What if Survivor was real — and playing out in the backyard of an L.A. Airbnb?
During a casual conversation with a colleague and fellow writer, Ryan Willison, I learned that he was not only a fan of the reality show, but had begun playing something called Survivor Drinking Game. A bit of a titular misnomer, Survivor Drinking Game doesn’t require alcohol consumption — though it’s a nice bonus for players who like to take shots before embarking on mini-competitions and (metaphorically) stabbing other competitors in the back. Instead, it’s focused on completing a series of physical challenges, as well as the same social strategy of the original Survivor.
A Gradual Progression
It was too good not to learn more. I asked Ryan to introduce me to the game’s founder, and subsequently met up with Johno Faherty at a coffee shop to get the rest of the story. Though he has a full-time career as a travel photographer, it seems that running Survivor Drinking Game amounts to a beloved second job.
“I was the only person I knew who loved Survivor in college,” he says. “Like, nobody watched it. I never stopped watching it. I finally got my roommate to sit down and watch a season, and he got really into it. He was like, ‘You should do a Survivor game!’” Ever since high school, Faherty says, he had organized activities for his circle of friends. Growing up in a suburb of Boston, he remembers putting together scavenger hunts in the city; the whole crew would take the train into town and literally hit the ground running to cross off items on the list. Then came Survivor, and the idea to somehow recreate it IRL.
“We were going to our friend’s house on the Jersey Shore, and she had a big backyard, so we did a bare-bones, low-stakes version on the beach in 2015,” he says. “But it was really fun and everyone liked it, so we talked about doing it again when I moved out to L.A.”
Fresh out of college, Faherty was still pretty new to L.A. when he decided to host another “season” of the game. This time, he raised the stakes a little bit, increased the production value and put more effort into the challenges. It was such a hit that he immediately planned another edition, and another, and when the game gradually got to the level of “people that I didn’t know showing up at my house,” he knew it was time to institute the use of a neutral location and an application process, just like the real game. In the application, Faherty asks potential players to explain why they’d be interesting to watch and to give a sense of their personality and strategy. The final batch of contestants always includes an even number of men and women to keep things balanced, at least in the beginning.
Moving from the framework of a fun hobby with friends to a more serious project with a formal website, schedule and application process happened over time. To this day, Faherty doesn’t really make money off the project, but he does charge contestants a flat rate now to help cover costs. The average price to play is about $150 to $250, and a “season” is typically completed in one day, with about 12 hours of gameplay.
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“It was kind of a gradual progression,” Faherty says. “But the first season where I didn’t know a single person who was showing up to play, I realized it was bigger than I expected it to be. It used to be really cheap because I had a backyard of my own and I would do it there, but now I have to rent a space, so it’s a little more expensive. I charge people for the cost of booze, lunch and dinner, and the rental space.”
Though he’s considered getting brands involved as sponsors for the project, the “Survivor Drinking Game” moniker — a product of Faherty naming it right after college — has spooked some potential corporate partners. But doesn’t it seem like a good fit for a booze brand? “It’s not super dependent on the drinking,” he says. “I thought about changing it once because I reached out to a beer company, but they thought the title promoted binge drinking and they didn’t want to be associated with it. I thought about changing it, but it’s just established at this point. We call it SDG.”
“It’s created a community”
Faherty thinks what draws people to play on their own, or even return for multiple “seasons,” is the chance to test out their strategizing abilities. “It’s the most sought-after reality show to be on and play, because there are so many different ways to win,” he says. “There’s so many different strategies that you can enact. You can run the same exact structure of the game with the same people and get a different result every time.”
For Willison, the gameplay was the draw, along with an intense love for the show and a chance to bond with other people who loved it. “I watch the show for the strategic elements and the social maneuvering, much more so than the actual desert island survival aspects,” he says. “And all my favorite parts of Survivor are replicated by Johno in person. He does an incredible job at making you feel like you’re simulating the show, from getting replicas of the puzzle challenges on Etsy to hiding hidden immunity idols in the bushes. It’s created a community where you can be instant friends with someone you meet that day, because you both know you’re enough of a diehard fan to give up your entire day to be there.”
Earlier contestants on SDG, like Kate Riccio — who played in what was literally the first iteration, back on the Jersey Shore — were initially drawn in because of their relationship to Faherty. Still, even Riccio is surprised by how the game has grown over the years. “Johno was always the ‘games’ guy,” she says. “He went from forcing 12 hungover friends to play ‘this little game I made up’ to having hundreds of people — some he knows and some who are complete strangers — apply and pay to play this game he created from scratch. That was in 2015 and now, eight years later in 2023, the game is stronger than ever. Most of us who participated in that first season have come back to play future seasons. We love it.”
Like a summer camp, she says, the game provides the environment for establishing bonds that last well beyond the 12 hours it takes to play. And as the only two-time winner in the history of SDG so far, she has a crown to defend.
“Being one of the few players who played the first few seasons and seeing how much the game has evolved since then is surreal,” Riccio says. “Not only has the game itself evolved, but the number of people who apply and play this game is astonishing. It only lasts one day, but the friendships that have come out of that day are lifelong. Most of the people we hang out with have all played at least one season of SDG. Am I proud of the community he’s built? Yes. But am I also scared of all these new players he’s brought to the game trying to steal my title as the only ever two-time winner? Also yes.”
During the pandemic, spin-offs of Faherty’s original sprouted up on Zoom, with SDG alumni running the show; plenty of other Survivor fans use Discord and similar platforms to celebrate the game in their own way. But arguably no one has recreated it as an in-person experience as successfully as Faherty — he’s even had a film crew capture the whole day (though he’s quick to note that said crew consisted of amateurs and not professional videographers, like CBS hires). A rogue tweet Faherty sent to Survivor host Jeff Probst even elicited a reply several years ago: “Brutal, but awesome,” Probst wrote, a tacit endorsement that now lives on in the show’s Instagram bio.
Newcomers are welcome, including those now experiencing the CBS show for the first time through streaming. For SDG veterans, the more people who join this fandom, the better. “I care about it so much,” Faherty says. “Some people are like, ‘You put so much into it, why? You don’t get any money out of it.’ But it’s literally created my network out here in L.A. My best friends have come from this game. Any of my best friends, with very few exceptions, the reason I’m friends with them is because they showed up to play this game before I even knew them.”
Learn more about Survivor Drinking Game and apply here. Or be a voyeur and follow along on Instagram.
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