In Praise of the Social Game – Why it can win you Survivor

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Monday is here once again which means another Feature Article is coming your way! This week, Mr. Nick Chester, takes a look at how and why the social game can win you Survivor. In his article, Nick discuss why strong social players sometimes don’t get “big edits”, how human empathy can make a Jury member simple vote for the "nicest finalist and lists examples of why good social players won their respective seasons! Don’t forget that you can get involved by leaving your thoughts in a comment below!

Outwit. Outplay. Outlast. This very famous mantra has been a part of Survivor since the beginning as is the essence of what it takes to win the game as its most fundamental level. Survivor editing is able to show the first two of these very easily and does so to great effect. We can all name with ease many great strategic players and gifted challenge competitors. However, I don’t think the show does a good job of highlighting good social players. This seems to be harder to show than a big challenge win or bold strategic move, so the value of it becomes sidelined. I have read many comments Jeff has made about needing to “make big moves” to win Survivor. But the comments about being well liked and respected are less and less common. This can then lead to a lot of frustration from viewers when a season is won by someone whose game is built primarily on the ability to be well liked, such as Natalie White or Fabio, and not on making big flashy moves.

Survivor is a long game and the ability to be simultaneously well liked but not so well liked that you are a threat is difficult. Amongst all the challenges, blindsides and Idol hunting, the real aim of the game is to remain on good terms with most players and make it to the end having not upset too many people. Ultimately making it to the end as the most well liked of the remaining players is the only goal. You only have to be one Jury vote nicer than your opponent to win the game. Whilst it is possible to win the game without particularly good strategic or challenge skills, it is simply impossible to win if you don’t have good social skills. If you aren’t well liked, the Jury won’t vote for you. Plain and simple.

Although this article has been framed around the end game, social skills obviously play an immense role throughout the duration of Survivor. We see the edited version of the show that focuses on the key events in a three day cycle, being challenges, Tribal Council and the strategising that occurs between these events. But most of the time is spent in camp and players with grating personalities would clearly become difficult to live with. Although good players will drag a “goat” to the end in order to ensure an easy win, this doesn’t happen all that often, as people’s social shortcomings often become too much to bear and lead to their downfall. For every Boston Rob dragging Phillip to the end, there is a player who just annoys their tribe mates so much that they become unbearable, and the desire to eliminate them and get some peace at camp outweighs the potential benefit of taking them to the end. In Tocantins, there is a good case to be made that the Jalapao alliance should have kept Sierra around longer as she irritated everyone so much and would be easy to beat in the end, but the social capital it would have cost to keep her there when players were desperate to see her gone ultimately made this move impossible. First boots are just as often people who fail to fit in socially as they are physical liabilities.

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First boots are frequently voted out for social reasons.

Survivor’s end game is almost always a decision based on the likeability of remaining players. As has been discussed in other feature articles, understanding what drives a juror to vote the way they do is complex and a lot of factors are at play. Some jurors can lay aside personal feelings and vote for the person they think played the best game. Some will use their Jury vote in vengeance for a player that cost them the game. What seems clear is that jurors very rarely, (if ever), vote for the player left at the end that they personally like the least. They want to be able to sleep at night knowing they vote for someone worthy of the win and worthy of being the winner of the season and the person who ultimately beat them. It can often be about picking the lesser of two evils. Ultimately, a bad social game will still beat a terrible social game. Therefore, social skills are the most important factor for a player. Without them, you simply have no chance of winning. For viewers who value strategy over social skills, prepare to be disappointed regularly by the end result of the show. Expecting jurors to vote for the best strategic game and forget the hurt feelings that led to their own demise is naive and a lack of understanding of a human being’s basic desire to get even. For many of Russell’s fans, this is a particularly sore point. Likewise, viewers who expect challenge dominators to win based solely on this skill will often be disappointed. Ozzy’s close loss in Cook Islands doesn’t just demonstrate Yul’s strategic acumen but his considerable social skills. Two of his five votes, (Adam and Penner), were in large part due to his ability to work with and befriend them even though they had been working towards different objectives. Yul’s strategic and social skills are so intertwined that it is impossible to separate them.

This is not a new development. Winners such as Richard, Brian and Jenna were far from universally loved by the Jury but were preferable to their opponents. You don’t need to be loved – just better liked than the person/people next to you, and only by one vote. Cochran, J.T. and Earl may have won unanimously, but it doesn’t earn them any extra money than players who win by one vote.

Here are a few other examples.

One World is a really good example of how being a good social player will win you the game. Kim is often lauded for her impressive strategic game and challenge prowess, as she rightly should. However, she went to the Final Three with probably her two biggest threats in Sabrina and Chelsea, who had both shown themselves to be good players of the game, at least to a degree. It’s easy to say that Kim won the game because she played a better strategic game than her two opponents, but the reality is that she was the best liked. Jurors had no problem voting for her because they liked her more than her opponents. This was foreshadowed throughout the season through confessionals from other players who viewed Chelsea as distant and lacking warmth and Sabrina as lazy. Kim went to great lengths to ensure people liked her and could relate to her. If you need more evidence for this, (and the fourteen episodes of One World should be all the proof you need), watch the secret scenes following Kat’s vote out in Blood vs. Water, which show her luxury item as a framed picture of her with Kim!

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Kim was a great strategist but an even better social player

Nicaragua provides another insight to this dynamic. Fabio certainly is not renowned for outwitting or outplaying anyone, (apart from a well timed Immunity run at the end of the season). He is often ranked at the bottom of a list of winners in terms of his strategic ability and I don’t think it’s unfair to say he often had little clue as to what was happening round him. However, he was clearly the best liked of the Final Three. Sash played a pretty incredible strategic game, (especially when what must have been his planned opponents in the Final Three quit with ten days to go), but was seen as sleazy and disingenuous. Chase was seen as indecisive and noncommittal and did a phenomenal job at the Final Tribal Council to earn four votes. Fabio had to do very little other than be himself. His likeability and down to earth attitude were appealing characteristics that allowed jurors to easily cast a vote for him in the end. His lack of strategic awareness mattered very little when it really counted.

I have saved the best example for last. The argument that Sandra is the best player because she has won twice is often disputed by fans who say she did nothing to get there and doesn’t have a good strategic game. Although I am not Sandra’s biggest fan, it does her a great disservice to claim that she doesn’t deserve her two wins because she isn’t strategic. Sandra’s success in Survivor isn’t built on strategy; it’s built on social skills. Many will say her social skills aren’t great either (She can get loud too…what the f**k!), but a lot of what Sandra does so well is stuff that isn’t shown on screen, as its either not interesting or relevant to what else is happening. Russell kept her around for a reason and that was that she swallowed her pride, realised he was in charge and then stroked his ego, telling him she couldn’t beat him at the end. She made friends in all the right places and said all the right things at the end. The “anybody but me” strategy is the ultimate in social play, even if it has strategic pitfalls. She makes herself available to anyone should they need a vote and therefore never comes off as a backstabber. She doesn’t come across as too nice and therefore threatening, and is certainly no challenge threat. By either luck or design, (and I personally think it is a combination of the two), she has arrived at Day Thirty-nine both times with people less well liked than her. If the other voting option is unpalatable, Sandra will always get enough votes. So if you ever need proof of the value of a well balanced social game to win Survivor, look no further than our only two time winner herself, Sandra.

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Here’s someone who gets the social side of Survivor.

The likelihood of social skills being highlighted more clearly is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future. Production has deemed it of greater importance to show the big strategic moves and spend a lot of time on challenges. So spotting what makes a good strategic game will be more difficult going forward. However, it’s unlikely to change how the eventual winner is chosen. So keep an eye for players who spend time talking to each other, are relaxed and spend time making connections that are not always for a strategic purpose. These players may stick around longer than you expect and ultimately may determine why they beat the big movers and shakers.

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Do you Agree or Disagree with Nick? How important is a good social game? Let us know what you think by commenting below!

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8 Comments on In Praise of the Social Game – Why it can win you Survivor

  1. This blog gives too much credit to Fabio and (especially) Natalie White. I have nothing against those two, but Natalie’s social game wasn’t strong. Even in the final tribal, she couldn’t sell herself. That win came down to which contestant was the least polarizing.

  2. I REALLY appreciate (more than ever) the social game, simply because Jeff is so dang sexist. He doesn’t seem to remember the show’s theme — “Outwit, Outplay, Outlast.” It does NOT have the word “Out-Brawn.” Why have women play at all if men are generally stronger swimmers or whatever? Sandra deserves her win both times — as I recall, she was the first contestant (shown) to eavesdrop on others, getting her valuable info. That’s strategy — and her kind of thinking helps you on the show and in real life. An Ozzy, on the other hand — sure, he’s an amazing athlete, but the show isn’t called “The Best Athlete, And It’d Better Be A Guy Or Jeff Will Dis You.” As for Natalie, if I recall, many of her fellow players say (on this show, of course) she DID play strategically. It’s all in the editing. Props to anyone who makes it on the show and lasts more than a few days, though; “Survivor” is still tough to play.

    • I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about

    • I love Sandra in HvV but you underestimate her in Pearl Island, she won just because Lill was stupid and took her in final 2 instead of Fairplay, and Jeff is completely in love with the overrated in my opinion Boston Rob with 25% of winning or Malcolm, not just Ozzy.

  3. I’m not saying Natalie didn’t play strategically, but her win was largely due to a bitter jury, and the fact that Russell cannot read people to save his life. She made some important moves (well one really important move) but didn’t even reference it in the final tribal…which I hardly doubt they would’ve edited out if she had said it. Sandra earned her wins like a boss.

    • Hi Mark
      Im a big Russell fan, but its hard to deny Natalie’s social game. My point in the article is really that a social game is often undervalued because it is harder to explicitly show on screen than strategic or physical prowess. You can state that Russell lost rather than Natalie won, which I think is a correct statement but russell (and to a lesser extent, Mick) lost because his social abilities were not as good as Natalie. He won more challenges and made bigger strategic moves but Natalie ultimately understood that these mattered little if she got to the end and was more well liked than him.

      • hantz_stamp // December 3, 2013 at 1:59 pm //

        Natalie winning had little to do with her social game. Certainly that was her selling point entire game and in FTC. Russel lost because apart from Shambo and Fincher, Galu was still playing the game on ponderosa. Little birds have said that there were alot of talks on how they can assure Russel doesn’t win. That jury was out for nothing but revenge. Nothing else. I can’t understand people who say that’s all fine. That’s just as subhuman and childish as you can get in that scenario. Laura M has referred to all of this many times during this season, probably by accident.

  4. This article is brilliant and all very true! Social games are so highly underrated by less insightful and easily impressed viewers and often buried by editing due to their subtlety.

    RE: Natalie White. She is NOT underrated in her social game at all, watch Episode 4 of Samoa and see her confessional where SHE OUTRIGHT STATES SHE WANTS TO BE NEXT TO RUSSELL AT THE END because she correctly determined how unlikable he was. This is BEFORE any of the game was played with Galu. Russell was hated because of his appalling lack of social skills. Why would you rub it in the people’s faces when you vote them out and make NO attempt to be friends with them. The talk of “The jury was out for revenge?” WHY were they out for revenge? Because Russell treated them like shit. Compare Russell to Kim Spradlin (read the article re. Kim’s genius social/strategic play). She blindsided AS MANY, if not MORE players than Russell on One World. And still won in a 7-2-0 landslide (the same vote as Samoa BTW, just that Kim was on the right side of it and Russell was not). Kim is Russell’s strategic game (actually improved because she NEVER needed to use her idol) with Natalie’s social game.

    Natalie had an EXCELLENT social game. Of course Galu wanted revenge. Russell treated them like shit. The only one he was nice to was Shambo (and he got her vote), in fact he was LUCKY to get Fincher’s vote because he screwed him over. He never bothered to make friends with Galu. He rubbed it in Erik’s face that Galu turned on him, he rubbed it in Kelly’s face when he idol’d her, he rubbed it in Laura’s face when he got Fincher to flip. He treated Monica like shit on her last few days and she was already never going to vote with him (for treating her two best friends Laura and Kelly like shit) so she actively LAUGHED at him. What did Natalie do? She bonded with the girls, Laura, Kelly and Monica, who were the power players of Galu. If you want to attribute Natalie’s game purely to revenge than why did Mick get ZERO votes. Because they LIKED Natalie and NOT Mick. Why was that? Because Natalie made FRIENDS with them, she took an interest in them. So they felt good about giving her a million dollars. Let’s not forget Jaison who was the only Foa Foa on the jury. Who did he vote for, after being with the three of them for 37 days? NATALIE. Why? Because OBVIOUSLY she was the one of the three that Jaison actually liked and wanted to see win a million dollars

    RE: Hantz-stamp and Mark’s comments re. the jury
    1. “Bitter” juries don’t materialise out of nowhere. People don’t come into Survivor thinking “I’m going to get into the jury and screw someone over,” ‘bitter’ (and I am reluctant to use that word) are CREATED by the game. By the actions and attitudes of the players. IF Laura and the Galu tribe members (sans Shambo and John Fincher) are the type of people to get ‘bitter’ or want revenge for being voted out then Russell FAILED to recognise this and hence did not play a winning game. Simple fact. Also Mark you said “Russell lost because of his inability to read people.” BINGO. You -have- to win a jury over. They are PEOPLE with feelings and emotions NOT robots programmed to ‘vote for the person who made the biggest moves.’ There is NO rule book as to WHAT the jury HAS to base their vote on. It would be perfectly within the rules for a juror to vote for someone because they like their hair colour for example (which would never happen but you get the drift). Fact is emotions ARE a part of the game, and failure to understand this will make a player lose

    2. RE: Hantz-stamp’s comments about “Galu playing the game at Ponderosa” THE JURY IS PART OF THE GAME. They do not exist in a vacuum watching the game and disconnected from when they are voted out. They are attached to when they left the game, they see what happens at Tribal and they TALK to each other. Yes the jury used to be sequestered, they aren’t anymore (since Vanuatu. I.e. 8 seasons of 27 have had a sequestered jury and -19- have not, producer’s decision). That is part of the game. The game of Survivor has a jury of 7-9 people vote between 2 or 3 of their fellow players to win the million dollars. THE JURY ARE PART OF THE GAME AND THEY CAN PLAY THEIR GAME AS A JUROR HOWEVER THEY WANT. And secondly, if Russell hadn’t treated Galu (sans Shambo) like crap THEY WOULDN’T HAVE PLAYED THE GAME AGAINST HIM AT PONDEROSA

    RE: Sandra. Sandra’s Pearl Islands game is thoroughly underrated.

    1. Her main alliance was with Christa and Rupert. Who was the brains of it? Certainly NOT Rupert, and probably not Christa (but she may have).
    2. Rupert and Christa went at 8 and 7. That is top 6 with Sandra having NO allies. So who’s coattails did she ride? (To those who accuse her of that).
    Secondly, she eavesdropped (as mentioned above) and presented herself as the ‘anyone but me’ vote. A VALID strategy. It gets you past each tribal council. And it did for Sandra
    3. Rupert’s Blindside. Sandra saw it coming. Why would she vote for Jon, and not with Rupert and Christa? She let it happen. If she voted for Darrah (and Lill didn’t flip) we get a tie. SHE VOTED JON FOR A REASON. She allowed the Rupert blindside to happen (because she would NEVER have won against) and didn’t implicate herself in it, so she could lose her shit at it
    4. Allowing Christa to take the blame for the fish. This one is obvious, I don’t really need to explain it
    5. Tijuana. She TRIED to help Tijuana, she TRIED to get her with the women and vote against Jon and Burton. Tijuana did NOT believe Sandra and flip, and got herself voted out. She then VOTED AGAINST Sandra because she didn’t believe what Sandra said. Rightfully Sandra should have won Pearl Islands 7-0, but unfortunately Tijuana voted with an odd criteria, and didn’t see what actually happened. WHICH SHE IS ENTITLED TO DO AS A JUROR.
    6. Burton. The women turned on the men to get out Burton. For those who say Sandra made NO moves in Pearl Islands. Remember this vote-off. Who engineered this blindside? Darrah? Lill? No, it was Sandra
    7. Darrah. And then promptly helped Jon and Lill vote off a MASSIVE Final 2 threat. Ensuring that she would be in the final 3 with two of the weakest contestants physically (besides herself). This ensured that she would be Final 2. Jon would NEVER have taken Lill, and Lill would NEVER have taken Jon (due to her ‘fairness’ values).

    I think Sandra’s Pearl Islands gameplay is -so- underrated and attributed purely to the social game (which was EXCELLENT, as on HvV) when she made some great strategic plays throughout the whole thing

    To those who think this blog gives “too much credit to Natalie and Fabio” they clearly have bought into Survivor editing and have VERY LITTLE insight into how the game is actually played.

    Sorry for the long rant, but those are sore spots for me. I hate when people make bold assumptions and criticise blogs like these when they clearly have little understanding of how Survivor actually works.

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