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Emergent Narratives in Survivor

Examines how competitive reality shows tell compelling procedural stories by setting simple rules and having the players (contestants) interact with those systems of rules to create their own unique rules and narrative and change the dynamic of the game.

Yifat Shaik, Blogger

February 22, 2021

14 Min Read

This article was originally published in First Person Scholar and republished with permission. I have a semi-concreate plan to write a series of articles looking at the game design of reality shows, but those might have to wait for the summer

On August 23rd, 2000, more than 50 million Americans watched the finale of the first season of Survivor1, making it a cultural icon and birthing the age of competitive reality shows. Almost 20 years later, Survivor is still running, and, while it doesn’t reach the rating highs it did in 2000, it is still one of CBS’ most popular shows2.

For a show that has so much staying power and popularity, there is little scholarly work on it beyond the initial exploration of its cultural impact at the start of the 21st century. This is unfortunate, as there are a lot of things we can analyze and critique about this show, from issues of race, colonialism, and gender to the evolution of strategic gameplay over the course of the show run.

I would like to focus on emergent narratives in the show and how we can use them when designing games. I am going to look at the way the players (contestants) interact with the systems of rules set by the designers of the game and how they use those to create their own rules and game dynamics. While the rules of the game have not changed much since season 1, the way the players use them and interact with each other is ever-changing, creating surprising, new interactions and narratives.

How is the game played?

Before we talk about emergent narrative, let’s first look at the rules of the game!

Survivor is divided into two parts: the pre-merge, in which two or more small groups (“tribes”) of players compete against each other, and the post-merge (or merge), where the remaining players all join together to be in one tribe, and the game becomes an individual’s game. Both have similar rules but slightly different competitive gameplay as the game shifts from a team-based approach to a ‘survival of the fittest contest. At the start of the game, roughly 16-20 players are divided into tribes, either randomly picked or are arranged according to a theme and are asked to survive in the wilderness3.

Every three days, the players compete to earn a reward, which usually involves food or objects they can use to survive and immunity which grants safety to one player and prevents them from being voted out by other players that week. At the end of those three days, the players then collectively vote out one player. This continues until there are two or three players left. During the pre-merge section, the competitions are tribe based, with the tribe that loses immunity voting out a member from their team. In the post-merge section, the challenges are completed by each individual, but the players who are voted out become part of the jury, who are entitled to witness the remaining players’ actions. At the end of the game, the jury must vote for who, out of the remaining players, they think should win the game. The post-merge section of the game is generally considered the more entertaining part of the game as by this point, the strongest players are left and the strategy becomes more complex as a result.

Over the years, other mechanics were introduced, with varying degrees of success. Two of those mechanics, the tribe swipe and the hidden immunity idol, are now a ubiquitous part of the game and can be considered official rules4.

So, what do I mean when I say emergent narrative?

In the simplest terms, emergence is when the game allows the player to craft their own experience. It is the unexpected outcome of the player’s interaction with the system of rules set by the designer. The problem with emergence is that, unlike stories which are pre-determined and designed by the game developers, emergent stories and systems are not something we necessarily know how to design and approach in ways that will create an engaging play experience.

Designers can look to Survivor for inspiration, as it has spent the last 20 years trying to figure out how to successfully create an emergent narrative and had the time to fine-tune its systems in ways that create engaging experiences. Both the success and failure of Survivor can tell us a lot about interactions in an emergent game and the problems which we might encounter in designing one.

You can look at Survivor as a game with four distinct levels of engagement: the producers, the players, the editors, and the viewers, with each level’s separate contribution helping with the success of the show.

The producers act as both the ‘dungeon masters,’ guiding the player and helping them navigate the rules, as well as game designers that are there to design and enforce the rules of the game. While they are mostly silent, the host, Jeff Probst, acts as their representative and reinforcer, guiding the players, ensuring that the game runs smoothly and maintains the illusion of reality in a make-believe situation5.

The players are the people chosen to play the game, and are the ones who produce the majority of the emergent narrative content as they are directly interacting with the rules set by the producers.

As the players are filmed 24/7, it is the editor’s job to distill those narratives into coherent, 45-minute-chunks that tell the viewers everything that happened over a span of 3 days. The editors have full control over how to tell the narrative, but that narrative is also completely dependent on the players’ actions6. If the players have nothing to show, even the most interesting editing wouldn’t help with crafting an interesting story.

The last level of engagement is the audience itself, who engage with the game through the medium of TV and thus have no power to directly control its narrative, but can engage in participatory actions when the need arises (like voicing their opinion about certain events in the show or their feelings about specific players)7.

While I will mostly focus on the player level, it is important to note that all those levels work symbiotically and all contribute to the success of the show and it’s emergent elements.

Emergence and Survivor

The single most important act of emergence in Survivor happened in the first season, and it defined not just the show but the genre of competitive reality shows. Initially, Survivor was billed as the greatest social experiment on the planet, a show in which a group of ordinary Americans are left stranded on an island and had to build a new society. Most of the players took that to heart, and while they voted out a player every week, those players were generally the people who could not handle the physical and social aspects of the game8. The players were so uncomfortable about voting out other players that, in one episode, they tried to vote out the host Jeff Probst, and one of the players famously voted out players in alphabetical order.

It was Richard Hatch, the eventual winner, who understood something that even the producers did not: Survivor is not a social experiment about who can survive in the wilderness; rather, it is a complex strategic game, and in order to win, he needed to deploy game theory strategies like “The Prisoner Dilemma,” in which two individuals acting in their own self-interests don’t produce the best outcome, and “Nash Equilibrium,” where the best outcome occurs when there is no incentive to deviate from a player’s initial strategy9. On day ten, he formed the plan which led to his victory: he formed a voting bloc or an alliance with three other members of his tribe. For the rest of the season, the four-person alliance dominated the game, voting out everyone else until there were only four left. At this point, the alliance was shattered, and the game became an individual game.

The first-ever alliance in Survivor, voting out the very surprised Gretchen, who to this point was the clear winner. Signalling, for the first time, that Survivor is a strategic game.

While the strategy has evolved considerably since then, the concept of an alliance became a pivotal part of Survivor and other competitive reality shows like Big Brother and The Amazing Race. Though there were other reasons why that season was a resounding success, Sues’ Snake and Rats10 speech most notably, it was Richard Hatch’s strategy that cemented Survivor’s success and its cultural influence. It also formed its core gameplay loop, creating alliances and understanding which path you need to follow in order to win the game, and was probably the main factor in Survivor’s longevity as it made the game interesting.

The narrative of the show changed after that, especially in the first few seasons. The participants and the producers were struggling with the idea of Survivor being a strategic game vs. a survival experience, with strategic gameplay eventually cementing itself as the cornerstone of the game, while the survival experience acted as a vague yet convenient backdrop for this gameplay. This is what makes emergent narratives so compelling; each season is unique, and the experience of playing it and watching it will constantly change. The players’ engagements with the rules of the game can be unpredictable and are dependent on each player’s individual agency and their interaction with other players. The show’s creators and producers will set new rules or try to force new dynamics, but ultimately it is the player’s interaction with the rules which will make them a success or a failure.

There are countless examples of such unexpected emergent narratives, which, when coupled with the simple rules, created a complex and dynamic game, allowing the show to remain interesting and relevant, even 20 years later11.

But it’s not all pretty

That does not mean all those interactions and emergent narratives are positive and enjoyable, and there have been some cases in which the emergent elements were uncomfortable, dangerous, or even upsetting. Often it is injuries or the weather that can cause unexpected chaos in the game, but when player-to-player interactions and the game are at dissonances, then the show can become a very unpleasant reflection of society. The two most prominent examples were when one contestant (Jeff Varner) outed another as a trans man (Zeke Smith) in order to prove his untruthfulness12, and how Kellee’s discomfort with Dan’s tendency to inappropriately touch her and the other women in the tribe was used to vote her out of the game in the season 39 of Survivor13.

While Survivor is not a good indication of reality–the players know they are in a manufactured reality and will act accordingly–sometimes reality does slip in, and the dynamic changes. In some cases, it produced some wonderful and touching moments, but the unpredictable nature of the emergent narrative can result in events such as those previously mentioned, and we can learn a lot from the reactions of the production and the other players to those events.

In the case of Jeff and Zeke, Jeff used society’s mistrust of Trans folks and the idea that they are duplicitous to try and prove to his tribe that Zeke was a liar and could not be trusted. To the credit of both the other players and producers, there was an instant understanding that Jeff crossed the line, and he was unanimously voted out. This is partly because “Game Changers” (the season when that happened) was an all-star season with previous players of Survivor, and therefore prior relationships were formed and some knew each other outside the game.

This was not the case with Kellee and Dan; not only did the producers feel like they were helpless in dealing with the situation, but other players also used Kellee’s discomfort as a strategic move by exaggerating their discomfort around Dan and used it to make Kellee, and her allies, believe that they are going to vote out Dan while in reality, the plan was to vote her out (as she was a strong strategic player that they saw as a threat). What made this episode so upsetting was the fact that the players did not stop thinking of the experience as a game, and therefore didn’t consider the real-world effects of sexual harassment. While Dan was eventually kicked out of the game for allegedly harassing a producer14, the way the players and producers reacted to the events left many fans disappointed by the show and led to the producers revamping the rules in order to better react to those sort of situations15.

So, why should I watch survivor?

There is much we can learn from Survivor, especially as game designers and critics. The cases I described here can teach us how emergent narratives are created by the player’s interactions with the rules, as well as how those narratives can increase replayability and interest in your game. As the game industry is slowly pivoting toward creating games that allow players more agency and freedom, game developers (like myself) are struggling with how to create compelling experiences without having full control over how this experience is going to be played.

Survivor, a game with simple rules and complex emergent mechanics, might just be one answer for how we design those types of experiences. The game is repayable, still relevant (and popular), and provides a different experience every time it’s played16. This is exactly what we strive for when we design emergent gameplay; not just on how to make emergent narratives that can be successfully implemented, but also how we can prepare for and appropriately respond to potentially toxic events that can occur through gameplay.17


  1. information is taken from Wikipedia

  2. In the original concepts, the players were abandoned in the wilderness and had to fend for themselves for 39 days. This aspect of the game has been minimized over the years in favour of more strategic gameplay.

  3. Note that Jeff Probst is also the executive producer of the show and not just the host and he often makes many of the decisions in the game.

  4. The editing of the show is often discussed and analyzed by the fans, and it is a source of speculation about what the editors chose to show or not show. This has become its own metagame, called Survivor Edgic: https://insidesurvivor.com/survivor-edgic-an-introduction-3094

  5. Henry Jenkins describes some of the early fan interactions in his 2006 book Convergence Culture. Some of that fan work includes fan playing a version of survivor (like survivor college edition) or creating fan fiction that utilize chance and dice to predict gameplay (like All-Star Survivor Alaska).

  6. This is still the way the game is played in the original Swedish version, Expedition Robinson.

  7. More about Richard Hatch’s use of Nash Equilibrium here:

  8. Some more examples and a nice writeup can be found here:

  9. A very good analysis of the episode can be found at: 

  10. This was never made clear, they just posted a short message in the start of the episode letting the viewers know that he was asked to leave the game due to harassment.

  11. If I piqued your interest in those are my recommendations for seasons you should watch. Start with season 1, season 7, season 13, season 33 and season 37 as they are good starter seasons with no returning players and some great moments and gameplay. Then move to season 10, season 18, season 19, season 25, season 28, which are excellent seasons with gameplay that might not be clear or easy to understand on the first watch. Finish with season 16, season 20 and season 31 and season 40 who are all returning players seasons and are considered some of the best (if not the best) seasons of the show.

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