The Ethics of Survivor
“It’s Just a Game”
By Justin Kitchen
This spring premiered yet another season (the 40th) of the CBS show Survivor. If you’re unfamiliar with it, here’s how an average game plays out: A number of people (usually 20) from different backgrounds are ‘stranded’ in a remote location—often on an island chain in the south pacific like Fiji. The players are divided into “tribes” at the outset, which compete every day in physical and mental challenges for rewards or tribe immunity. The losing tribe, which does not get immunity, then votes one of their members out of the game at “tribal council”. When the numbers get smaller, the tribes merge and individual survivors compete in challenges for individual immunity. The players that are voted out at this stage join “the jury.” When three players remain, they present their case to the jury for why they deserve to win and the jury votes for the winner (called the “sole survivor”). The game lasts 39 days and awards this season’s winner with a $2 Million cash prize.
There are three aspects of the game that players need to keep in mind. They correspond to the three parts of the Survivor slogan: “Outwit, Outplay, Outlast.” Survivors try to “outlast” each other by playing the game to the very end. But to actually win, players have to play the game well: they have to “outplay” each other by following the explicit rules of the game, competing in the challenges and thriving in the conditions put forth by the producers of the show. Additionally—and this is the tricky part—players have to “outwit” each other by playing a deliberate ‘social game’, making alliances and executing strategies over the course of the entire 39 days (this is tricky because the rules of this social game are certainly not explicit and are perhaps different for each member of the jury). At the end of the game, three finalists must advocate for themselves by presenting their so-called ‘resumes’ to the jury at the final tribal council; basically, this means that each finalist presents an argument for why they outwitted, outplayed, and outlasted the other two.
Last fall’s season (Season 39) saw quite a few discussions about ethics and the real-world implications of the show. These are often prompted by some form of faux pas made by either a malicious or merely oblivious player (such as different degrees of racial insensitivity, sexism, homophobia, etc.). While I do appreciate that time is allotted on the show to having serious discussions about these issues among more-or-less regular people from different backgrounds, I will not be discussing them here. Instead, I intend to dedicate the rest of the article to exploring how ethics plays a part in the actual game. In particular, I’d like to explore the ethics of trying to outwit each other with little to no guidelines for what’s right or wrong. Are there certain moves in the game which are not morally permissible though they do not break any explicit rules? Or when someone makes such a suggestion, can we just dismiss it in one sentence: “It’s just a game!”
Formalizing the ‘It’s Just a Game’ Defense
This is a common response to those who question the ethics of gameplay (again, not the unintentional faux pas, but intentional moves integral to a player’s game strategy): “It’s just a game!” In other words, if you’re attempting to conduct a serious analysis of the real ethical implications of playing a game like Survivor, then you’re taking the game too seriously. The assumption is that when you go off to Fiji and play Survivor, you are given license to put your personal ethics aside and do things you may find immoral in ‘real life.’ People often resort to this response when others question particularly cutthroat moves in their social game—specifically, when someone breaks an alliance and ‘blindsides’ those whose trust was gained.
But resorting to the ‘It’s Just a Game’ Defense is itself a moral claim: it’s a metaethical claim about how ethics itself should be approached. In this case, we are discussing how we should approach ethics while playing a game. Do we change how we conduct ourselves and follow a different set of ethical rules (the rules social etiquette perhaps)? Are there any ethical rules at all or is everything morally permissible outside of the explicit game rules? When a player accepts the ‘It’s Just a Game’ Defense, it seems that they’re making some kind of assumption here. So in order to use the defense, they would still have to explore this assumption, especially if the game has high stakes. If they don’t, they may be pressured into behaving in a way contrary to other more basic moral assumptions they hold and then left with uneasy feelings of regret, guilt, or shame.
So let me formalize this more clearly. At least two criteria must be met in order to the ‘It’s Just a Game’ Defense and transform a normally immoral move into a morally permissible one: 1) the normally immoral move must take place in the course of actual gameplay and 2) the normally immoral move must not be explicitly or implicitly prohibited by the rules of the game (a move is implicitly prohibited when it is inconsistent with the explicit rules).
Our main concern is lying, which is normally immoral. The rules of many games prohibit lying because it would just be impossible to play the game according to the rules if lying was permitted: Battleship, Guess Who?, Go Fish, and Clue—these are all games with rules that include asking your opponents questions. Why would question-asking be part of the rules if reliably truthful answers were not expected to progress gameplay? It’s clear, then, that lying is implicitly prohibited in these types of games (and this is why you would not accept your opponent’s defense—“Oh come on, it’s just a game!”—if you were playing Battleship and caught them moving their submarine around to avoid being hit). On the other spectrum, some games actually require lying under specific circumstances because—likewise—it would be impossible to play the game according to the rules otherwise: the game show “To Tell The Truth” and the party game “Two Truths and a Lie” come to mind.
As expected, Survivor falls between these two extremes and into the dreaded gray area. The game rules certainly don’t prohibit lying, but they also don’t require players to lie (a player could theoretically play and even win the game without lying once)… So if Survivor is in the gray area, what’s happening when players get upset when someone makes a normally immoral move? What assumptions are they bringing into the game that leads them to reject the ‘It’s Just a Game’ Defense? We must now explore this by examining some common ethical assumptions and potentially reformulate the ‘It’s Just a Game’ Defense to see if and when it can be used.
Two Approaches to Ethical Gameplay
The question is “If a move takes place during a game and is permitted (though not prohibited) by that game’s rules, then is it always morally permissible?” I think we must acknowledge a strong intuition to just reply “Yes!” to this question and respond to any objections with a variation of the “it’s just a game” line. The source of this intuition comes from a common assumption that we should approach ethics by taking a rule-based approach. So as long as I’m following the rules of the game (which we all agreed to upon entering) and also any political and religious laws that I’ve previously agreed to (which usually aren’t relevant when playing games), then I’m behaving ethically. Beyond that, I will act pragmatically—I will behave in such a way that will produce the most beneficial outcomes (in the case of a game, this amounts to getting myself closer to winning). This is often described as a consequentialist approach, but an ethics based on religious duty, natural rights, or principles of justice (which don’t need to refer to consequences) are also rule-based. The assumption here is that ethics amounts to acting according to a set of rules—explicit or implicit—which are beneficial to ourselves as individuals, to our personal relations, or to a larger community. But there is another intuition that comes from an assumption that we should approach ethics a different way, looking less at actions and more at the person themselves—thus, we can describe this as taking an identity-based approach. This intuition comes into play whenever we feel the need to distinguish between how an action is carried out and not just whether it’s successful (and this is why I think it may come into play in Survivor). The identity-based approach is often articulated using the language of ‘virtue ethics,’ which claims that as long as I’m acting in accordance with positive character traits (or ‘virtues’) or contrary to negative character traits (or ‘vices’), then I’m behaving ethically.
When players in Survivor get upset about lying and backstabbing and blindsiding, I suspect that one of two types of reasoning occurs based on the intuitions and corresponding approaches I just mentioned. In the first case, players may get upset because they think a rule was broken. This rule is not a rule of regular gameplay, though, but one derived from a promise that another player made with them. They are adding a third criterion to the ‘It’s Just a Game Defense’ (making it more difficult to use), and claiming that: “a normally immoral move is morally permissible only if 1) it takes place during a game, 2) not prohibited by that game’s rules, and 3) not prohibited by any additional rules established with another player.” In this case, they are interpreting lying as morally permissible unless you make a promise to another player, which prohibits lying. That seems fine on the face of it; my friends and I may decide to add or change rules to a game in order to make things more interesting. But we tend to agree to these alterations outside of gameplay before the game actually starts. I think this first type of reasoning is especially problematic in the case of Survivor because there are no interactions among players outside of gameplay. The social game is played 24 hours a day for 39 days. Thus, there is no opportunity to come to any agreement or make any promises in which the parties involved are not already permitted to lie about their own fidelity.
The second type of reasoning that may occur when players get upset about lying is when they interpret the move, not as breaking a rule, but as indicative of poor character. In this case, they are interpreting an act of lying as an instance of untrustworthiness or disloyalty. But what’s the problem with this? Exhibiting poor character seems innocuous if it’s isolated to in-game behavior—someone may say “I’m untrustworthy while I’m playing the game but outside it I’m trustworthy.” The problem with this is that character is not something that can be changed at will depending on the context—its defining feature is its stability over time. Being trustworthy doesn’t mean telling the truth once in a while, it means that you have a strong psychological tendency or disposition to tell the truth. Likewise, being untrustworthy means you have a disposition to lie. And in this case, if you take lying lightly while playing a game, there seems to be an intuition that it will have a cumulative effect on your character, which will follow you outside of gameplay and into the ‘real world’. Players who are concerned about character are not adding a third criterion to the ‘It’s Just a Game Defense’; rather, they’re dwelling on the first criterion: “a normally immoral move is morally permissible only if it takes place in the course of actual gameplay.” This reasoning is particularly appropriate in the case of Survivor because gameplay lasts so long: 39 full days of potential deception, 936 straight hours of rationalizing to yourself why deception is a good thing. If there are residual effects of repeated lying and backstabbing and blindsiding, then there’s truth to saying that Survivor is not “just a game’.
Careful, It’s Not Just a Game
So there is a way to combat the ‘It’s Just a Game’ Defense—at least in the case of long or often repeated games. The response will appeal to the poor character of the liar or backstabber or blindsider—it appeals to what kind of person they represent while they play the game. If a move is particularly cutthroat and insensitive, then there may be something immoral happening. But to justify this position, we must appeal to character—how an action is carried out—not the action itself. We can see this in Survivor: there doesn’t seem much concern about lying itself (which is an isolated act), but there is concern about untrustworthiness or disloyalty (which are character traits). This insight can help players get through Survivor intact: lie only rarely and according to good strategy, do not relish in the act, do not interpret it as something good in itself, and stay loyal for the most part. This will not only help players preserve those virtues that they value in themselves, but—as a byproduct—this approach is likely to make a positive impression on members of the jury who share in the sentiment that character is important… Keep an eye out for this during the final tribal council and reunion episode on May 13th.
Justin Kitchen is a lecturer in the Philosophy Department at San Francisco State.