Series Info...Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #202:

Anatomy of a Game: The Triple-Hidden-Exile Survivor Twist

by Shannon Appelcline

Seven and a half years ago, Survivor kicked off the reality game show craze in the United States. This weekend it finished off its fifteenth installment, meaning that its outwitted, outplayed, and outlasted most of its competition.

As with The Amazing Race, which I discussed last week, Survivor hasn't been content to rest on its laurels. Instead it has constantly reinvented its gameplay. This is notable because, unlike The Amazing Race, Survivor is really a game about gameplay (as opposed to being largely focused on athleticism), and thus the changes are that much more important from the game design point of view.

So this week I'm going to look at three major changes which Survivor has brought about over recent seasons--the hidden immunity idol, the exile island, and the final three--and how they've expanded the game's original design. If you haven't yet read them, I suggest taking a look at my earlier two articles on the game edsign of Survivor:

The Immunity Idol

In Survivor there's always been the opportunity to overcome the tyranny of the majority who might want otherwise vote you out by winning immunity and thus being safe for a single night's vote. However, in Survivor 11 the producers introduced a new twist: a hidden immunity idol which could be discovered by following clues, and which could give an individual immunity on the night he decided to play it.

The idol has always been discovered, but often it hasn't been used. Some readers on the Internet point to this as a failure of concept, but that conclusion offers a pretty short-sighted viewpoint. In actuality, the idol is a very powerful resource which can be just as useful through its non-use as its use. Yul Kwon proved this in Survivor 13 when he revealed his possession of an idol in order to sway another player's vote through intimidation, ultimately giving Yul the game.

For a number of seasons, players have avoided voting against the holder of an idol, afraid that he might play the idol and cause votes to rebound against them. This was partially due to changing rules about how to play the idol--which I'll get to shortly--but increasingly players have grown more comfortable with the hidden idol, and working against it. In Survivor 15, James Clement discovered that the idol could be a deficit. By holding on to two immunity idols, he put a huge target on his back, which eventually sent him packing.

Overall, the hidden immunity idol offers a huge change to the gameplay of Survivor. Beforehand the relatively few commodities of power in Survivor included: an individual's vote, an individual's ability to provide for the camp, and an individual's later jury vote. At heart, these commodities kept survivor a zero-sum voting game with some slight bias based on real-world ability. However, the hidden immunity idol offered not just a way to stay protected for one week, but also an entirely new and important commodity which could be used to bargain with, threaten with, or even provide safety with. In a game that had no real mediums of exchange, unlike Pirate Master, this offered a real opportunity to shake up the game.

The production crew of Survivor has increasingly realized the power that this new commodity offers; they best used it in Survivor 15. Traditionally clues to the hidden immunity idol were given to people sent to Exile Island (on which, more momentarily). This year instead players were being constantly kidnapped from one tribe to the other, and whenever a player was kidnapped he was given a hidden immunity clue for use by someone on the other team.

The core tyranny of the majority implicit in Survivor has always resulted in a desire for producers to break up existing alliances in order to make for better TV. The many switches that the production team designed starting in Survivor 3 have been introduced mainly to try and introduce players to members of the other team who might be interested in team up. The Survivor 15 hidden immunity gift twist offered, perhaps, the best way ever to bring players from different tribes together, because it created powerful bonds of gratitude and indebtedness that at least offered the possibility for players to cross tribal lines (even if they didn't in Survivor 15).

The overall result of the hidden immunity idol twist has been excellent television, generally supporting my thesis that good game design can make for good TV. It's been a lot of fun seeing players try and discover the idol, but it's also been great seeing the scheming, guessing, and second-guessing that follows as people try and figure out how to use the idol--or how to prevent opponents from doing so.

Three of the best moments of Survivor from recent seasons all surrounded the idol: when Edgardo Rivera was sent home in Survivor 14 because his opponents tricked the wrong person into using the idol; when Jaime Dugan played what she thought was an immunity idol in Survivor 15, but wasn't; and when James Clement got sent home in Survivor 15 with two idols in his back pocket ... despite the fact that there were only two more councils that he could have used them at, following that one.

Before I close out on the hidden immunity idol, I'll briefly mention how the rules for playing the idol have changed: from being able to use it before votes are cast, to being able to use it after votes are revealed; to being able to use it after votes are cast, but before they're revealed. Clearly this has changed the power dynamics of the idol. It was probably too powerful during the seasons in which it could be used after the votes were revealed (including when Yul used it as a threat), while it might have been too weak when it had to be played before votes were cast. The current methodology is a nice compromise, and also exactly the setup that's allowed for the fun strategies of the last two seasons.

Exile Island

Survivor 12-14 included a twist that was more minor to the gameplay, but at least as important for TV drama: Exile Island. Each week someone was exiled to this solitaire island, but as a benefit they got a clue to a hidden immunity idol.

The overall gameplay effect of this was relatively minor. The opposing team typically got to select an exile, and thus they almost universally selected a strong tribe member, hoping to weaken their competition. If anything this worsened the rich-gets-richer problem that can plague the first half of a Survivor game if the producers haven't been careful in their course design to support a number of different types of challenges.

As people learned about the hidden immunity idol clues, they had some incentive to try and get exiled, but there wasn't any direct give and take (unless a survivor slipped over to the other team and begged to be exiled) and so no possibility for intra-tribe alliances, as was the case with the hidden immunity idol clues in Survivor 15.

If anything, the purpose of the Exile Island was mostly to offer good television. Among other things, it provided the potential for a classic underdog-done-good story: a player could get exiled multiple times, and just as you were feeling bad for him, he could discover an immunity idol, giving him a big advantage in a game.

Crafting a game element to try and suggest a particular story line is a difficult task, and if that was a consideration in the design of the Exile Island, the designers did quite well.

The Final Three

Traditionally, a game of Survivor ended with the final two contestants being interviewed by the last seven losers, and then a vote determining who won the money. However since Survivor 13 there have instead been three final contestants, who have received votes from either nine (seasons 13-14) or seven (season 15) of their opponents.

So what's good and what's bad about the whole final three setup?

On the good side, it's removed a few annoying discontinuities from the show--which is to say places where the game didn't work the same as it generally did.

The most notable of these was at the (old) final three tribal council, where an immunity winner held all the power, thus making it the one time where two people didn't bother voting (because they'd just vote for each other), and the only time where voting power was meaningless.

The final three change has also removed the discontinuity where the tenth player from the end made it to the merge, but didn't get to participate in the jury, which always seemed disappointing to them, and often was for us viewers too, since one of the better gamers tended to go out of the game at that point.

However, I can see the potential for problems with the new setup too.

The jury composition in seasons 13-14 could have been entirely broken, since 9 jury members and 3 contestants allowed the opportunity for a 3-3-3 split, which is entirely unbreakable. In the current setup you could still go 3-3-1, but then the "1" would be a tiebreaker, which is somewhat anticlimatic, but at least not a show stopper.

Those seasons also included two jury members from "before the merge", who thus might never have met one of the contestants.

(I really can't imagine how the show was ever allowed to go to production with the possibility of a 3-3-3 final vote. Sure, the producers might have thought it unlikely, but you always have to provide for those unlikely corner cases in a game or you can end up very, very unhappy at the end ... as your entire show comes down to which of three contestants can make fire fastest.)

The three-person finale also allows for the possibility of vote splitting, or if you prefer the "Ralph Nader" effect: if the two most deserving contestants are both from the same alliance, a less deserving third player can sneak in to a 3-2-2 victory that definitely wasn't the majority's preference. Fortunately the votes thus far have been 5-4-0, 9-0-0, and 4-2-1, meaning that every winner has been a true majority winner, but it's only a matter of time. The correct answer to this sort of dilemma is an instant runoff selection system, but that's clearly more complexity than a televised game of this sort could survive, so we (rightly) won't see it.

With mainly aesthetic benefits and the possibility of serious problems, why has Survivor gone over to a final-three vote? I'd pretty sure that the answer is "good television". In the old setup, the last day on the island, where two people muddled around camp, wasn't that exciting. Now with three people being around on that final day, there's more potential for drama.

However I think the decision also suggests the possibility of that perennial problem in reality game shows that I've mentioned before: giving up good gameplay for good television, sometimes to its very deficit.

Therein lies a trap for any reality game show.


Survivor has never been afraid to change their gameplay. Their willingness to make major additions after running for so many years--coupled with their tuning of their changes season by season--suggests that Survivor is continuing to look for breakouts that could still revamp the whole reality game show genre.

And that's why, despite many imitators, Survivor is still the top voting game of its sort on television.

[ <— #201: Anatomy of a Game: The Amazing Evolving Race | #203: Strategic Insights: The Prisoner's Dilemma —> ]

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