Social politics, Survivor, and complex games

The Survivor finale was on last night. The winner wasn’t surprising, and I won’t make this a post explicitly about Survivor. I’ve posted thoughts about the show on Twitter, and usually I get some response asking why I even watch the show. The answer is that for all the silly reality show cliches, it’s an infinitely complex game. And as someone interested in the mechanics of games, it really has more moving parts than any video game I’ve come in contact with.

You have the challenges for rewards and immunity, and those are very “game design” elements. They’re built into the fabric of the rule set and they’re pretty rigid. It’s interesting when teams find way to subvert that rule set based on what isn’t said, but that’s not really where the game lives and breathes.

The game is about social politics, which Jeff said very explicitly last night. Each winner figured out how to systematically eliminate every opponent and still come out looking golden to enough of them to win. As it turns out, people like being fooled sometimes. Some players gain jury votes based on the respect given for a dupe well done. Others will hold a grudge even for logical, sound game moves. Every decision has to be weighed against these, and it’s not like a game with three decisions. Every day means an infinite amount of decisions, from how hard you work, who you talk to, where you go and with whom, how you present yourself to come off to other people in a certain way, and so on.

The book Everything Bad is Good For You argues that “stupid” reality TV is actually fostering nuanced social intelligence in a way past generations of TV never did. We always had actors trying to simulate the discreet eye movements and mouth wrinkles that signify emotion. Survivor shows the real thing, and we’re trained to read those expressions.

All this makes it much more complex than games can handle right now. They could do a simulation, but simulations can be counted on and tricked and figured out. When video games can actually emulate the social complexity of Survivor, I think that experience will really be something special.

  • This game concept sounds like the best elevator pitch ever, but they’ll have to walk a fine line to keep it funny. Tragedies can be funny with enough distance, but they really shouldn’t touch anything after the Titanic.
  • If I’m given the choice, I’m probably more inclined to play Luigi’s Mansion 2 on my 3DS, but I wouldn’t refuse a Wii U version. It seems like the screen could do cool stuff with ghost scanning.
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