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Survivor Watch: It's Not How You Play the Game, It's Whether You Win or Lose

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Because I couldn’t resist, I’m un-vacationing myself for a few minutes for a couple thoughts on last night’s Survivor: Samoa finale. Spoilers after the jump:

It always amuses me to hear people argue about the “right” or the “wrong” way to win Survivor. Survivor is a self-ratifying system: if you win the game, you have therefore played it correctly. This is probably what gives some people moral problems with a show like this: that it sends the message that the end always justifies the means. But whatever: to me, morality is an entirely separate issue from winning or losing a reality game. Any system of morality worth being subscribed to by rational adults should accept that the right thing to do is the right thing, even if you lose by doing it.

In any case, it’s not as if morality has much to do with anyone’s being irked that Russell the Evil Leprechaun lost out to Natalie last night. He admittedly ran a deceitful, often mean-spirited, but, to be fair, quite effective game. It just wasn’t good enough. Instead, Natalie walked off with the $1 million, apparently because people liked her better.

Not that I especially cared for Natalie, but I was kind of glad to see her win, if only to reject this idea that the “coattails” strategy is somehow any less legitimate than any other strategy in Survivor. For one thing, if you’re a less physically strong player, you have fewer protections, especially in the early rounds, and the coattail strategy is one of the ones available to you. Saying that Russell’s strategy was more legitimate on some Calvinist grounds that it required harder work, supposedly, is not only nonsensical, it’s unfair.

And one thing that people sometime forget, but Mark Burnett stressed from the beginning, is that Survivor is a social game. People often interpret that as meaning it’s a game about backstabbing, but it’s more than that: it’s a game about mastering whatever social dynamic happens to work with those people who are on the jury. Natalie did that, so hail the victor. (And the bratty way Russell refused to acknowledged it—”What do you mean, I didn’t play a good social game?”—only proved the point.)

In any case, although I think Russell played a pretty good game overall, the idea that he had developed some entirely new paradigm of Survivor playing was, I think, mostly branding on his and CBS’s part. He developed some good multiple alliances and made the right moves at the right time, but other people have done that. And the fact that it was possible for him to find two immunity idols without the use of clues was, if you ask me, less ingenuity on his part than crappy game design on the part of Survivor’s producers. (Which is probably why they had a vested interest in presenting it like genius.)

That said, if Russell had used that strategy to win Survivor, I’d say he deserved it, because his strategy worked, QED. But he didn’t. The tribe has spoken.

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