By Garry Shirts
January 2005

I am talking specifically about Survivor and The Weakest Link. I haven’t watched any other reality TV shows but I assume they follow a similar format. Both of these programs are zero sum contests. If one person wins another person loses. Most sports are zero sum games. I enjoy watching sports, betting on sports and participating in sports, so it’s not the fact that these are zero sum contests that bother me.

In the Survivor show, teams compete against other teams and team members also compete against each other. I don’t mind teams competing against other teams, that’s a reflection of the real world. Pepsi competes against Coca Cola, Toyota against General Motors, etc. But the assumption that teams are made up of people who are competing against every other member of the team galls me.

There are such teams but, as in these reality shows, they are highly dysfunctional. The arguments, the sabotage, the conspiracies, the secret alliances, the third party communications that characterize the interaction on these teams make interesting viewing, but I’m concerned that people will start to believe that this is the only model for a team. Believing and acting as though every other team member is your potential enemy greatly reduces the team’s effectiveness and suboptimizes any system for which the team is responsible It also creates pain and suffering for everyone but the winner and even the winner often comes out a loser because of the damage done to his or her reputation and to his or her feelings of self worth.

In our Power of Leadership simulation, participants assume it is a zero sum game and generally base their decisions and behavior on that assumption. To an outsider, the behavior may look very similar to that of the participants in Survivor. But there is one big difference. In the Power of Leadership simulation, the participants may choose to cooperate, show leadership, establish common goals, act ethically, and they will be rewarded for that behavior. In Survivor, the rewards generally go to the person who is the most convincing in his or her deviousness. Some of the lessons learned in Survivor are: the ends justify the means, never reveal your motives to a team mate, always be strategic, think only of how you can create benefits for yourself, be a team player only if it advances your position.

I also dislike the name “reality” TV because it implies there is only one reality and the show is it. When I teach simulation and game design, I make the point that there are many different realities not just one. The reality for the person who has a minimum wage job and a family to support is dramatically different than the reality for the person who heads the organization. The reality for a woman is different than the reality for a man, the reality for a young person is different than for an older person. Understanding these different realities is essential for a person who is trying to design a simulation, but there are other reasons for not thinking in these terms. When we imply that this is or that is the only reality, it is encouraging stereotypical, black and white thinking that makes it difficult for us to solve problems creatively and to the benefit of all the stake holders.