SurvivorSurvivor: Blood vs Water

The Buffington Post: Blood Vs Water, A Prisoner’s Dilemma

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There has been a lot of buzz in the community of Survivor commentators about Aras’ decision to vote out Laura M. In the court of public opinion, we seem to have a pretty even split—the Fishbachs of the world think this was a brilliant move, and the Rob Cesterninos of the world think it’s likely to back fire. Both arguments have sound rational backing, making this one of the most ambiguous strategic moves in recent memory. Upon which hook should I hang my hat?

e5-araslauram There are plenty of articles talking about Aras.[/caption]

I’ll level with you, Loyal Blog Readers. I think that’s an irrelevant question, and it’s not what I want to talk about this week. If you want to read brilliant and thrilling prose espousing the strategic merits or foibles of Aras, I think you will find it elsewhere on the Internet in copious supply. I want you and I to talk about something else—a subtle, but very powerful and significant shift in this game we all love. I want to revisit one of my favorite pet topics in the light of new events. Once more, for good measure, let’s talk about Hidden Immunity Idols.

I have argued extensively in the past that Hidden Immunity Idols are a flawed gameplay mechanic, and that they cannot actually function in the game. We don’t need to revisit those points here today. What makes the ongoing debate surrounding idols once more interesting and timely is that a new idol strategy altogether has emerged. In this post-modern era of Survivor, castaways are boycotting the idols completely.

Six episodes in to season 27, we have seen three separate attempts to kill off the idol’s influence in the game. The first came when John was voted out purely for having access to the clues. John was a strong challenge contributor locked in to a dominant alliance. All of the smart money would have predicted an unobstructed magic carpet ride to the merge for John. If John can be voted out for holding idol clues, then it’s clear that something powerful is operating under the surface. These players are sick of playing production’s idol game. They’ve spontaneously and uniformly decided to go on strike.

Monica and Brad have gotten the message loud and clear. They don’t want the stigma of Hidden Immunity Idols attached to them. Curiously, and perhaps counter-intuitively, the same object that once seemed like an insurmountable advantage in the game is now perceived as suicide. Burning the idol clues is an act of civil disobedience. These players don’t want to play that game.

Why not? Is it because the clues are distributed in public? Perhaps. Certainly everyone would prefer to find their idol in private, and share the information only with their most trusted allies, if at all. A Hidden Immunity Idol cannot truly be hidden if everyone knows who likely holds it. That has to be a powerful deterrent—but idols have also been shown to be powerful advantages. Is that really the end of the story, or is there more?

Perhaps there’s something else going on. Perhaps the final phase of the Hidden Immunity Idol’s evolution as a gameplay mechanic resembles the final resolution of the famous Prisoner’s Dilemma.

If you and I both commit the same crime, and are arrested and held in separate rooms, law enforcement will start trying to work us. The police will offer each of us a lenient prosecution in exchange for damning testimony against the other party. If we both accept, we both give up evidence on the other, and we both get slapped with maximum sentences. If we both refuse; however, we can both walk free. How can you and I trust one another and make the altruistic decision—in this case, the choice that is in our collective best interests—without exposing ourselves to vulnerability?

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Brad and Monica have clearly gotten the message.

In the context of Idols, the Prisoner’s Dilemma works more like this: I want to find the Idol, because I don’t want you to use it against me. You also want to find the Idol, because you don’t want me to use it against you. Motivated by mutual mistrust—compelled to search for protection from the Idol—one of us does indeed find the Idol, and the other person gets burned. The Idol game is truly a zero-sum game.

There is another option. The Prisoner’s Dilemma has a solution. If everyone acts in the best interests of the collective, everyone gets to enjoy a net positive outcome. If no one cheats, everyone wins. That’s a tough sell in a game for a million bucks, though. The solution to the Hidden Immunity Idol problem can’t be to trust your competitors. Can it?

To answer that question, I think we need to take a closer and more nuanced look at our Survivor history. A Hidden Immunity idol has been a great thing to hold, not because it protects you from a single vote, but because it acts as an enduring passive deterrent. This has been the prevailing idol strategy since Cook Islands. For 13 seasons of Survivor, this paradigm has endured. Holders of the idol were assured of a smooth and easy path to Final Tribal Council. And as players like Russell Hantz flaunted this advantage, and pushed its limits, it began to act as an irritant. The stigma attached to idol ownership has been growing. It seems inevitable that we would reach a breaking point.

I believe that we’re there, Loyal Blog Readers. I think Malcolm’s idol hijinks last season were the final nail in the coffin. Idols limit the number of possible strategic moves a given player can make, and their power as a deterrent in the game extends only as far as the fear other players feel. If the fear is gone, if players are united against it, the idol loses its enduring passive power in the game. It reverts back to being a single-use object. Without its mystique, it can be, at best, only a temporary stalling technique. In other words, the power of the Hidden Immunity Idol, I believe, is fundamentally untenable. It is an idea doomed to fail.

What are your thoughts, Loyal Blog Readers? Are we witnessing the beginning of the end of Idols in this game, or is this season just a fluke? Leave some comments—you know I value your input!

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