In 2000 Survivor premiered to set a new standard for reality television. 18 years later, it's still making waves on college campuses.
While mock Survivor tribal eliminations have existed since the show began, a growing accessibility to advanced filming and editing software has allowed more fans to create their own high-quality Survivor games. Hundreds of series have been uploaded to YouTube over the years. Now, as the show's 36th season airs on CBS, it's college students who are taking the artistic lead, filming their own DIY versions on campuses across the nation.
There are important twists that separate these DIY shows from televised versions. Students can't neatly mimic the island's physical landscape on their own campus lawns. University presidents are just not comfortable with "castaways" who spend up to 39 days acting stranded, building their own shelter, and providing themselves with food.
Students can, however, create their own unique versions — and they sometimes go viral.
One of the most popular recreations is Hunter Snider's Survivor: Washington. Filmed outside Seattle on his grandparents' farm, contestants camp outside for 39 hours as they vote each other out over the course of a weekend.
Like the beginning of most DIY versions, Snider cast his first season with friends from school before recruiting superfans through an open casting call in the Seattle area for his second season.
It's easy to find more than enough people who want to play in well-produced, fan-made series, Snider says. The Survivor community rivals that of shows like RuPaul's Drag Race and The Bachelor, with podcasts, energetic forums, and whole websites dedicated to hosting online versions of the reality competition (And you're a monster if you judge these kids while filling out your Bach Bracket).
Yet this lack of diversity in who plays these homemade games has been a pitfall when trying to create compelling narrative arcs within seasons and attract viewers. Casts need a variety of personalities and play styles to create a dynamic season and have characters who "aren't out there strictly to play the game and not give any insight into who they are as people," Snider says.
Austin Trupp, the creator of Survivor: Maryland, circumvents this problem by keeping his series exclusive to students at his school, the University of Maryland. His seasons last an entire semester, enough time for whispering roommates and screenshotted texts to rip players apart and ruin real-world friendships.
While a cast of college students aren't necessarily coming from all walks of life in terms of age and experience, Trupp describes them as "in these flux periods," where they're trying new things and figuring out who they are.
"They're in kind of limbo in college. So once you add in that they have other friends, real lives, mutual friends, I think you get a more interesting interaction of people and clashing personalities over months of a time," Trupp says.
It's a new iteration of the game initially branded in 2000 as a "social experiment." The format is enough of a conceptual shift to nearly be its own show.
"Rather than dealing with starving and rain and the elements, you're dealing with your life, people you know, your own personal stressors," Trupp adds.
Both players share an "elastic interpretation" of the game, highlighting the original series' core themes. They don't believe strict recreation is necessary. Snider loves when when fans reach out for advice on how to produce their own series.
Another value these creators emphasize is production value. High-quality videos and edits help attract audiences and create a more immersive experience for players.
"It ups the stakes when people feel they're on a show," Trupp says. "They feel like they're part of this reality TV universe. It may challenge people to be more interesting, some people play up to the cameras."
Contestants in the final six of Trupp's third season hang on campus lamp posts through out the night in an immunity challenge
Image: Austin trupp/youtube
The editing on both Survivor: Washington and Survivor: Maryland make them both extremely watchable. Surprisingly, Trupp says video editing is something he "picked up on the spot," despite committing to hundreds of hours of editing per season.
"I didn't expect to be doing so much as a hobby. I've had people reach out with job options, but it's not a career path I want to take."
Some creators do parlay their passion project into a job in television, as Survivor: Brooklyn creator Matt Pavlovich, now a segment producer for Big Brother, has done after multiple, bicoastal seasons of both Survivor and Big Brother.
While Snider's 36-hour game demands the cameras constantly roll, Trupp films his season throughout an entire semester, often requiring players to film themselves having late night discussions or strategize through google hangouts when players leave campus for a weekend.
One student speaks to the camera during an episode of Survivor: Maryland
Image: Austin Trupp/Youtube
By giving players cameras and allowing them to film confessionals, players become more engaged in the production. Taylor Luke in Lafayette, Louisiana, hosts games of both Survivor and Big Brother. He says having confessionals helps players "process the game as it's happening" and create more nuanced strategy.
"It's also creates the funniest moments," Luke says. He recounts a time his best friend threw an entire cup of water in the face of his younger sister after getting voted out of Survivor. Their kind of antics one wouldn't fall into if they didn't think it could create a dramatic moment in the episode.
Unlike Snider and Trupp, Luke bases his games completely on this speed-style, split-decision strategy. Players are assigned their tribes at 7 a.m. and vote for a winner between the final three around 11 p.m. Luke says the constant strategizing and alliance shifting he tries to stimulate with quick rounds is "the best way for me to create fatigue, so then you actually feel as if you're on the show when you become mentally and physically drained by the final rounds."
The quickness also helps Luke turn out more seasons than most. With 15 seasons of his versions of Survivor and 13 of his Big Brother, hundreds of people have traveled to his family's home to compete at the crack of dawn, many of them more than once.
It's a grueling day of mind games that leaves contestants with a special bond. Luke often receives pictures when former players run into each other, like a new friend from college and someone Luke was in middle school theater with. "It's a weird blend of everyone I've met throughout my life, and clearly a unifying experience for everyone who plays. Whether you played together or against each other."
In a recreation of Big Brother, CBS's other hit reality competition, one player host a crucial veto ceremony
Image: TayloR luke/youtube
The brief but fervent experience of homemade Survivor and Big Brother draws comparisons to escape room games. While it often calls for a bit more ruthlessness, most players don't take the competition personally considering there's no million dollar prize.
Some superfans of Survivor prefer earlier versions that replicate the physical hardships of living on an island with only a small allotment of rice, but most younger players find the strategical evolutions and variations more fascinating.
This split mirrors the two eras of the CBS show: old school contestants who vote out physical liabilities over strategic threats, and new school players whose strategical contortions and rigid study of the game has turned Survivor into mental game before a physical one.
The evolution into a strategic game has allowed more variations of homemade Survivor to thrive, and drawn ambitious college students to test their social prowess. Dozens have asked the creators interviewed in this article for advice on how to start their own series, most coming to fruition, on campuses from Florida to Massachusetts.
One group at Ohio State recently became a legitimized student organization to film and compete on campus. Others, like Survivor: Michigan, decided to stay unaffiliated with their campus to avoid any possible regulations in production.
What makes these series more spectacular than escape rooms are that other people can watch and enjoy them as well. The best-produced series rack up thousands of views an episode, while others unite entire towns of parents, teachers, and students across school districts and neighborhood rivals.
My freshman year of college I played in a homemade Survivor game myself. As someone who walks around with headphones in 24/7 to avoid social interaction, I was skeptical about my ability to ensure my tribe mates liked me enough to not vote me out the first chance they got.
Had I played for more than one day I probably would have broken down under paranoia, but staying outside all day with my phone off was the perfect catharsis to drown out the chemistry class I was failing and the boy not texting me back.
Aside from the escapism of pretending your dreams of being on reality TV have finally come true, there's also truth to the name of being an epic social experiment. You learn about your ability (or lack thereof) to lie, manipulate, and mask your emotions (turns out I'm only good at the first two).
To anyone who also can't help gloating a bit when they pull ahead in Monopoly, the rush of these games are tenfold. Who knew spending hours plotting how to backstab my best friend only to meet an epic demise myself would be so fun?
It only served to prove that this growth of DIY Survivor is more than just some passing fad, and will not be voted off the island anytime soon.