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How to change MTV Stranded’s game so players are heroes, not monsters

How to change MTV Stranded’s game so players are heroes, not monsters
The Stranded with a Million Dollars cast waving goodbye to an early departure. (Photo by MTV)

In this episode of The Confessional, game designer Jane McGonigal—the author of SuperBetter, whose TED Talk you may have seen—suggests a way to change the format of the game on MTV’s Stranded with a Million Dollars.

I’ve been designing games professionally for nearly two decades. I started my career the same year that Survivor premiered, 2000, when I began my PhD studies at UC Berkeley analyzing the long-term psychological impact of the games we play. Very quickly, as I made progress in both my career and my research, I realized that watching reality TV competitions is one of the best ways to learn how to be an effective game designer.

Watch a reality competition evolve over multiple seasons, and you see how one tiny rule change can dramatically impact the strategies that players employ. (Think of the introduction of the hidden immunity idol in Survivor.)

Another rule change can transform the social dynamics of the group playing—sometimes encouraging strong allegiances and trustworthy play, and other times encouraging ruthlessness and betrayal. (Think of the introduction of “the red line” on Biggest Loser that prevented weaker players from systematically and depressingly voting out the biggest threats week after week by automatically putting up the two least successful players for elimination.)

You learn quickly which “twists” undermine the integrity of the game (like when MTV’s The Challenge randomly and shockingly gave just one of two winners the choice to keep the entire grand prize money for himself instead of sharing it with his season-long partner—and he did, and it sucked), and which twists introduce the kind of randomizing element that makes a game better—by ensuring that no one can dominate the game too early and make the outcome feel preordained (like allowing judges to start “stealing” each other’s dismissed talent on The Voice, helping equalize talent across the teams).

And as more seasons air and more players learn the dominant strategies, you get to observe new kinds of player creativity emerge as they try to “change the game” and upset expectations. Big Brother, with its always-changing game rules and motto of “expect the unexpected,” is probably the best show in the world for studying all of these things, which is why I’ve never missed a season.

MTV’s The Challenge, The Biggest Loser, The Voice and Survivor have also offered years’ worth of master classes in the psychology of game design.

I often bring my game designer mindset to a series and wonder how small tweaks could lead to dramatic differences in how a season plays out. (I have a brilliant change to the way voting works in Survivor post-merge that I’m still hoping to see make it into a future season—Jeff, Probst call me!)

But never have I desperately wanted to change a game’s design more than while watching MTV’s newest reality competition Stranded with a Million Dollars.

A game that inspires terrible behavior

Stranded with a Million Dollars, pizza, Alex, "Group Bye"

Alex’s Stranded with a Million Dollars alliance splurged on pizza during episode two, “Group Bye.” (Photo by MTV)

If you haven’t seen it, here’s the premise: 10 players are stranded together on an island for 40 days. Whoever doesn’t quit or get medically evacuated before day 40 gets to share in a one million dollar prize. If no one quits, they each get $100,000. If half the players quit, the rest win $200,000 each. And if nine players quit, the sole winner gets the whole million.

However, the prize pool can get smaller week to week, because if the players want to buy survival supplies or food, it comes out of their winnings (and a pizza costs five thousand bucks.) Players must negotiate what to spend money on—majority vote rules the day. Spend and survive in relative comfort? Or save, and suffer, as much as you can stand? Meanwhile, players who aren’t fit or determined enough to hike from one camp to the next quickly enough can cost the group $100,000 each episode just for being too slow.

The premise is intriguing. The setting is beautiful. The survival challenges are genuinely dramatic. But there’s one big problem with this game: It motivates players to act like monsters.

Like many viewers, I have watched this show with increasing disbelief at how inhumanely the players have treated each other. Each episode, their mean-spirited gameplay escalates.

They form sub-factions to control the majority vote and then bully and ostracize whoever doesn’t vote with them.  During torrential thunderstorms, they deprive fellow players of basic camping needs like a tent until they succumb to the elements and quit. They taunt each other for their perceived weaknesses. They to try to “starve out” other players by withholding food until the starving players are so weak that they quit.

Stranded with a Million Dollars, burning money

(Pretend) money burns on episode eight of MTV’s Stranded with a Million Dollars.

When they don’t get their way, they terrorize other players by literally burning the group’s money (in a campfire), depleting their own prize out of spite and a desire to hurt each other.

And just when you think it can’t get any worse, players start to hoard the equipment necessary to make drinking water safe in the hopes that the fear of death by dehydration will lead other players to quit.

And when fear doesn’t work? They defecate in the only water supply at camp to try to actively force a medical evacuation of their fellow players by way of dysentery.

Are these literally the worst people to ever compete on a reality TV series?

No. Surely, some of these poor decisions have been made out of exhaustion, hunger and dehydration—these players are just not thinking clearly. But more importantly, the game design gives players no reason to help each other, and every reason to dehumanize and torture each other.

The effects of a zero-sum game

Stranded is a zero-sum game in its purest form—and that’s the problem.

A zero-sum game, as defined by formal game theory, is a game in which every advantage earned by one player comes at an equal cost to another player. Poker is a zero-sum game: Every dollar you win is a dollar someone else loses. Chess is a zero-sum game: Every piece you capture is a piece your opponent loses.

In a pure zero-sum game, there are limited resources and they’re all up for grabs. The more I win, the more you lose. This motivates fellow players to show no mercy, take as much as they can, and leave their opponent in as weak a position as possible. And pretty much everything about Stranded is zero-sum. The more someone else wins (or shares in the prize money), the less I get. The more another players spends on herself, the less I get.

The opposite of a zero-sum game is a non-zero-sum game. In these games, multiple players can gain advantage simultaneously, or experience success. A marathon is a non-zero-sum game. Although there is only one winner, everyone who participates can hypothetically achieve the win condition of running 26.2 miles. The marathon doesn’t end when the first person crosses the finish line.

World of Warcraft is a non-zero sum game. When I level up my avatar, it doesn’t mean someone else’s avatar levels down. All the players can make progress and get stronger as they play, even if they are also competing or battling each other along the way. Candy Crush Saga is a non-zero sum game. When I send a friend and extra life or extra moves, I don’t have to give up any of my lives or my moves.

In the reality TV world, MTV’s own Are You the One? is a great example of a non-zero sum game: Everybody wins if anybody wins; if they work together to figure out their perfect matches, they all get an equal share of the prize money. And this wildly popular example suggests that MTV’s audiences are totally up for a non-zero sum game!

One change to improve Stranded

So here’s my proposal for one small tweak to the rules of Stranded: Switch it from an almost purely competitive zero-sum game to a cooperative, non-zero sum game. You can do it with one simple rule change:

Make the grand prize of a million dollars only up for grabs if all ten players make it to the end. With each player who flares out, the total pool of available money decreases exponentially.

It works like this:

  • If all 10 players make it to day 40, each player earns $100,000 (minus their share of group buys and temptations.)
  • If 9 players make it to day 40, each player can earn a maximum of $90,000 (minus their share…)
  • If 8 players make it, each player’s maximum winning drops to $80,000 (minus their share…)
  • And so on, all the way down to: If two players make it to the end, their maximum prize is $20,000 (minus their share…).

And then, just to keep things interesting—and to still allow for horrible things or maybe one truly wonderful thing to possibly happen—if only one player survives to day 40, that player gets the original full prize of $1 million. (More on this in a minute.)

What kind of game might play out with this one rule change?

Stranded with a Million Dollars, MTV, review

The cast of MTV’s Stranded with a Million Dollars when they were all working together. (Photo by MTV)

Most likely, we’d see more players supporting each other from the outset—I’d stake my two decades of game research and design experience on it. Their first goal should be to keep each other in the game because with every player who quits, their own prize gets smaller. Instead of trying to starve each other out, ostracize sub-groups, conduct psychological warfare, and otherwise behave like horrible people, players would be more likely to work together, comfort each other, and strategize together instead of against each other.

Would there still be room for drama? Sure. They still have to battle the elements. They still have to debate on group buys and decide whether or not to take personal temptations. They still need to complete the grueling treks from camp to camp. Medical challenges would arise. With any luck, you could get some romance going in future seasons.

TV producers might worry that this kind of game structure would lead to gameplay that’s too nice, and therefore too boring. But I would challenge them to test this assumption. How far will people go to keep each other from giving up? How do you stop someone from losing their will to go on? How do you truly help someone when they start to go crazy or lash out? I’d like to see that kind of drama.

Watching someone defecate in someone else’s drinking water is shocking and arguably entertaining the first time. But how sustainable is an audience’s desire to watch a show in almost unremitting disgust?

In this new version of the game, the players might reaching a tipping point—and it’s not clear when that would happen. At some point, the total prize money gets so much lower than the original one million dollars that it might make sense to turn on your fellow players—or to do the opposite, by quitting and letting one person win the whole million.

Game it out: 3 players are left, and they can each win a maximum of $30,000 at this point. At this point, the million dollars for one last person standing starts to beckon. Do the players now decide to turn on each other? If there are two left, would you give up  your $20,000 (minus expenses) to change someone else’s life with a million? Would the group start to think about this possibility before it was just two players left? Would three people pick a single winner? Could four? Who knows—but it’s clear that there is room in this version of the game for both wonderful and horrible things to happen. And that makes it a better game.

There are a couple of potential complications to this rule change. First, depending on how much players spend in group buys and individual temptations, the prize available to players as more and more quit could reach a negative number. If the group spent $300,000, and your share of that is $30,000, when you get down to two players, you’re in the hole $10,000.

But this problem could be solved by continuing a tradition started in season one of Stranded: Offer group opportunities to win more money by accomplishing team missions. In this way, players could always hypothetically dig themselves out of a hole.

I think you would also need to change the way money is allocated. In season one, the prize money increased $100,000 every time the group successful made it to a new camp, getting bigger and bigger over time. The math of a non-zero-sum game works better, I think, if the prize money is allocated in full up front and can only get smaller. I would therefore change the “reward” of getting to a new camp on time to some kind of survival tool or food reward; or, you could offer a smaller amount of prize money as a bonus if the entire group makes it on time.

Or, if you want a less dramatic rule change, here’s one more idea: Elevate the players’ interactions by taking a page from the Survivor playbook. In Survivor, you can’t treat your fellow contestants cruelly, because the eliminated players get to vote who wins the million dollar prize. There’s a social game that’s just as important as the strategic one.

So what if the Stranded players who quit or get medically evacuated get to decide how the final prize is divided? Each of them would get to allocate a percentage of the winnings however they see fit. Give it all to the one person who made it to day 40 without terrorizing their fellow contestants? Give 80% to the person who supported you while you were on the island, and 10% each to the other two survivors who weren’t quite as supportive? Maybe you’d deduct all of the money spent on personal temptations or pizzas and give it to the others who didn’t get a chance to eat.

Introducing an element of justice and social consequences into the game would certainly complicate the non-zero-sum nature of the game and give players a nudge back toward their better instincts.

So this is my humble proposal: Let’s play this game again. But this time, let’s inspire cooperation and compassion. Let’s bring the best out of players. Let’s use everything we know about game design to turn players into heroes, instead of monsters.

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