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Outwit, Outplay, Outlast: Survivor and its use of Game Theory

As I browsed the Internet this past week, I spotted an advertisement for Wednesday night’s premiere of the 28th season of the popular TV show “Survivor.”  As a devoted fan for many years, I am well aware that this television show is revered as one of the greatest social experiments of our time.  For those who do not watch the show, in the beginning a group of people is split into two tribes on an island.  The tribes compete against one another in various challenges each week.  The losing tribe must vote one of its own members off the island.  What ensues is a complex game of trust, deception and skill, where the ultimate goal is to be the last person remaining on the island, and thus win a prize of one million dollars for being the “sole survivor.”  Although Survivor is an amalgam of many different strategies and theories, “the structure of the game closely resembles an iterated, multiple Prisoners’ Dilemma- with a similar payoff structure and opportunities for cooperation or defection with alliances” (1).  We discussed Game Theory, and specifically Prisoners’ Dilemma, in lecture, and many different scenarios in Survivor exemplify the principles behind Game Theory.

An example of applying Game Theory to Survivor occurred in season 1 during the final immunity challenge. Richard Hatch was up against Rudy and Kelly for immunity and a spot in the final 2.  Instead of participating and trying to win the immunity, Richard decided to not participate.  It is important to remember that in the finale of survivor, a jury of eliminated players votes for who they want to win the title of “sole survivor.”  Richard was strategic in not participating in the immunity challenge.  Had he won immunity, although Richard would be guaranteeing himself a place in the final two, he would have to choose who would also be in the final two with him.  He made a pact earlier in the game with Rudy that had either of them won the immunity challenge they each would take the other to the finale.  However, Rudy was more liked by the jury than Richard and would beat Richard in the end, so therefore Richard did not want to take Rudy to the end.  Had Richard participated in the immunity challenge and won, he would be breaking his promise to Rudy if he chose to take Kelly to the end instead.  This decision would make Richard look dishonest to the jury, and therefore he may not get there votes to win.

Therefore, it was in Richard’s best interest to sit out of the final immunity challenge, because had everything gone as planned, if Rudy won he would take Richard (because of their pact), and had Kelly won she would take Richard (because he is less liked than Rudy), and therefore Richard, without even playing, guaranteed himself a spot in the final two.  He actually went on to win the title of “sole survivor.”  Richard’s thought process resembles a more complicated thought process as someone that is using the Prisoner’s Dilemma form of Game Theory, mainly because of the different implications an payoffs that occur depending on who wins the challenge and what the players decide to do. Ultimately, however, the core results are the same: Richard chose the best strategy that led him to the best payoff.  Sitting out guaranteed him a positive payoff no matter what happened, i.e. he would make it to the final two.  If he had played and won, he would have had a negative payoff because he would be breaking his alliance with Rudy and therefore would look bad to the jury and not get their votes.  So therefore by sitting out of the challenge, Richard guaranteed himself a positive payoff of being in the final two regardless of the outcome of the immunity challenge.

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September 2014