Saturday, 5 March 2011

Episode 3: Know When to Fold Em

So we'll have to start with an apology for not blogging before now- we've had a couple of fairly shocking episodes of Survivor in a row. I think we're still reeling in the wake of what can only be described as big moves. Probst must be thrilled.

*Ahem* I can has Emmy now?
(...We're sorry.)

Okay, back to the good stuff. Let's talk about the dynamics in this episode, particularly those surrounding Russell. I suppose it's worth saying that if you mind spoilers, you probably don't want to read any further.

Russell and the Overplayed Hand

Nobody should be surprised by the fact that Russell Hantz was targeted for elimination by his team. For all his talk of playing a new game, it's been obvious to the viewer that Russell has fallen back into his old habits. Unfortunately for Russell, his teammates have also been quick to catch on.

But...who wouldn't trust this face?
Russell's problem was immediate, and it was this: his reputation preceded him. Clearly, enough of his tribe are aware of his previous two runs on Survivor to recognize him as an individual with a propensity for deception and trickery. Unlike those previous appearances on Survivor (as Heroes vs. Villains was filmed before Samoa aired), Russell's tribemates know the danger that he represents.

To Russell's credit, he did seem to recognize that he had a problem. In episode 1, we see Russell give his (now infamous) speech, stating "if he was here to play the same game, [he'd] be stupid." We were inclined to believe him, believing that if he started playing his old game, his teammates would notice and get rid of him.

With things off to an apparently good start, what happened? We would suggest that old habits die hard, especially when you have someone around to enable you. And Russell found a ready enabler in Stephanie.
Truthfully: This little person scares us.

Where Russell would have benefited from a strategy of restraint, he finds his first ally in a female mini-me. Now, we're not about to blame Russell's actions on Stephanie, but her cutthroat mentality must have appealed to Russell's old Survivor instincts. With Stephanie on board, eagerly dreaming of playing Pavarti in Russell's bloody march to the finale, Russell may have been nudged away from his commitment to play a nicer game of Survivor.

Or perhaps Russell never intended to play differently. In either case, his commitment to a different kind of Survivor was short-lived.

We have no illusions that Survivor is a nice game, but we do believe it's a smart one. And this is while Russell's decision to raise the old flag is a fine one, we think he made a critical mistake in letting others know about it.

His first (and frankly most unlikely) rival was Ralph. Dismissing Ralph as stupid and harmless, Russell made the mistake of not adequately disguising his efforts to find the Hidden Immunity Idol in front of his tribemate. Russell got completely outplayed in this interaction by Ralph, proving once again that playing dumb can be an excellent social and gaming strategy.

Outplayed by a grown man in overalls. Ouch.
While Ralph's later confrontations with Russell appeared and may have been foolish, one thing they did do was push Russell further into poor habits. In true Machiavellian fashion, Russell embraces intimidation as he responds to Ralph, and seems to carry that attitude from that point onward. Additionally, he abandons any pretense that he's not running his own alliance, flanking himself with a second female ally, Krista.

Not pictured: any semblance of turning over a new leaf.
And at this point, all of the pieces of Russell's downfall have fallen into place. Russell came into the game as the biggest apparent threat, not only because of his experience, but because of his reputation. After realizing this, not only does Russell abandon efforts to reduce his visibility as a threat, he actively amplifies it by recruiting a squad of allies almost identical in characteristics to his allies on previous seasons. And critically, his Russell Hantz luck fails to secure him a hidden immunity idol.

Russell seals his fate when he switches to intimidation of his tribe. No longer is he ignorable; he's a direct threat and is actively trying to exert an influence over the behavior on his tribe.

His tribe responds as many people do when faced with intimidation- they react somewhat irrationally. His tribemates take his threats so seriously that they discount the potential long-term costs of losing a tribe member in the tribe vs tribe phase of the game. They take his threats so seriously that they ignore the costs of losing one of the strongest physical competitors on their team.

They're so afraid of Russell that they metaphorically choose to smother him in his sleep. Russell's game of brinksmanship gets him thrown right on to Redemption Island.

It's fascinating that Zapatera was pushed so hard that they felt the need to get Russell out of their tribe immediately, and equally interesting how badly Russell misjudged the likely response from his tribemates. Overall, it's clear that Russell seriously overplayed his hand. He overestimated his ability to ingratiate himself to the tribe on arrival and underestimated the risk-taking behaviors his tribe would be willing to adopt in order to see him go.

In the end, last episode's turn of events shouldn't be shocking. It's just that despite Russell's habit of pushing the envelope we've seen him escape tribal after tribal due to luck and guile. Tonight, his luck finally ran out.

Don't smile too much, Boston Rob. Time will tell if you've also overplayed your hand.

- The Strategist

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Episode 1, or How to Talk to Girls on Islands

In a game like Survivor, flexible communication is crucial. Many a contestant is voted out from the get-go due to irreconcilable conversation styles (i.e. the early ousts of Wendy Jo and Shannon last season, and who could forget Palau’s Wanda being voted off the island before reaching camp?). The most successful players will be those who know how to “play cool” like Fabio, and when to lay their cards on the table, like Yul. The easiest place to screw this up is when talking to members of the opposite sex.

The Ladies Love Rob

Arriving at Ometepe camp for the first time, Rob is immediately surrounded by a bevy of fans, fresh-faced and star-struck. His people love him. Matt, the Fabio-esque underwear model pre-med student, shyly asks him if he’s really from Boston. Natalie, the teenaged professional dancer, seeks his approval and direction. Rob responds flatteringly with his typical Boston charm, “You guys know whatcher doin’” and the girls go giggling off to make “Team Rob” friendship bracelets.

Anything we can do to help you…anything at all?

Nobody Loves Phillip

Not impressed by Rob’s boyish grin and wary of his considerable Survivor experience, Kristina and Francesca are left to align with self-proclaimed lover of women and expert at reading people, “Special” Agent Phillip. He of the droopy peach briefs (and you know they’ll only get worse) manages to bulldoze their conversation with interruptions, demands (“Answer my question. Answer my question.”), reprehension (“You need to pipe that”), and, finally, the last word (“We’re done with this conversation now.”)

Can you tell what we’re thinking now?
Where Rob excels (and Phillip fails) is in his innate understanding of “genderlects”, or the different approaches males and females take in language and communication. Female-spoken “rapport-talk” involves creating a sense of connection between the speakers, while male-spoken “report-talk” focuses mainly on the exchange of information. Phillip is strictly a “report-talker”, but Rob is fluent in both styles, conversing effectively with both men and women.

Finally, a Troll Princess

Meanwhile, over in Zapatera, Russell finds a groupie of his own in scrappy waitress Stephanie. (Of course he does.) And this time, the chosen one is beside herself with glee, literally welcoming him with open arms. It should be interesting to see how this alliance pans out; if Stephanie manages to keep her mouth shut and be the adoring sidekick that Parvati never could, the season could go well for her.

Could third time be the charm?

If all else fails, at least Steph can cross being in a Dumbass Girl alliance with Russell off her bucket list.

-The Anthropologist

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Redemption Island Episode 1: The Gift of Rob and Kristina's "Bad" Strategy

From the stomach-dropping helicopter intro to the larger-than-life challenge, Probst and Burnett pulled out all the stops on the first episode of Survivor: Redemption Island to show that this season is going to bring the fireworks.

The marooning sequence was extremely reminiscent of Heroes vs. Villains, and probably not by accident. Probst noted that the drama of that season's opening really drew the viewer into the show. While we're not certain that this opening was as effective as that in HvV, we do hope that this season will proceed with the same intensity that made that one so watchable.

Sitting at the back of a helicopter: less cool-looking than Probst might hope

We'll refrain from giving a play-by-play recap of this episode- other blogs have you covered there. Instead, we'll try to dig into the more interesting aspects of what happened this week.

Fearing Russell and Worshiping Rob: the Power of the Framing Effect

By the time Redemption Island aired, most Survivor fans knew that Rob Mariano and Russell Hantz would be returning to the show. As a result, when Rob and Russell were brought out on the show, the big reveal wasn't really a surprise to the viewers, but was to the castaways.

What may be surprising is that the way in which this was done may have a huge impact on the game.

Incoming: a couple of major kinks to your strategy.

To understand why, it's important to recognize that the way people make decisions and think about situations is heavily dependent on context. This is known as the framing effect in psychology, and can result in people reacting in two very different ways when they are introduced to the same situation in different ways. In effect, how something is presented changes the reality of that thing to an individual!

In Redemption Island, the castaways are given some powerful cues by the introduction of Rob and Russell. The first person off of the helicopter is Rob- who generates a positive reaction from the castaways:

Seems fair to call this elation. Then, Russell steps off the chopper, and we get this:
Not quite the same reaction, is it?

Clearly, the castaways have a pre-existing notion of both Rob and Russell: Rob's entry into the game is seen as a positive thing, while Russell's is seen as a negative. But the true impact of the framing effect comes next. After playing up the experience of both players, Probst has the pair draw buffs to determine which tribe they will end up on.

Russell: Pulling your doom from this bag?
In the moments before the reveal, castaways have a moment to consider both possible realities: one in which they get Rob, and one in which they get Russell. Both sides imagine the latter as a horrible scenario. Of course, one team does get Russell, and they make a pretty good show of being okay with it. So why do we suggest that this might have a longer term impact on the game?

The key difference is for Ometepe, Rob's tribe, who have come to see Rob's presence on their tribe as an unambiguously good thing. By making Rob-or-Russell a gamble, the tribe has mentally attached value to 'winning' Rob. This may make them less likely to vote Rob out in the future.

It may sound far-fetched, but watch Natalie's confessional early on in the episode- she is excited about having Rob on the tribe and shudders at the idea that they could have had Russell. Even more telling is Ashley's response after Ometepe loses the first challenge: "I feel like we're letting Rob Down." If Rob had quietly been assigned to their tribe, would this reaction have been as strong? While Mr. Mariano has an incredible amount of charisma, we'd argue that his success in his tribe has been helped, in part, by the way his and Russell's introduction into the game was framed.
But hey, that winning smile probably hasn't hurt.
Russell, on the other hand...well, we won't be surprised if he goes to Redemption Island sooner than later. (But we also won't be surprised if he manages to avoid it!)

Bad Strategy or Bad Break? Kristina and the Hidden Immunity Idol

We have to admit that on first watching this episode, Kristina's Hidden Immunity Idol play seemed, to put it politely, foolish. Her plan to dominate the game at the outset had a couple of fatal flaws. First and foremost, with six votes on the outside of her alliance, she had to be confident that the rest of the tribe would vote as a bloc, and that she would be able to draw and nullify those votes using the idol. Assuming that this all played out and that she successfully removes Rob, her plan hits another major issue: even with Rob gone, her alliance of three would be facing down a now-angry group of five.

As Francesca wisely noted after hearing Kristina's plan, "If we do this tonight, everyone is going to be pissed off." Francesca hit upon a fundamental point of Game Theory- that you need to think ahead to where you want to be in the future, and reason back on how to get there. A one-time move that gets you ahead only to see you smashed in the next round gets you nowhere.

So what happened to Kristina? A case of Marty-itis?
Our "Marty Postulate": if other people "aren't playing the game", let them!
We're going to assume that Kristina isn't totally irrational, and that her Immunity Idol play was a move of calculated- if desperate- risk. We see hints in the edit that Kristina assumed her head was on the chopping block for the night, particularly after she asks Rob about the night's vote and gets no response. Her tight smile and shake of the head as the camera pans over to her seem to indicate that she feels Rob has left her with no choice. She decides to go forward with her plan to play the idol.

In this scenario, despite not having a clear path to victory at the next Tribal Council, Kristina is still making a valid move. She may have foreseen other possibilities opening up in a post-Rob Ometepe.

So the big Hidden Immunity Idol play may have been a necessary evil. Contrary to first impressions, it may have been a totally rational thing to do for her to do.
We're not sure we can say the same for allying with this guy.

- The Strategist

The Implications of Redemption Island

We still haven't blogged about this season's first episode- we'll get there! -but we wanted to take a moment to talk about the implications of this season's 'twist' on the game of Survivor. We're referring of course to Redemption Island.

The rules of Redemption Island are described here at as:

"On Survivor: Redemption Island...when a contestant is voted off, he or she won't leave the game completely but go instead to Redemption Island, where he or she will face off against the next person voted off in a duel. The winner lives on to face the next arrival at Redemption Island until one person left standing has a chance to return to the game."

So Redemption Island effectively creates a loser's bracket for Survivor. And just to be clear- since there seems to be some confusion about this on other blogs- only one person comes back from RI, and they only get to do so once.

Redemption Island and Strategy

So how does the game change, now that we have Redemption Island in the mix?

The most obvious and important repercussion is that at some point the castaways will see someone return to the game that they'd rather not.

...probably not for the first time this season.
Castaways should be nervous about the prospect of a return to the game, because when someone returns from Redemption Island, they will likely have had a hand in voting that player out.

The Revenge Factor?

Probst has been intentionally vague about when the last person standing on Redemption Island will return the game, but we can assume that in fine Mark Burnett style it will be timed to be 'interesting'- in other words, to have the most impact on the game.

Going by this logic, we can ignore the idea of the player returning before the merge. It simply wouldn't be interesting; the tribe would already have cast a majority vote against the individual and would have no reason not to immediately send them off again.

At or after the merge seems much more likely. Particularly because nothing plays so well on TV as revenge. At the merge, the returning player will have the chance to side with the opposing tribe against those who voted him or her off the island. It's good drama and good TV, which means it's probably what we'll see.

Does this change one's pre-merge gameplay? It's hard to say, particularly because whatever you do, it's hard to vote someone off and still have them feel good about you. It takes a delicate combination of personality, savvy, and luck to be involved in axing someone without them taking it personally.

You could call it the Sandra school of Survivor.

In fact, it may not be possible to avoid revenge-seeking on the part of the returning player. With that as a given, the best remaining strategy would be to limit the impact of the returning player by ensuring that your tribe goes into the merge with a huge advantage in numbers. That way, a single vote siding with the 'other side' will have no effect.

"Win more before the merge" doesn't sound like much of a strategy, but if it is embraced by players, it could seriously change voting patterns. Tribes usually turn to pruning off strong competitors some time prior to the merge, as it improves their chances for individual immunity. The return of a Redemption Island player adds more incentive for a tribe to keep strong competitors until the last possible moment. Whether or not players will see things this way remains to be seen.

Do the Duel

Another interesting aspect of Redemption Island are the one on one duels that determine who gets the chance to re-enter the game.
Duels: How people used to earn the title "Sole Survivor."
There has been a good deal of speculation on other blogs about how the duel structure will affect vote decisions. One of the most interesting- and audacious- involved the idea of voting out a strong member from your own alliance to ensure that your side "wins" Redemption Island.

We'd like to go on the record here and say that this will not happen. We know Probst likes to talk about making "big, bold moves" being the key to winning on Survivor, but this kind of talk is simply irrational. The risk to the player who gets sent to Redemption Island in this plan is extremely high and borne only by them personally, while the reward for their success is shared with the entirety of their alliance. Because Survivor is a game of shifting alliances, and particularly because deals on splitting prize money are explicitly not allowed, there's not enough incentive to make this kind of gambit work.

Then again, not everyone on Survivor is fully rational.

Maybe a former Federal Agent would take one for the team?

So if we ignore the possibility of "loading" Redemption Island with a strong player from your alliance, what effect should the duel structure have on your vote?

We would argue 'none', for a couple of reasons. For one, there seems to be an embedded assumption that the duel is going to be a purely physical or mostly-physical challenge. This seems to be a strong assumption, which should always give one pause. Survivor has seen more than its share of puzzle-based challenges...and the most athletic castaway does not always prevail. In other words, it's hard to predict what type of player might win a duel on Redemption Island, so trying to 'game' the system by selecting who you believe to be a winner or a loser may not pan out.

Secondly, voting a player out is fundamentally about reducing your competition and strengthening your alliance. Regardless of the re-entry of a player at a later stage in the game, these criteria do not change. Arguably, all that Redemption Island does is add a probablistic element to the outcome of your decision to vote someone out. Instead of getting rid of a competitor with certainty, you instead have a chance of eliminating them and a chance of them returning. But if someone is the biggest threat to you currently, it always makes more sense to possibly get rid of them (due to their ongoing risk of losing at Redemption Island) then to have them definitely continue to be a threat to you!

There is one factor that has been left out of the discussion so far, and that is the requirement that the resident of Redemption Island must be self-sufficient, handling their own survival necessities in food, water, and fire. This could have an effect on the voting order and on the expected outcome of a duel. Imagine, for instance, that your rival alliance has two members, one of whom has weak survival skills and the other who has strong survival skills. You may want to send the member with weak survival skills first- particularly if they have an athletic edge- to ensure that they are diminished and less of a threat for winning in the next duel. Strong-but-lazy people, watch out.

The Evolution of Survivor

So it looks like there are some subtle ways in which Redemption Island might influence the actions of individual players in the game, but overall, it seems like we shouldn't expect drastic changes in gameplay. Redemption Island seems like an incremental, rather than radical, change to the game, and the biggest impact of all may be that we get to see more of characters who otherwise would have received 10 minutes of screentime before being sent home.

Alas, Wendy Jo, we hardly knew ye...

What's interesting to note is that as Survivor has evolved, the game has given players more ways to control their individual destinies. First, players were entirely at the mercy of their tribes. Then the Hidden Immunity Idol gave the individual a chance to control the outcome of critical votes. Now, Redemption Island has granted them yet another way to kick sand in the faces of those who would see them gone.

Should be an interesting season.

-The Strategist

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Survivor Theory- Going Live

After 21 seasons on the air in the US alone, Survivor is still going strong. While Mark Burnett and co. might believe that the show's success hinges on voyeuristic interest in bikini-clad models and  chiseled-ab'ed aspiring actors, we think we know better.

Though the ripped bods may be why Probst is still so excited about his job.

Survivor continues to fascinate because it's a game unlike any other- a cutthroat social endurance game played out in front of the cameras. It's an every man (and woman) for themselves game in which you must rely on others to succeed. And unlike many other games, there are many strategies that stand an equally good chance of getting you to the end.

We started this blog because we love Survivor- particularly because it's such a microcosm of human interaction. In future posts, we won't just be discussing the events of the last episode, but will also be dissecting player strategy. Along the way, we'll be applying what we know of modern tools used to describe and understand human behavior, including Evolutionary Psychology, Behavioral Economics, and Game Theory. We call it Survivor Theory.

We hope you'll enjoy this blog as much as we know we'll enjoy writing it.

- The Strategist and The Anthropologist