Survivor V: The Gamer's Perspective

By Thorin N. Tatge

Week 1

All right, let me introduce the idea behind this series of essays.  There are untold numbers of Survivor fans writing their opinions of each episode and putting them on the web, so I figured if I was going to be a Johnny-come-lately and do the same, I'd better have a special twist going for me.  Since I'm into games and puzzles, I decided that would be it.  Thus, I will focus in my essays on the games which are played during the run of Survivor Thailand.  This espcially means the challenges, but also the broader games--the alliances and countermaneuvers, the ruses and deceptions... and what the heck, also the mini games of frisbee, golf and what-have-you that may crop up during the season.  I'll tell you what I think of each challenge, and I'll also rate a few of the players at the end of each essay: the two best and the two worst.  These players won't necessarily be the ones who I felt did the best and worst jobs overall in the episode, but rather the ones who excelled at the challenges and games.  And given that I can probably stretch my definitions enough to make just about anything into a "game" if I try, the list of players for each week will likely be a pretty good indication of how well I think the contestants are doing in general.

It's encouraging that Survivor Thailand kicks off the games right away.  The whole first half of Survivor is suddenly one of those sports competitions where you can pick your teams, with the two eldest contestants the team captains!  Aside from this giving the series a slight but distinctive Thai flavor, my mother had an interesting insight about the effect this method of choosing teams is going to have on the game.  (Mom is my trusty companion for watching Survivor, and her insights may often crop up in these essays.)  Jake and Jan, while not being pushy or bossy in any way on their respective tribes, have obtained a certain level of respect just by being, so to speak, their team captains.  Jan said to the camera that she's not a leader, and this is true; yet, at Chauy Gahn she seems to be revered somewhat like a matriarch might be.  None of this voting out the oldest woman early nonsense we got with Sonja, Maralyn and Patricia; no one even considers voting for Jan.  Jake is thirty years older than his nearest competitor on Sook Jai (Ken), and yet manages to be one of the boys and more, just because he's the one who brought them all together.  Just like in a real family, huh?  Let people like John and Robb draw attention to themselves and get voted out; Jan and Jake are enjoying a generous allotment of quiet dignity.

So, how did they fare in this first mini-game?  Other web commentators have mixed opinions, but I think the majority has it right; each tribe has pronounced strengths and weaknesses.  Sook Jai has youth and enthusiasm but lacks know-how and shows signs of fracturing early.  Chuay Gahn has unity and experience but may be a bit creaky on the challenges and slow to adapt to island life.  It's a good thing they got the camp with a shelter built right in, since they can now afford to take the amassment of food and water slowly.  Sook Jai's need for a quick shelter has really caused them problems.

Jan picked Ted first, then Helen, and then John, probably trying to get intelligence, maturity, knowledge and and strength in the same three packages.  So far it looks like she succeeded, although one of those three is now gone.  Having picked one of the African American contestants it was wise of Jan to pick the other, Ghandia--in seasons I and IV and in II to a lesser extent the two black castaways have bonded upon finding themselves in the same tribe, so at the risk of sounding condescending I'll call Jan's choice of Ghandia considerate.  She then picked Brian--ostensibly for his guitar, but perhaps also for his good physical condition.  Jan was then forced to pick someone in her twenties, so Tanya joined the team, and Clay was the "diamond in the rough" destined to round out the group.  I have to admit I'm fascinated with Clay and I hope he stays around awhile so I can find out what's so interesting about him.  I'm sure there's something interesting--it seems like it.  Anyway, Jake's choices were more direct: he chose youth, strength, and perceived determination.  Not a single one of his choices was over thirty.  Will too many twenty-somethings spoil the reality TV?  We'll find out.

An observation about revealing information.  Jeff Probst has said in interviews that any contestant who wants to can hide their identity or even lie about themselves to the other contestants.  The producers will not reveal the truth.  But no one so far has done that (quite understandably, given that up to 39 stress-filled days is a long time to fabricate and evade).  When the Survivor: Thailand contestants were giving introductions, they all gave their name, age, home town and occupation... all except Clay, who chose not to mention his occupation (restauranteur).  Perhaps he wanted to avoid the sort of "you don't need the money" vote Helen gave him anyway, so that he didn't become the next Carl.

Let's talk about the challenge.  It was a canoe race with three stations, a good, varied challenge to start off the series.  I find it interesting that both of the older team captains performed a station.  The first station was a rope maze--this was really just a maze with a rope stuck through it.  I'm not surprised, for some reason, than an elementary school teacher would have a good eye for mazes.  But it wasn't very complicated.  The second station was even simpler--a dive and unhook deal.  The third station was easily the most interesting and, as it turned out, the most discussed.  It was a sliding block puzzle touted as traditionally Thai.  At first, I thought I knew the exact puzzle--it's a classic, after all.  Try out a Javascript version here.  And I was aghast, to tell the truth, because I know how unbelievably hard that puzzle is.  I was all ready to title this essay "In Defense of Ghandia" and talk about how anyone could get stuck on a puzzle like that--how it depends a lot on whether you're lucky enough to start the right way or the wrong way, and how they both seem plausible but if you start the wrong way you get totally stuck and have to backtrack all the way to the beginning.  I can't solve this puzzle myself, and I'm no sloucher when it comes to puzzles.  It could have taken those poor contestants half an hour, and who knows how much they edited out?
     But then I paused the tape and took a closer look at the puzzle, and I noticed that my first impression had been mistaken.  While the puzzles were indeed crafted in the same way as the famous specimen, with the same shape and the same number of pieces of each size, the blocks were arranged differently.  When I showed my mother the two arrangements she didn't see much of a difference, but the truth is that the arrangement Jed and Ghandia worked on was much easier than the classic version.  This was a wise move on the part of the challenge crew.  All you have to do is shift everything clockwise, or shift everything counter-clockwise, and treat the small squares as two pairs of horizontal bars except at the beginning and end.  Moreover, there's no easy way to get stuck.  It wasn't clear how Ghandia managed to get into the arrangement she did, but she has only herself to blame.  I don't think that it's fair to say she had a panic attack, though.  Sometimes with puzzles like that you just have to step back and take a deep breath.  And mess with your hair, or whatever.
Why the heck doesn't this image load?? So what can we say about Ghandia?  She isn't spatially inclined, it seems.  But really, what difference does that make, except possibly on future challenges?  She may not be good at keeping her cool, although I'm not convinced that's the case.  We know that she has a solid sense of responsibility.  I was impressed by her collected comments at Tribal Council.  What about her crying fit, though?  Doesn't that mean that she's unstable?  I don't think so.  Go to the above link and try to solve the puzzle, and pretend that seven other people are urging you to hurry, and a country full of TV viewers is watching you struggle.  Don't stop when you get frustrated--that's not an option for a Survivor.  See if you don't feel like crying after a while.
The classic "Red
Square" puzzle.
The dumbed-down
Survivor version.
Of course, the puzzle really wasn't that hard, but if you imagine not having much talent for that sort of thing, the reactions should be the same as for a better puzzler working on a harder puzzle.  In any case, I think voting out Ghandia just because of this challenge would have been foolish.  John was quite possibly the best choice.

Incidentally, did anyone notice that everyone got a confessional (personal interview in front of the camera) except Ted?  Could this be a sign of Ted's eventual victory?  Probably not.  But just maybe.

Now, let's have our first batch of the best and the worst:

Best Player: Jan.  She really ripped through that rope maze, and we can see she's no slouch at swimming.  Despite her fifty-three years, she did her share of rowing.  And she managed to maintain enough respect from her tribemates that they didn't even think of voting for her, while avoiding the dangerous leader position.  Great start.

2nd Best Player: Jed.  Anyone think that maybe Ghandia wasn't that slow--that maybe Jed was just super quick?  He certainly seemed to be in his element, rowing, swimming, and puzzling up a storm.  And for the record, I agree with him on the shelter/food issue.  Division of labor in the early stages is a good thing.

2nd Worst Player: Ghandia.  I feel a little guilty about this because I know that her plight really could happen to anyone, and this failure isn't likely to reflect on her future ability.  But facts are facts, there was only one challenge, and she did the worst at it.

Worst Player: Robb.  He had no special role in the challenge, so one might think Ghandia deserves this slot more than him, but one's status as Player depends on one's strategy in the overall game, too, and Robb is just too much of a firecracker.  By demanding that everyone show him their hands, he's basically put his own hand on the table: loud, hyperactive, obsessive.  He may very well be the first person voted out of Sook Jai.

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