The High Drama of a Homemade Survivor Game

“It was an all-day game. I was thinking about it almost an obsessive amount.”

An illustration of an island popping out of a giant smart phone.
Wenjia Tang

Each installment of The Friendship Files features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.

This week she talks with a group of college students separated by the pandemic who turned their fandom for the reality-competition show Survivor into their own at-home Survivor competition—complete with immunity challenges and tribal councils held over Zoom. They discuss how the show bonded their friend group in pre-pandemic times, and how their homegrown version added some much-needed fun and structure to their lockdown days.

The Friends:

Claire Bunn, 19, a rising junior at the University of Georgia studying genetics, currently living in Marion, Arkansas
Emma Ellis, 20, a rising junior at UGA studying genetics and Spanish, currently living in Atlanta. Her friends call her “Ellis.”
Will McGonigle, 21, a rising junior at UGA studying environmental health, currently living in Atlanta
Spencer Sumner, 20, a rising junior at UGA studying biology and anthropology, currently living in Gainesville, Georgia

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Julie Beck: My first question is something that upsets me to ask, but were you guys even born when Survivor started airing?

Will McGonigle: It started in 2000. I think we were all just babies, but we were alive.

Beck: So how did you get into the show?

Will: I started watching Season 25; that was seven years ago, I think. It’s a guilty pleasure each week to tune in and see who’s surviving. It’s a good mix of both the physical and also the strategic aspect of the game. And it’s a cool place to be [transported to] when I’m not studying in the library.

Spencer Sumner: We were all in the same class, in organic chemistry, and we formed a study group to cope with the homework that comes with the class. Will is probably the biggest superfan of all of us, and Claire’s a really big fan too. Will just roped us into his obsession.

Beck: How did you get your friends on board?

Will: It kind of started as a joke. I’d be like, “Hey, are you all watching Survivor tonight?”

Claire Bunn: We had this group chat that Will created called the “Survivor Dream Team.” In college, people are in a lot of different circles all the time; it can be hard to stay connected if you’re not consistently seeing people in class. The group chat was an intentional way to stay in touch. Will was like, “We can meet up every few weeks and talk Survivor strategy, and we can make these audition tapes.” What started as a joke became fully integral to [our friendship].

Claire Bunn (L) and Emma Ellis (R) at a UGA dining hall after making a Survivor video. (Courtesy of Claire Bunn)

Will: It became a friendly competition between us, seeing who could make the best Survivor audition video, or who could eventually get on the show. We’re all still waiting on the email saying we’re going to be on, but it’s going to come for one of us eventually.

Beck: So you would actually submit them to the show?

Will: I think all four of us actually did submit at least one video.

Beck: Can you each describe what your audition video was like?

Claire: The final one that I pieced together was around the three attributes of a good survivor: “Outwit, outplay, outlast.” We repurposed those into our college lifestyle, how we do that on a daily basis. I remember putting “We outlast others in the library,” so you can see footage of all of us in the library at 2 a.m., and it’s completely empty except for us finishing up our study session. [There’s footage of us] outplaying others by walking faster on campus to get to class.

Spencer: Mine was mostly clowning on Will. I ended it with, “I know for a fact I’ll be your final survivor, especially if you put Will McGonigle on there.” I submitted it kind of jokingly, but now I hope they let me in for real.

Emma Ellis: I think Spencer’s video actually had a clip of Will’s video embedded in it.

Will: My video, retrospectively, was a little boring and tame compared to the other three in this group. It was just me looking at a camera and talking about my life for three minutes. It’s probably not the way to get on to reality TV, especially when I’m just a sophomore student doing undergraduate studies. I did include a clip of Destiny’s Child’s “I’m a Survivor.” Maybe that will set the mood for the producers if they ever see my video.

Beck: Do you all watch the show together now?

Spencer: I think Claire and Will watch it every week. I think they call each other to watch it. But Ellis and I still haven’t seen a single episode. It’s all secondhand enjoyment.

Beck: Tell me about what happened when the pandemic hit. Did your school shut down unceremoniously? How was that transition?

Will: We were going on spring break the third week of March. Spencer and I were both going to Florida, and Ellis and Claire both had trips planned. That was the week that it started to get bad. Halfway through that week, UGA sent us an email saying that we were going to extend spring break by two weeks, then move to online after that. So it’s not like we were able to prepare for everyone to go home and quarantine with their families.

Ellis: The last day of class, before spring break, nobody was even thinking of COVID-19. We were like, “See you in a week and a half.” I don’t even think we really said goodbye to each other. And when we went back to campus to get our stuff, we all came at different times.

Beck: How have you guys been weathering the lockdown?

Spencer: It was definitely a little tough at first, going from 100 miles per hour to a dead stop. But classes starting back up gave me motivation to do something. [When Will started the Survivor game, that] helped me pick my social life back up. It gave me something to look forward to. I would schedule my family’s day around it; I’d be like, “All right, I’m free all day except from 6 o’clock to 7 o’clock, when I have Survivor, which is very important, can’t miss it."

Survivor Zoom. (Courtesy of Claire Bunn)

Beck: What were the origins of your quarantine Survivor game? How did you adapt the format of the show to your friend group?

Will: In the real show, it’s usually around 16 to 20 people, and they start out in separated tribes. They have to compete in immunity challenges, and whichever tribe loses the challenge has to go to tribal council, where they have to vote someone out. I thought the game could be played on our phones and with Zoom conferences. I texted people and asked if they’d be interested to play, and pay $1 each to issue a grand prize [of $15] for the winner. I [used] randomizers online to make the two tribes—the tribes were called “Frens” and “Amigos.”

Claire: Spencer and I were on the Amigos tribe, Ellis was on the Frens tribe, and then Will wasn’t on a tribe at all. Will was our version of the host, Jeff Probst, who moderates the whole game.

Will: Each day at 6 p.m., they would have their immunity challenge, and then at 9:30 [the losing tribe] would have their Zoom tribal council, where someone would get voted out. They would join the Zoom call, I would ask them a few questions about how the game’s going, they would DM or text me their votes, and then I would read them aloud. Once enough people were voted out, the tribes merged into one tribe, and it became an individual game [with individual immunity challenges].

I tried to pick challenges so as not to benefit any one person, because I was trying to be pretty fair as the host. One challenge would be “Who can balance on one foot the longest?” and then another challenge was “Who [can] do a plank longest?” And then some challenges were completely on the phone, like, “Who can send me the highest Flappy Bird score in the next hour?” It was a good variety.

Beck: In between the challenges and the tribal councils, what was the vibe? Was the game always ongoing? Were there alliances being forged? Was there distrust between friends of different tribes?

Spencer: It was an all-day game. I was thinking about it almost an obsessive amount. One night Claire and I stayed up until 1 in the morning making a spreadsheet trying to map out the rest of the game and scheme our way into the final three.

Ellis: On the other tribe, we had a lot of group chats and subgroup chats. I usually keep my phone away from me, but I had to have it on me all day, because what if something develops? I can’t miss out on the scheming.

Beck: And Will was having people film confessionals throughout this process?

Spencer: Oh, yeah. After every tribal council we had, I would go film a little video, saying what I thought about what was going on, what it meant for me going forward in the game. I was really getting into it, I was like, “All right, what’s up Survivor? It was a tough one out there today, but we really still got a shot.”

Ellis: I’d be outside trying to film these confessionals, and my family would be like, “Why are you out there talking to yourself?”

Claire: My family’s been watching the show every week, so I told them all about our game, and they were fairly invested. The night that I got voted out, my parents were messing with me and telling me that they thought that I was going to go. They were like, “Your friends aren’t contacting you; you’re probably going to get voted out.” I was like, “Mom! Dad! That’s so mean!” But they were correct.

Will: In the game of Survivor, you keep getting voted out until it’s the final three or final two. We did final three, and everyone who is voted out gets to join the jury. They watch the tribal councils and decide at the end who they want to win.

Beck: Were there any real-life tensions created by people being voted out?

Claire: I didn’t feel like there was any real-life tension. After I got voted out, the people who had voted me out texted me with reasoning. We’re all good friends. I enjoyed being on the jury. The jury group chat got really fun.

Ellis: I got voted out just before the final three, but it was coming, because I had backstabbed a lot of people at that point. It came down to our final immunity challenge. Will had us hold our hands above our heads while doing a wall sit. Going into the second hour, I just remember thinking, If I fall down, I’m going home. And then I fell. If I was a little stronger, if my foot hadn’t slipped, I would have stayed in the game, but it was all good fun.

Spencer: I put my all into that challenge; I couldn’t walk for 10 minutes after [the wall sit].

Beck: Tell me about the final tribal council.

Claire: That final immunity challenge was on a Monday, and we had an O-chem test that Wednesday. So Will called a break so we could study, and then final tribal was that Friday night. We had a whole week of building up to it.

Spencer: The final three were me and our friends Marina and Nathan. Marina and I had been working together since the beginning, and Nathan had been flip-flopping sides and managed to get his way into the final three.

Will: [That Friday], the jury came back to the Zoom, and everyone who was voted out got to ask the final three questions—about the game, or anything—before they decided who to vote for.

Claire: Some people got really intense with their questions, asking why they were voted off. I tried to keep my questions more lighthearted. I asked what they would do with the $15 prize, and that was probably what secured my vote for Spencer, actually.

Spencer: I think that secured my win. Everyone else was saying they were going to buy food and stuff, but I said I was going to throw a Survivor-themed party when everyone got back from quarantine and they were all invited.

Will McGonigle (L) and Spencer Sumner (R) covering Claire’s room in tin foil as a prank. (Courtesy of Claire Bunn)

Beck: With a $15 budget?

Spencer: Absolutely, that’s all you need.

Claire: Also for final tribal council, Spencer actually brought his mom in, and his mom endorsed him.

Spencer: I definitely may have used my mom to garner some votes at the end of final tribal, and I’m not ashamed of that. You do what you have to.

Beck: I heard that there was a surprise guest at one of the tribal councils? Is that right?

Will: So my 21st birthday was the week after we finished [our game], and it was right before finals. I had a final the day of my birthday, one the next day, and two the next week, and it was in quarantine, so I wasn’t getting to do any of the fun, regular 21st-birthday stuff. Ellis, Spencer, and Claire wanted to surprise me, so they contacted my favorite winner from the show and asked him if he could join my birthday Zoom call, and he surprisingly did! It was Ethan Zohn; he won the third season of the show, Survivor Africa. He came back; he’s on the show now [for an all-star season].

I really like his story. He was a professional soccer player; he won the show; he then got cancer twice and went through treatment for that. And he used his money [from the show] to help start a charity helping youth in Africa learn through soccer.

Ellis: We were going to reach out to Ethan, but Ethan has [so many] followers [on social media], so we thought What if we reach out to Ethan’s wife? She was the one who actually responded to us. We told her, “We’ve been playing a Survivor game, but Will couldn’t actually compete so we wanted to get him into the game another way.” We coordinated with Will’s sister to give her the Zoom link and the time, and Ethan just sort of popped on. Will didn’t realize he was on the Zoom call for a good two minutes, so he was just kind of standing there, and we’re like, “Will, look at the gallery.”

Beck: It’s amazing to have friends who are willing to go all in on your weird obsessions with you.

Will: Exactly. When I first asked if people would want to play a Survivor game over their phones during quarantine, I kind of asked it as a joke, and people completely bought into it. When people were sending me videos, my parents would see me watching them and they’d be like, “Who is doing this for you?”

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