal Council, you’ll know that I don’t believe the Final Tribal Council itself usually decides the winner of the season. The most crucial aspect of a winning game is a good social game. The Jury members are tasked with voting for the contestant they think is most deserving. I believe it is fair to say that a Jury member is more likely to consider a player they got along with to be a worthy winner. There is no direct exchange between “big moves” and receiving Jury votes. The weight of each Jury member’s connection to a Finalist should not be underestimated when it comes down to who they vote.
The social game is easily the least visible of the major aspects of the game and is often overshadowed by strategy. A majority of the social game takes place through subtle and complex interactions, building the bonds and trust that keep a contestant in the game. We see very little of the daily happenings on Survivor, which consequently obscures our understanding of how well a contestant is doing at the social game. The social game is not nearly as ostentatious as a challenge winning streak or a tide-shifting blindside, but that should not diminish its importance within the scope of the game. The social game differs from general social skills in the way it informs the strategic portion of Survivor. Simply put, Survivor contestants are not going to vote with someone solely because they understand the strategic game. Players will vote with whom they trust, regardless of whether that trust is misguided. A strong social game can be a foundation for strategic maneuvering.
Kim Spradlin serves as an exemplary brilliant social player who can parlay the social game into strategic avenues. Kim succinctly defined her game when she said while on post-swap Salani, “This has been my thing all along. I’m trying to keep my options open. So, if sticking with the girls works best for me in the long run, I’ll stick with the girls. And if we get to the merge, and we don’t have the numbers, then Troy and Jay are my alliance all the way.” Kim was able to be this strategically flexible because she made strong social connections with fellow contestants that she could easily convert into strategic alliances. Early on, Kim was able to lay low and build the relationships that would later become the basis for the masterful play that culminated in her win.
When discussing the social game, one name tends to come up as the inverse of a social game like Kim’s: Russell Hantz. Russell is a polarizing figure in the Survivor community because of how his lack of good social play negated the strength of his strategic game. I understand that there is a vocal contingent of fans that would tell me that Russell deserved to win in both Survivor: Samoa and Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains and, six and seven years ago, I probably would have agreed with them. However, I have all these years later, after studying the game more thoroughly, determined that the excuse of a bitter jury is not a valid argument. Contestants have to make moves to secure their spot in the Final Tribal Council, but this should not be at the expense of properly managing the jury. I still find Russell fairly impressive from a strategic standpoint, but it is impossible to ignore the glaring weakness in his social game. Strategic gameplay has been proven not necessarily to secure a victory in Survivor, which makes it difficult to declare that the strategic game is the most important part of the game.
Tony Vlachos is another contestant who is interesting to examine from a social game perspective. Tony played a smart, often erratic, and ultimately villainous game that is in some senses comparable to Russell’s strategic game. Although, it is my belief that Tony’s social game was surprisingly good and not well represented. Tony did have his blow-ups; namely, talking llama to Chaos Kass (which had a pinch of levity). Tony was able to play unpredictably, betraying multiple alliances along the way, because he built trust with people who had no business trusting him. Even in Tony’s heavily strategic win, the social game is what kept him afloat.
The social game was a serious point of contention this past season, Survivor: Kaôh Rōng, with Michele Fitzgerald’s win over runner-up Aubry Bracco. Aubry did not play a poor social game by any means. In fact, Aubry’s social play allowed for her to flip Tai Trang against Scot Pollard and Kyle Jason, as well as getting Tai to vote with her at Final 4. The strength of Michele’s social game proved to be superior to Aubry’s gameplay. Michele’s reactive and socially-savvy style of play deserved to be rewarded. I must admit that I was rooting for Aubry to win in the Final Tribal Council, and I agree with fellow contributor Ian Walker that Michele did not have a traditional winner’s edit. Michele’s unusual edit made the typically obscured social game even more cloudy.
Survivor: Kaôh Rōng demonstrated the difficulty in translating a social game-reliant winning game into a distinct story. The seasons with more socially-focused winners tend to have an edit that focuses on “Why ____ Lost”, as Walker highlighted. In retrospect, the editors certainly had moments meant to sell the audience on the strength of Michele’s social game. Michele had confessionals where she nearly said verbatim that she was doing well because of her social game. The lesson from Survivor: Kaôh Rōng should be never to underestimate the power of a strong social game.
The entirety of a contestant’s social game will never be at our disposal to analyze. I believe it is important to work with what the editors give us and recognize that Survivor’s most subtle facet is also among the key contributors to a strong overall game. The focus will continue to be on the strategy of Survivor. We will never see a full episode of Survivors making friends and building trust, and that is certainly for the best. The strategy of Survivor will continue to evolve, but the social game will forever remain a pillar in the game. The power of the social game may fluctuate from season to season. Maybe we will one day reach an evolution of the show where the strategic game truly does reign supreme.