Tonight marked the 13th finale of Survivor, which I've been blogging about since Season 1 in 2000 (back when I was writing for the now defunct www.studentadvantage.com!). And it's still by far still the most important show for game designers, and probably other kinds of social experience designers, to watch. Kiyash asked me the other night if I was still watching Survivor to learn, or if it was just a guilty pleasure. I suppose it's both--but I'm definitely still learning. And so I thought I'd share a few ideas about how watching a TV show can inform design. (By the way, props to Henry Jenkins for blogging about Survivor spoiler culture and including a chapter on Survivor audiences as collective intelligence in his new book Convergence Culture. Another interesting phenomenon of the show, although much less active as the fan-base has become less rabid.)
The thing about Survivor is that it's a very carefully constructed game that evolves to maximize three aspects: 1) emergent (surprising, player-driven) drama, 2) meaningful gameplay (each player controls his or her own fate) and 3) satisfying outcomes (in hindsight, like the outcome of an Aristolian tragedy, seems inevitable--the winner is the person who deserves that fate most). A good season of Survivor needs all 3 of these traits... and so does any well-designed game or goal-oriented collective experience.
Because some seasons were less satisfying than others, the producers began to change the game. (In this way, Survivor is a lot like a puppet mastered game -- the designers are flexible, changing it in real-time to fuel the positive momentum and minimize problems or boredom.) Each season has offered complicated, thoughtful tweaks to its design and deployment to ensure that the game continues to work as player strategies evolve from repeated exposure to the game. Moreover, it seems to me that the producers have consistently worked to ensure that the ultimate outcome of each game (who is the sole survivor) satisfies the audience as much as possible. This season marks the pinnacle of success in that respect-- the two vote-getting finalists were extraordinarily likable, admirable competitors. It was hard to know who to root for because they both played so astonishlingly well, and it was also hard to predict who would make the final four because so many diverse and surprising player strategies seemed viable.
Guaging online response to winners by reading things like the TV Guide Survivor blog or Survivor Sucks forum is an important aspect to reading the show's success and implementing different strategies. When an audience grow increasingly frustrated because it seems inevitable that the most popular, and 'best players' (according to audience opinion), have no viable strategies because other players are playing too conservatively, or subverting the spirit of the game through bad sportmanship--then the game needs fixing. Indeed, in this way, the game has as much of a survival instinct as the players. (The meta game of Survivor is the puppet masters keeping the audience engaged and the players off guard.) After several seasons of lame finales with loser winners, this season changed the most aspects of any previous season -- and it worked. Each change can be analyzed for its impact on the social aspects and competitive aspects of the game, which is the kind of thing that I spend my free brain bandwith thinking about as specifically as possible. (And if we ever wind up taking a road trip together or on a long hike or camping out for tickets somewhere together, I'll be happy to spill those insights. Actually, I think I got one of my first game design industry breaks based on a 3-hour conversation in which I broke down a couple seasons play by play.)
Okay, so the big take away: A thoughtful reality show competition that evolves over more than a dozen iterations is a powerful lesson in how micro changes in design can impact player and spectator experience. All the seasons are on DVD, so if you are stuck in bed with the flu for a week (LIKE ME!!! I am still bed-bound, argh) I highly recommend grabbing a few and watching the good and the bad iterations unfold.