When is it good to be bad? When do mistakes pay off? Sarah Channon has her own theory about who can win this game.
Back when Season 40’s cast was leaked, back before they’d even started playing, many of us looked over the list of names and picked a winner. Mine was Adam. I felt that was a solid guess for a strong player who could go under-estimated among this crew of egos, so I was surprised when the fan conversation tended to rate him well below the top tier of likely winners—not in the bottom tier by any means, but those of us who saw him as a genuine contender were in the minority.
Once the season started, I got a better understanding of why this is. Adam’s that little bit too awkward: he’s too antsy to sit quietly and let the game flow, but he doesn’t have the force of personality to pull off some of the interactions he tries for. He ends up irritating people instead. Yet my faith in Adam is entirely unshaken. He’s still in an excellent position to win the game and that’s because of his mistakes. I have a theory on what it will take to win this season and that is a cosmetic flaw, i.e. a fault as a player that looks worse than it is. Their tribemates perceive this flaw, assume the player is less of a threat and fail to notice that the player is actually in good standing with the jury.
Adam isn’t this season’s only player to win this way. Natalie and Tyson both benefited from cosmetic flaws. But most tellingly, a cosmetic flaw is what gave us our first two-time winner. Ten years ago, one Russell Hantz couldn’t believe that the jury could relate to somebody so mouthy and openly emotional, but the jury were living vicariously through Sandra’s trash-talking and rewarded her with their votes.
Let me be clear here, any old flaw won’t do. Game mistakes that actually piss off the jury are not cosmetic nor are game mistakes that put a target on your back. Those are serious if not terminal. (NB: possessing a cosmetic flaw doesn’t stop a player from having a fatal one.) So how do we find that balance between bad enough to be kept around but good enough to win? And why don’t I think a different gamestyle will work for this season?
GOATS want Goats
One thing that goes under-reported on Survivor is how many players don’t think about who else will be at Final Tribal Council. In the online fandom, it’s basic game theory: take people you can beat to the end. However, when you’re new to the Island, just getting yourself to the end can be an overwhelming prospect. It’s easier for new players to focus on that alone, believing that the effort it takes to do that much is all the argument they’ll need for the jury. (The exact number of players who do this is probably higher than any of us believe.)
But every player here has already made it to the end; they not only know they can do it, but in most cases, that’s the game route they’re most familiar with. This game is also being produced under the creed that we have a higher calibre of player than in any other season: pulling out the win here will be more difficult than ever before! (I’d argue this vehemently, but if the players perceive it to be true, that’s all that’s relevant to its effect on the game.)
There are a number of players on this season whose win had more to do with their overall likeability than with any one move they made in the game. This may be why Ethan went so early: he didn’t have the gameplay target that Rob and Parvati did, but there’s nothing not to like about Ethan. Winners should know how dangerous it is to let the person with no enemies slide through. It’s ironic really, since three of the four players who voted Ethan out (Jeremy, Michele and Denise) are also known for their overall likeability, but nobody’s talking about a charisma-shield. Who are they trusting to take them to the end? Jeremy might be confident he can beat Michele, but I hardly think Michele is planning to accompany Jeremy docilely to the end. Who does she think she can beat and are they willing to go up against her? She doesn’t have the same reputation as Jeremy, but if she plays the game she means to play, people are going to notice that. Or if it comes to a point where players want to weaken Jeremy’s hold on the game, his sweet-natured partner might find herself Ethan’ed.
Those who come across as rough around the edges are safer. In Blood vs. Water, Monica had sound intentions for going to the end with Tyson: He (and Gervase) had a habit of picking fights with players as they were voted off. She felt confident that the jury hated him and that she was going to pick up a sure win against two goats. It wasn’t until Tribal Council that she realised how wildly she had miscalculated.
Ultimately, brash players play better to the jury than they’re ever given credit for. A lot of that is because they come off as authentic. It’s easier to trust somebody who wears their heart on their sleeve than who is sweetly pleasant all the time, and in a game where you spend 39 days being so careful of every interaction, you can be accorded a lot of courage for dropping the diplomacy. Surprised that Tyson, who almost never says anything with tongue out of cheek, could be seen as more genuine than Monica? You’re polite to your colleagues; you joke with your friends.
Besides, the best brash players will love and hate in equal measure, as Yul discovered with Tony this week. Natalie has a reputation for getting into fights when the actuality is that she traditionally stays on good terms with her cast-mates (both Amazing Race and Survivor) even when rifts develop in the group: e.g. Missy and Baylor vs. the entire San Juan del Sur jury. I think this is the key to doing this successfully: you have to be able to genuinely like everybody. Rob and Parvati are both impressive social players, but they play a clique-style: us vs. them. Their allies are fiercely loyal and their enemies are resentful, which means they always have some jurors determined to vote against them. You don’t need a perfect game in Survivor, but it’s difficult to get the numbers right in a clique strategy. As accomplished as Rob and Parvati are, they only have a 50% success rate in front of a jury.
There’s a flaw in his game.
Adam’s cosmetic flaw isn’t in the same vein as the brash player. He does take a diplomatic approach—his fault is that it’s so often transparent; his strength is that it’s earnest. Everybody knows that Adam is doing it for gameplay, but they also know he means it. Adam’s tactic of “strategic truths” is exactly what helps him. He’s honest about why he does what he does, and he doesn’t make it personal. When he’s caught, he owns up. For many players, the golden rule is to never admit you’ve been caught: always try to bluff it out. Adam’s ready acknowledgement that they’re all playing a game is as authentic as Sandra venting her feelings.
Adam’s obvious scheming hides a talent for forming genuine bonds with others. Everybody was annoyed with him this episode, and he could certainly have gone home had they lost the challenge, but he survived the danger point. What’s his reputation now? Somebody scared into obedience; Somebody you’ll see coming; Somebody the other players don’t like. In other words, somebody who is a low priority to vote off. (It’s a swap, anything can happen, but I find it hard to believe that any of Sele’s new-schoolers would refuse to work with Adam again; and if they did, he’s the least likely Sele to be targeted by their new Dakal tribemates.)
The problem is, none of that reputation is wholly true… Adam will bide his time, but he’ll try again; just because he gave himself away once, doesn’t mean he always will; finally, Adam’s excellent at relating to people on a personal level. On Millennials vs. Gen X he was able to form tight friendships and alliances with players as diverse as Taylor Stocker and Jessica Lewis. He genuinely likes people but unlike the brash players he doesn’t smacktalk the person he’s targeting. He’s not a finalist that feeds into the jurors’ emotions, the way Sandra does; he’s the one who has always kept the game professional and the relationships sincere. And he’s smart: he can talk game theory on a level with Yul and Sophie. There’s a reason Adam was a unanimous winner. He’s got all the jury bases covered.
Who else might benefit from a cosmetic flaw this season? Perhaps surprisingly, I’d say Ben. People remember his last few episodes on Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers, and forget that for most of the season’s run, he was a well-liked player who only torpedoed his social game once he became a target. We still have to see if he can keep calm under the pressure of the endgame, but Ben’s made strategic mistakes too, and like Ethan, he’s played up his own goofiness to minimise any target on his back. He might get an easier ride to the end this time.
I make mistakes too.
Of course, I’ve probably jinxed Adam by writing this blog and he’ll go home this Wednesday. Players with cosmetic flaws don’t always make the end. Likewise, obviously lovely players don’t always get voted off. Jeremy won in a returnee season, so it’s possible for one of season 4’s charmers to pull it off. What worked in Jeremy’s favour was going up with Spencer and Tasha, two players who would absolutely have won if they had got to the end in their original season. This made them less concerned about their F3 opponents (and, perhaps, jury management,) and that cost them every single jury vote. There are only two people this season who know the reality of getting to the end and losing. There are certainly enough egos on the beach who could over-rate their own abilities with the jury—take Sarah Lacina who played a blinding social game in Game Changers, but failed to grasp how baffled and hurt her jurors were once she voted them out. She was clearly surprised by the calumny she received at Final Tribal Council. Perhaps she’s learned a valuable lesson from that, but perhaps she simply learned that a solid game can overcome a bitter jury. The problem there is that juries don’t always see your game the way you do, and most of these winners haven’t experienced that. Somebody nice could benefit from somebody else’s ego to the tune of two million dollars.
Meanwhile, the Edge of Extinction is always a wild card, especially when it comes to the final returnee. Everybody saying that these players won’t reward another Chris Underwood is deluding themselves. Whoever comes back in at F6 has to be considered the biggest jury threat. (Unless they were only voted out the night before, but the Fire Token system advantages the players who is on Edge for longer.) That will either negate traditional social strengths… or distract the target from somebody else.
That said, returnee seasons have always been a hard-fought battle to make it to F3, and I think these players are more afraid of losing the jury vote at the end than of going out early. When choosing a winner pick, you’re best off taking the advice of the Tiger’s Head in Aladdin: “Seek out the diamond in the rough.” Old school players know the least obvious player is the biggest danger; New school players know to be wary of the “most medium” threat. It’s the unpolished players who slip under the radar.