Capitalistic Ideology as an 'Interpersonal Game'

The Case of Survivor

How to Cite

Morgan, C. (2000). Capitalistic Ideology as an ’Interpersonal Game’: The Case of Survivor. M/C Journal, 3(5).
Vol. 3 No. 5 (2000): Game
Published 2000-10-01

"Outwit, Outplay, Outlast"

"All entertainment has hidden meanings, revealing the nature of the culture that created it" ( 6). This quotation has no greater relevance than for the most powerful entertainment medium of all: television. In fact, television has arguably become part of the "almost unnoticed working equipment of civilisations" (Cater 1). In other words, TV seriously affects our culture, our society, and our lives; it affects the way we perceive and approach reality (see Cantor and Cantor, 1992; Corcoran, 1984; Freedman, 1990; Novak, 1975).

In this essay, I argue that the American television programme Survivor is an example of how entertainment (TV in particular) perpetuates capitalistic ideologies. In other words, Survivor is a symptom of American economic culture, which is masked as an "interpersonal game".

I am operating under the assumption that television works "ideologically to promote and prefer certain meanings of the world, to circulate some meanings rather than others, and to serve some interests rather than others" (Fiske 20). I argue that Survivor promotes ideals on two levels: economic and social. On the economic level, it endorses the pursuit of money, fame, and successful careers. These values are prevalent in American society and have coalesced into the myth of the "American Dream", which stands for the opportunity for each individual to get ahead in life; someone can always become wealthy (see White, 1988; Cortes, 1982; Grambs, 1982; Rivlin, 1992). These values are an integral part of a capitalistic society, and, as I will illustrate later, Survivor is a symptom of these ideological values. On the second level, it purports preferred social strategies that are needed to "win" at the game of capitalism: forming alliances, lying, and deception.


The discussion of ideology is critical if we are to better understand the function of Survivor in American culture. Ideologies are neither "ideal" nor "spiritual," but rather material. Ideologies appear in specific social institutions and practices, such as cultural artefacts (Althusser, For Marx 232). In that way, everyone "lives" in ideologies. Pryor suggests that ideology in cultural practices can operate as a "rhetoric of control" by structuring the way in which people view the world:

Ideology `refracts' our social conditions of existence, structuring consciousness by defining for us what exists, what is legitimate and illegitimate, possible and impossible, thinkable and unthinkable. Entering praxis as a form of persuasion, ideology acts as a rhetoric of control by endorsing and legitimising certain economic, social and political arrangements at the expense of others and by specifying the proper role and position of the individual within those arrangements. (4)

Similarly, Althusser suggests, "ideology is the system of ideas and representations which dominate the mind of a man or a social group" (Ideology 149). Thus, ideology, for Althusser, represents the way individuals "live" their relations to society (Eagleton 18).

Grossberg suggests, "within such positions, textuality is a productive practice whose (imaginary) product is experience itself. Experience can no longer serve as a mediation between the cultural and the social since it is not merely within the cultural but is the product of cultural practices" (409). The "text" for study, then, becomes the cultural practices and structures, which determine humans. Althusser concludes that ideology reifies our affective, unconscious relations with the world, and determines how people are pre-reflectively bound up in social reality (Eagleton 18).

Survivor as a Text

In the United States, the "reality TV" genre of programming, such as The Real World, Road Rules, and Big Brother (also quite famous in Europe), are currently very popular. Debuting in May, 2000, Survivor is one of the newest additions to this "reality programming."

Survivor is a game, and its theme is: "Outwit, Outplay, Outlast". The premise is the following:

Sixteen strangers are "stranded" on a remote island in the South China Sea. They are divided into two "tribes" of eight, the "Pagong" and "Tagi." They have to build shelter, catch food, and establish a "new society". They must work together as a team to succeed, but ultimately, they are competitors. The tribes compete in games for "rewards" (luxury items such as food), and also for "immunity". Every third day, they attend a "tribal council" in which they vote one member off the island. Whoever won the "immunity challenge" (as a tribe early in the show, later, as an individual) cannot be voted off. After several episodes, the two tribes merge into one, "Rattana," as they try to "outwit, outlast, and outplay" the other contestants. The ultimate prize is $1,000,000.

The Case of Survivor

As Althusser (For Marx) and Pryor suggest, ideology exists in cultural artefacts and practices. In addition, Pryor argues that ideology defines for us what is "legitimate and illegitimate," and "thinkable and unthinkable" by "endorsing certain economic and social arrangements" (4). This is certainly true in the case of Survivor. The programme is definitely a cultural artefact that endorses certain practices. In fact, it defines for us the "preferred" economic and social arrangements. The show promotes for us the economic arrangement of "winning" money. It also defines the social arrangements that are legitimate, thinkable, and necessary to win the interpersonal and capitalistic game. First, let us discuss the economic arrangements that Survivor purports.

The economic arrangements that Survivor perpetuates are in direct alignment with those of the "game" of capitalism: to "win" money, success, and/or fame (which will lead to money). While Richard, the $1,000,000 prize winner, is the personification of the capitalistic/American Dream come true, the other contestants certainly have had their share of money and fame.

For example, after getting voted off the island, many of the former cast members appeared on the "talk show circuit" and have done many paid interviews. Joel Klug has done approximately 250 interviews (Abele, Alexander and Lasswell 62), and Stacey Stillman is charging $1200 for a "few quotes," and $1800 for a full-length interview (Millman et al. 16). Jenna Lewis has been busy with paid television engagements that require cross country trips (Abele, Alexander and Lasswell 63). In addition, some have made television commercials. Both B. B. Andersen and Stacey Stillman appeared in Reebok commercials that were aired during the remaining Survivor episodes.

Others are making their way even farther into Hollywood. Most have their own talent agents who are getting them acting jobs. For example, Sean Kenniff is going to appear in a role on a soap opera, and Gervase Peterson is currently "sifting through offers" to act in television situation comedies and movies. Dirk Been has been auditioning for movie roles, and Joel Klug has moved to Los Angeles to "become a star". Even Sonja Christopher, the 63-year-old breast cancer survivor and the first contestant voted off, is making her acting debut in the television show, Diagnosis Murder (Abele, Alexander and Lasswell 57).

Finally, two of the women contestants from Survivor were also tempted with a more "risky" offer. Both Colleen Haskell and Jenna Lewis were asked to pose for Playboy magazine. While these women are certainly attractive, they are not the "typical-looking" playboy model. It is obvious that their fame has put them in the mind of Hugh Heffner, the owner of Playboy. No one is revealing the exact amount of the offers, but rumours suggest that they are around $500,000. Thus, it is clear that even though these contestants did not win the $1,000,000, they are using their famous faces to "win" the capitalistic game anyway.

Not only does Survivor purport the "preferred" economic arrangements, it also defines for us the social arrangements needed to win the capitalistic game: interpersonal strategy. The theme of the strategy needed to win the game is "nice guys don't last". This is demonstrated by the fact that Gretchen, a nice, strong, capable, and nurturing "soccer mother" was the seventh to be voted off the island. There were also many other "nice" contestants who were eventually voted off for one reason or another.

However, on the other hand, Richard, the million-dollar winner, used "Machiavellian smarts" to scheme his way into winning. After the final episode, he said, "I really feel that I earned where I am. The first hour on the island I stepped into my strategy and thought, 'I'm going to focus on how to establish an alliance with four people early on.' I spend a lot of time thinking about who people are and why they interact the way they do, and I didn't want to just hurt people's feelings or do this and toss that one out. I wanted this to be planned and I wanted it to be based on what I needed to do to win the game. I don't regret anything I've done or said to them and I wouldn't change a thing" (Hatch, n.pag.).

One strategy that worked to Richard's advantage was that upon arriving to the island, he formed an alliance with three other contestants: Susan, Rudy, and Kelly. They decided that they would all vote the same person off the island so that their chances of staying were maximised. Richard also "chipped in", did some "dirty work", and ingratiated himself by being the only person who could successfully catch fish. He also interacted with others strategically, and decided who to vote off based on who didn't like him, or who was more likeable than him (or the rest of the alliance).

Thus, it is evident that being part of an alliance is definitely needed to win this capitalistic game, because the four people who were part of the only alliance on the island were the final contestants. In fact, in Rudy's (who came in third place) final comments were, "my advice for anybody who plays this game is form an alliance and stick with it" (Boesch, n.pag.). This is similar to corporate America, where many people form "cliques", "alliances", or "particular friendships" in order to "get ahead". Some people even betray others. We definitely saw this happen in the programme.

This leads to another essential ingredient to the social arrangements: lying and deception. In fact, in episode nine, Richard (the winner) said to the camera, "outright lying is essential". He also revealed that part of his strategy was making a big deal of his fishing skills just to distract attention from his schemings. He further stated, "I'm not still on the island because I catch fish, I'm here because I'm smart" (qtd. in Damitol, n.pag.). For example, he once thought the others did not appreciate his fishing skills. Thus, he decided to stop fishing for a few days so that the group would appreciate him more. It was seemingly a "nasty plan", especially considering that at the time, the other tribe members were rationing their rice. However, it was this sort of behaviour that led him to win the game.

Another example of the necessity for lying is illustrated in the fact that the alliance of Richard, Rudy, Sue, and Kelly (the only alliance) denied to the remaining competitors that they were scheming. Sue even blatantly lied to the Survivor host, Jeff Probst, when he asked her if there was an alliance. However, when talking to the cameras, they freely admitted to its existence.

While the alliance strategy worked for most of the game, in the end, it was destined to dissolve when they had to start voting against each other. So, just as in a capitalistic society, it is ultimately, still "everyone for her/himself". The best illustration of this fact is the final quote that Kelly made, "I learned early on in the game [about trust and lying]. I had befriended her [Sue -- part of Kelly's alliance]; I trusted her and she betrayed me. She was lying to me, and was plotting against me from very early on. I realised that and I knew that. Therefore I decided not to trust her, not to be friends with her, not to be honest with her, for my own protection" (Wiglesworth, n.pag.). Therefore, even within the winning alliance, there was a fair amount of distrust and deception.


In conclusion, I have demonstrated how Survivor promotes ideals on two levels: economic and social. On the economic level, it endorses the pursuit of money, fame, and successful careers. On the social level, it purports preferred interpersonal strategies that are needed to "win" at the game of capitalism. In fact, it promotes the philosophy that "winning money at all costs is acceptable". We must win money. We must lie. We must scheme. We must deceive. We must win fame. Whether or not the audience interpreted the programme this way, what is obvious to everyone is the following: six months ago, the contestants on Survivor were ordinary American citizens; now they are famous and have endless opportunities for wealth.

Author Biography

Carol Morgan