As shows like Survivor and Big Brother have dominated the airwaves over the last two decades, have you ever stopped to wonder about the thousands of people who didn’t appear on them but whose life they impact every single day?
Well, a large community of these people play in fan made versions of the shows called “ORGs” which see them compete in challenges, scheme, and ultimately vote each other off… all via social media.
ORGs, also known as Online Reality Games, first came to fruition almost twenty years ago following the debut of Survivor on CBS in early 2000, the first reality show of its kind. They began with players communicating over email, but as social media boomed the games moved to outlets such as Skype, Facebook, Tumblr and anything else that allowed communication amongst competitors.
But how are these games actually played without the producers and players ever meeting in person? Brandon Clark, a 25-year-old resident of Maine, founded his own Survivor inspired ORG called Can You Survive almost a decade ago in 2010, which will see its 30th season begin next week.
According to Brandon: “There are tribe chats on Skype, so everyone’s added from that tribe and that’s like their tribe camp, and they can Skype call as a group, they can call individually, [and] they can just type to each other… People go all out in terms of how they communicate once the game starts.”
Brandon, who also hosts the game, stated that a round of the game typically lasts three days, with players receiving the challenge instructions on the first day and having 24 hours to complete it via video chat. Brandon also sometimes organises a time for all the competitors to do a live challenge on a group video call to keep the experience as authentic as possible.
Once players have the results of the challenge, they are then given another 24 hours to talk to each other and strategize about who to eliminate and “figure out what’s going on before the live Tribal Council”, where Brandon asks them questions about the round and someone is ultimately voted off via Skype group call after players privately submit their votes. Each season typically lasts around 39 days – the same as the TV show.
“I’ve had so many great Tribal Councils where idols are played, blindsides, I’ve had people screaming at each other. So much drama happens, just like on the show.”
When asked about how invested people become, Brandon chuckled: “I’ve had people that have spent sixteen hours standing on a video call to win a challenge – just one challenge. So I think that kind of exemplifies how much people are willing to put into it in order to do well.”
But what is it that motivates people to play in these online games?
Lexi Cassano, a 23-year-old originally from New Jersey but now living in Boston and studying at Northeastern University, has played almost ten ORGs in the last year alone. Games she has played range from being set in outer space to playing as cartoon animals – as well as herself.
Lexi has several reasons for participating in this community: “The creative themes that are often present in ORGs and the opportunity to just meet people from all over the world were two of the biggest things that drew me to play my first ORG, and then since that one I was just hooked on it because of the incredible people I’ve met, because of the competitive spirit of it and the fun, creative way it’s put together.”
Brandon claims that ORGs mean “a lot to most of the people that play, because it’s almost like living a dream” and explained that many competitors form lifelong friendships with their counterparts. Many players often travel all over the world to meet each other when the game is over, and as Can You Survive alone has seen around 250 people play from over ten countries, players have ample opportunity to do so.
Brandon explained that he often casts international players in his ORG, and that they typically “have a harder time” playing because of time differences. Just last season, someone from the United Kingdom played that would go to bed at “11pm English time, wake up at three in the morning to do a challenge and then go to bed and get up and go to work” because the game is played on Eastern Standard Time (EST), showing how far people are willing to go to succeed in these online games.
The concept of feeling like you’re playing a reality television show without the pressure of actually being apart of one is something that makes a new addition to the ORG world, Andrew Carlson, so appreciative of the gaming format.
Andrew, a 20-year-old sophomore at Northeastern University who is currently playing his first ever ORG, stated some of the ways he thinks ORGs differ from the actual television show: “They are low risk as there is no money on the line which motivates players to make very risky game moves, essentially making ORGs ‘Survivor on steroids’. ‘ORGers’ love to see big moves or convincing manipulation while the general viewer of Survivor may respect a normal player more so based on their storyline and character arc.”
Although some games do not cast anyone below the age of 18, players as young as 13 have been known to compete, with the oldest players typically being in their sixties, but sometimes being older. Players typically tend to be college students or graduates, around the ages of 18-24, though it is not limited to this age group.
Regarding older players, Lexi stated that there is “a cohort of older people who often take on a different role in games” because of their age, such as the mother or father figure. She goes on to say: “I would actually say that the age spread skews younger than real Survivor but not by that much.”
Through her ORG experience, Lexi has found that games are often filled with “mostly just gay dudes” but that there are “some gay girls” too and often emphasized how accepting the community is of people. Andrew noted that the games are “highly diverse with all ages, races, sexual orientations, etc. represented” in the casts.
The ORG community here in Boston, according to Andrew, is “huge” which he finds unsurprising as “there are definitely large pockets in all of the major cities across the US and Canada” as well as the rest of the world.
Andrew believes a large reason for this ever-growing Boston community is that many contestants “come from college Survivor games such as Survivor: Northeastern, Survivor: Boston, and Survivor: Maryland, to name a few.” These college renditions of Survivor see students compete in a real life version of the show involving challenges, Tribal Councils and everything in-between. Both Andrew and Lexi competed in season two of Survivor Northeastern in 2017, which is now filming its fifth season on campus, showing that fan made versions of Survivor are not restricted to being played online.
With ORGs becoming increasingly popular, and Survivor still going strong as it airs its 38th season, it is clear that those participating in these online games are not done having their fun just yet.