Friday, June 30, 2017

A deep dive into my board game H-index

Every so often, I like to take a deep dive into the weird and wonderful world of overanalyzing my board game habits. It's fun to take a hard turn toward the nerdy and to spend way too much time on figuring out some obscure statistics and lists that really only matter to me and perhaps a handful of other tabletop acolytes who also enjoy such arcane pursuits in their own corner of the hobby.

In addition to the regular quarterly and yearly updates I post, I have taken a few other opportunities to delve into an analysis of my growth in the hobby on a qualitative and/or quantitative basis, even though I have not done much of that recently. I did write my "Board Game Biography" last January, and just before that, I wrote a post in which I analyzed the first thousand plays I logged on BoardGameGeek, but I have not had much opportunity to engage in another such post - until now.

You see, today, I am feeling accomplished as I reached an H-index of 20. You may find yourself asking a number of questions as a result of that piece of information: Why does that matter? What have you learned in your journey? And, perhaps most pertinent, what is an H-index? Well, if you can endure some intense nerding out, you will get your answers - and more. Much much much more.

What is an H-index?

"H-index" is a measure that originated in the world of scientific academia as a way to validate the scholarship of an author by assigning a number based on the number of articles published and the number of citations published about those articles. It's a more useful measure than just the number of published articles or the number of citations, since it includes a measurement not only of how prolific a researcher is, but also how well-regarded their articles are by others, which is an equally - if not more - significant marker of a scholar's success.

In board gaming, an H-index is used to indicate a gamer's breadth and depth in the hobby in a similar way to how it is used in academia. A player's H-index is determined by the intersection of the total number of games played and the total number of times those games have been played at least that many times. Therefore, a player with an H-index of five will have played at least five games five times each. Players with a higher H-index will have played a higher number of games a higher number of times, indicating (at least in theory) that they are more accomplished and dedicated as a gamer.

I really only started tracking my H-index in the past couple of years, but it has been a fun measure to see as it has shaped and been shaped by my efforts as a gamer. A few months ago, I posted a Geeklist on BGG about my H-index, but I recently realized that even that list did not tell the whole story. I decided, then, that what I needed to do was to go back through my logged plays since December 2010 and see how the narrative of my H-index played out over the past six and a half years.

So that's what I did - I spent around eight hours going through my play history on BGG in order to determine when I achieved each new level of my H-index, which games marked those historic plays, and to see if I could learn more about myself as a gamer and my history - and  I did. I went through and recorded the dates for each play for the games that comprise my H-index, and as I saw the chart filling out, I made some qualitative observations about my journey that I will share later on. But first, the data.

Turner's H-index - the facts

Here's the facts of how my H-index grew and changed from my first play to today. Each entry includes the H-index level (the number), the date it was achieved, and the number of days that it took to achieve that level from the previous level. There is also a list of the games that were included at that H-index level, including games that were new to that H-index (in italics), the game that triggered the new level for that next H-index (in bold), and any additions or subtractions from the list of games (in square brackets). [If you're more interested in the end observations, just skip this section - this is basically just a list of games.]

1. December 21, 2010 - Citadels 

2. January 15, 2011 (25 days) - Citadels, Puerto Rico [+ Puerto Rico]

3. April 9, 2011 (74 days) - Citadels, Puerto Rico, Agricola [+ Agricola]

4. December 9, 2011 (244 days) - Citadels, Agricola, Dominion, Innovation [+Dominion, + Innovation, - Puerto Rico]

5. January 13, 2012 (35 days) - Citadels, Agricola, Carcassonne, Dominion, Innovation [+ Carcassonne]

6. February 24, 2012 (42 days) - Citadels, Agricola, Carcassonne, Dominion, Innovation, 7 Wonders

7. June 19, 2012 (106 days) - Citadels, Agricola, Dominion, Innovation, Carcassonne, 7 Wonders, Pandemic [+ Pandemic]

8. November 10, 2012 (144 days) - Citadels, Agricola, Dominion, Innovation, 7 Wonders, Pandemic, Glory to Rome, Battle Line [ + Glory to Rome, + Battle Line, - Carcassonne]

9. March 23, 2013 (134 days) - Citadels, Agricola, Carcassonne, Dominion, Innovation, 7 Wonders, Pandemic, Glory to Rome, Battle Line [+ Carcassonne]

10. August 27, 2013 (157 days) - Citadels, Agricola, Carcassonne, Dominion, Innovation, 7 Wonders, Race for the Galaxy, Pandemic, Glory to Rome, Battle Line [+ Race for the Galaxy]

11. April 5, 2014 (221 days) - Citadels, Agricola, Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride: Europe, Dominion, Innovation, 7 Wonders, Race for the Galaxy, Pandemic, Glory to Rome, Saint Petersburg [+ Ticket to Ride: Europe, + Saint Petersburg, - Battle Line]

12. June 28, 2014 (83 days) - Citadels, Agricola, Carcassonne, Dominion, Innovation, 7 Wonders, Race for the Galaxy, Pandemic, Glory to Rome, Lords of Waterdeep, At the Gates of Loyang, King of Tokyo [+ Lords of Waterdeep, + At the Gates of Loyang, + King of Tokyo, - TTR: Europe, - Saint Petersburg]

13. April 13, 2015 (285 days) - Agricola, Dominion, Innovation, 7 Wonders, Race for the Galaxy, Pandemic, Glory to Rome, The Resistance, Battle Line, Lords of Waterdeep, At the Gates of Loyang, King of Tokyo, Hanabi [+ The Resistance, + Battle Line, + Hanabi, - Citadels, - Carcassonne]

14. August 14, 2015 (123 days) - Agricola, San Juan, Dominion, Innovation, 7 Wonders, Race for the Galaxy, Pandemic, Glory to Rome, The Resistance, Lords of Waterdeep, At the Gates of Loyang, King of Tokyo, Hanabi, Splendor [+ San Juan, - Battle Line, + Splendor]

15. February 19, 2016 (189 days) - Agricola, Carcassonne, Dominion, Innovation, 7 Wonders, Race for the Galaxy, Pandemic, Glory to Rome, The Resistance, Lords of Waterdeep, At the Gates of Loyang, King of Tokyo, Castles of Burgundy, Hanabi, Splendor [+ Carcassonne, - San Juan, + Castles of Burgundy]

16. June 18, 2016 (120 days) - Citadels, Agricola, Carcassonne, Dominion, Innovation, 7 Wonders, Race for the Galaxy, Pandemic, Glory to Rome, The Resistance, Lords of Waterdeep, King of Tokyo, Castles of Burgundy, Hanabi, Flash Point: Fire Rescue, Splendor [+ Citadels, - At the Gates of Loyang, + Flash Point: Fire Rescue]

17. August 30, 2016 (73 days) - Citadels, Agricola, Carcassonne, Dominion, Innovation, 7 Wonders, Race for the Galaxy, Pandemic, Kingdom Builder, Glory to Rome, The Resistance, Lords of Waterdeep, King of Tokyo, Castles of Burgundy, Hanabi, Flash Point: Fire Rescue, Splendor [+ Kingdom Builder]

18. November 27, 2016 (89 days) - Citadels, Agricola, Carcassonne, Dominion, Innovation, 7 Wonders, Race for the Galaxy, Pandemic, Kingdom Builder, Glory to Rome, Battle Line, Lords of Waterdeep, King of Tokyo, Castles of Burgundy, Hanabi, Flash Point: Fire Rescue, Splendor, Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 [- The Resistance, + Battle Line, + Pandemic Legacy: Season 1]

19. March 11, 2017 (105 days) - Citadels, Agricola, Carcassonne, Dominion, Innovation, 7 Wonders, Race for the Galaxy, Pandemic, Kingdom Builder, Glory to Rome, Battle Line, Fleet, Lords of Waterdeep, King of Tokyo, Castles of Burgundy, Hanabi, Flash Point: Fire Rescue, Splendor, Pandemic Legacy: Season 1) [+ Fleet]

20. June 30, 2017 (111 days) - Citadels, Agricola, Carcassonne, Dominion, Innovation, 7 Wonders, Race for the Galaxy, Pandemic, Kingdom Builder, Glory to Rome, Battle Line, Fleet, Lords of Waterdeep, King of Tokyo, Castles of Burgundy, Hanabi, Flash Point: Fire Rescue, Splendor, Pot O' Gold, Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 [+ Pot O' Gold]

The progression of my H-index

Here's a visual representation of the number of days that it took to achieve each level of my H-index. As you can see, it varied from around a month to almost a year, but the times have gotten much shorter after that longest stretch of 285 days (of course, that was the year in which I gamed the least in the past four years, as I moved across the country and started a new job, so that might have something to do with it).

The average number of days it has taken me to reach a new H-index level is just over 124.2, though that number has decreased to 99.6 days for each new H-index level since I reached an H-index of 15 in February 2016. It was at that point that I started to be more cognizant of my H-index, in part because the app on my phone started to help me track it.

Since then, I have been much more deliberate about attempting to make progress on my H-index each quarter by playing each game on my H-index at least once to help advance the level accordingly, and I continue to pursue that progression as a goal in each quarter of the year. Here are a couple of other superlatives in my progression over the past few years.

Shortest time elapsed from first play to joining the list after my H-index reached double digits: Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 - 301 days (Jan. 30, 2016 to November 27, 2016)

Longest time elapsed from first play to finally joining H-index: Fleet - 1955 days (November 4, 2012 to March 11, 2017); Runner-up - Kingdom Builder - 1671 days (February 2, 2012 to August 30, 2016)

Observations on my H-index

There are a few very interesting observations that I can make from these lists about the kinds of games that I tend to play the most. The games that have appeared on my H-index are typically light-to-mid-weight family games with a play time of around 45 minutes to an hour. They are games that are relatively easy to teach and to learn and to play, and many of them would be considered to be "gateway" games; this makes sense because I am often teaching games to non-gamers and different groups of people. There are, of course, a couple of exceptions from that categorization in terms of play time, but even the exceptions still fall well within those guidelines of being more family-style entry-point games.

Most of the games on my list are highly strategic, though they are not necessarily "complex", per se; three of the more complex card games on my H-index - Glory to Rome, Race for the Galaxy, Innovation - are mostly considered such because each card is unique, rather than the complexity of the gameplay itself. I was quite surprised, however, to see that there were a couple of genres and styles of games that were almost entirely absent. There were no "party" games on the list other than The Resistance; perhaps that is because I tend to vary the party games I play, or perhaps that I do not tend to play as many of those types of games.

There were also fewer "filler" games - games that can be played in half an hour or so - than I had expected, particularly of the "lighter" variety; that designation is somewhat subjective, of course, but it's interesting to note nevertheless. The only "true" filler games on my list were Hanabi and Battle Line, though Dominion, Splendor, and King of Tokyo could also easily be included in that category. (Some might also include 7 Wonders or Race for the Galaxy as much more complex "fillers", and while I might agree, I tend to consider them as a separate category because their complexity often adds a significant amount of time to teaching and playing, particularly for new players.)

In addition to the general type and categorization of games, there are other interesting ways to evaluate my H-index, including two provided by information from BoardGameGeek by which I can evaluate my H-index: the game's general ranking, as well as its weight. My taste in games is strong, at least according to the metric of rankings on BoardGameGeek; there are, of course, some serious issues with how the rankings are compiled in regard to recency bias, but nevertheless, I was heartened to see that I have good taste as far as general consensus is concerned.

Many of the games on my list ranked much higher than their current ranking at one point (several have fallen at least one hundred spots), but even their current rankings are indicative that I tend to favour games that are well-loved and widely appreciated. The twenty-five published games that have appeared on my H-index - my own design, Pot O' Gold is the only exclusion - are all very well regarded, with none with a ranking lower than 615; in fact, there are only two games that fall outside of the top three hundred - the top 0.003% - of all entries on BGG. Of those twenty-three that fall in that top three hundred, four fall in the top fifteen, another seven in the top hundred, another seven between 101 and 200, and then another five between 201 and 280. (For reference, there are over 91,000 items logged on the site.) And in an odd coincidence, there are also three instances in which currently consecutively ranked games appear on my list.

[The rankings, if you are interested are, in descending order: Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 (1); The Castles of Burgundy (11); Puerto Rico (12); Agricola (14); 7 Wonders (37); Race for the Galaxy (46); Lords of Waterdeep (48); Dominion (55); Pandemic (61); Ticket to Ride: Europe (85); Splendor (97); Glory to Rome (128); Carcassonne (129); The Resistance (137); Battle Line (157); King of Tokyo (188); Saint Petersburg (198); San Juan (199); At the Gates of Loyang (209); Flash Point: Fire Rescue (231); Hanabi (237); Innovation (249); Citadels (284); Kingdom Builder (416); and Fleet (615).]

The other interesting measure on BGG is the "weight" of the game, which determines how complex it is according to the average as determined by users who rank its weight on BGG. Like a game's BGG ranking, the measure of weight is somewhat problematic for a couple of reasons: it is the average of a large group, and the actual values are vague and undefined, so they can be misleading and at times even incorrect - I, for one, would rank King of Tokyo as heavier than The Resistance - but it's still interesting to note

Of the 25 games on my H-index with weight rankings on BGG, seven are weighted between 1.5 and 2.0; ten between 2.0 and 2.5; four between 2.5 and 3.0; and three between 3.0 and 3.5; and one above 3.5 (Agricola). The mean weight of games that have appeared on my H-index is 2.4, which is also close to the median (2.31). The real complexity of many of the games on my H-index would be higher, since those weights do not include expansions with which I often play that add complexity, but it's still an interesting measure to observe nevertheless.

[Those BGG weight rankings, if you are interested, are, in increasing order from easiest to most difficult: King of Tokyo (1.51); The Resistance (1.64); Hanabi (1.70); Splendor (1.84); Battle Line (1.91); Carcassonne (1.94); Ticket to Ride: Europe (1.96); Citadels (2.06); Kingdom Builder (2.07); Flash Point: Fire Rescue (2.21); Fleet (2.24); San Juan (2.29); 7 Wonders (2.34); Dominion (2.37); Pandemic (2.43); Saint Petersburg (2.47); Lords of Waterdeep (2.50); Innovation (2.71); Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 (2.81); Glory to Rome (2.92); Race for the Galaxy (2.97); The Castles of Burgundy (3.04); At the Gates of Loyang (3.15); Puerto Rico (3.29); and Agricola (3.63).]

Other interesting facts and thoughts about my H-index

There are so many other interesting ways that I could analyze and measure my H-index, but I chose just a few. Here are a few other interesting lists and observations about my H-index and the games that appear on the list.

Total number of games that have appeared on my H-index: 26

Games that have appeared on my H-index that I do not currently own: Dominion; Puerto Rico

Games that dropped off my H-index but that re-entered later (with the levels at which they dropped off and later re-entered): Carcassonne (8-9; 13-15); Battle Line (11-13;14-18); Citadels (13-16)

Games that dropped off my H-index and did not re-enter later (with the level at which they dropped off): Puerto Rico (4); Saint Petersburg (12); Ticket to Ride: Europe (12); San Juan (15); At the Gates of Loyang (16); The Resistance (18)

Games previously on my H-index that were never played to achieve a new H-index level: San Juan; Ticket to Ride; At the Gates of Loyang

Games currently on my H-index  that were never played to achieve a new H-index level: Dominion; Flash Point: Fire Rescue; Hanabi; Pot O’Gold

Games that were played to achieve a new H-index level more than once: Carcassonne (5, 9); Citadels (1, 16, 20)

Games I am most surprised to see not ever having appeared on my H-index: Bohnanza; Chrononauts; Dixit; Forbidden Island; Jaipur; Star Realms; Ticket to Ride: Europe

Games that at one point I would have guessed would definitely appear on my H-index but that seem like they probably will not now based on current rate of play: Alhambra; Cosmic Encounter; Hive; Lost Cities; Tikal

One final digression was looking at the plays at each level that succeeded the plays to achieve the H-index. I was interested to see how closely it mirrored the growth of my H-index, and I was interested by what I found. Eleven of those games joined the H-index at the next level, and of those eleven, six of those games were played to trigger the next level of my H-index. There is only one game on this list that never appeared on my H-index: Chrononauts. Interestingly, both Carcassonne and Ticket to Ride: Europe had this happen four times apiece, which is likely somewhat of a product of having had a smaller library and roster of games at the time.

For reference, here is the list, with the H-index level in parentheses: Agricola (2), Carcassonne (3,4); 7 Wonders (5); Chrononauts (6); Ticket to Ride: Europe (7); Carcassonne (8); Ticket to Ride; Europe (9, 10); At the Gates of Loyang (11); Ticket to Ride: Europe (12); San Juan (13); Carcassonne (14); Fleet (15); Kingdom Builder (16); Battle Line (17); Fleet (18); and Pot O' Gold (19).

Thoughts on the future of my H-index

An obsessively analytical post like this would not be complete, of course, if I did not further indulge myself by some rampant speculation on the possibilities of the future of my H-index. I decided to go through my list of plays and to attempt to evaluate the games at different play count ranges that might end up on my H-index at some point. I have rated them most likely, very likely, likely, possible, and in a few cases, unlikely, as far as whether I think they may end up on my H-index.

This section (well, the whole post, really) is mostly, of course, for my future self when I look back on this post in a few years so that I can (hopefully) nod my head knowingly and be impressed by my prescient self-awareness about my trajectory in playing board games. And yes, I am aware that I ultimately have control over these results and could manipulate them, but I find that my gaming patterns tend to be affected enough by other players that it will still be interesting to see how these guesses turn out a few years hence.

As I considered which games might end up on my H-index, I had to factor in the history of how games have been added in the past and the trends over the past few years. I ended up with a list of eighty games that could possibly end up on my H-index at some point, with varying degrees of possibility. I chose to focus on games that I have played, as it seems increasingly unlikely that a game that I play for the first time now will enter the list before these eighty games I have listed, as the rate at which new games enter my H-index has decreased significantly as the number of new games I play has increased significantly (from thirty new games a year to over a hundred).

In fact, the only games that I played for the first time in the past three years that have entered my H-index are Splendor, Pandemic Legacy: Season 1, and Pot O' Gold. There are another 31 games for which I have recorded initial plays in the past three years that I have listed even as possibilities among those eighty; only five of those 31 have had their initial plays in the past year, with only one played for the first time in the past six months. In short, it is becoming more and more difficult for new games to garner enough plays in a short enough span of time to warrant any kind of consideration as a possibility for my future H-index.

Of course, in order to contend for my H-index at some point, I also need to own the game, as every game currently on my H-index has been in my collection at some point, so games that are already in my collection are rated as more likely to enter my list. Of the forty games I ranked as "most likely" or "likely" to enter or re-enter my H-index (other than T.I.M.E Stories, which I will never own), there are only two other games that I currently do not own - Cacao and The Grizzled - and those are quite possibly going to be the next two games that I purchase.

The criteria, then, for any game that could eventually contend for a spot in my H-index is that it has to be in my collection (at some point), be easy enough to teach and learn for new players, be short enough to play multiple times in one sitting, be replayable often in a short span of time (ie. be "binge-able"), has likely already been played a few times, and, judging by my play history, be a game that my wife wants to play, since she has directly influenced the presence of almost every game on my H-index as my primary gaming partner.

So here are my thoughts on eighty games that are currently not on my H-index, including the six that have been included at some point, grouped by current play count. I find it interesting as an overall trend that I ranked 21 games as "very likely" or "most likely" to enter my H-index at some point, with another 20 as "likely", 36 "possible", and three "unlikely". I doubt, of course, that I will ever reach an H-index of one hundred - or even of 61 or 41, for that matter - but it seems as though I am optimistic about my chances, given these categorizations.

For games for which I have currently recorded ten plays or more (23):

Most likely to enter H-index / the next five games that I predict will enter my H-index: Eminent Domain; Istanbul; Jaipur; Rook; Star Realms (5)

Very likely to enter or re-enter H-index sometime: 7 Wonders: Duel; At the Gates of Loyang; Codenames; The Game; San Juan (5)

Likely to enter H-index sometime: Anomia; Dixit; Galaxy Trucker; OrlĂ©ans; T.I.M.E Stories (5)

Possible to enter or re-enter H-index sometime: Glass Road; Le Havre; The Resistance; Saint Petersburg; Ticket to Ride: Europe; Village (6)

Unlikely to enter H-index sometime: Chrononauts; Alhambra (2)

For games for which I have currently recorded between 6 and 9 plays (21):

Most likely to enter H-index someday: Between Two Cities; Dutch Blitz; Ingenious; Patchwork; Sushi Go!; Tiny Epic Galaxies (6)

Likely to enter H-index someday: The Castles of Burgundy: The Card Game; Coup; OctoDice; Pandemic: The Cure; Tokaido (5)

Possible to enter H-index someday: Bohnanza; Camel Up; Cosmic Encounter; Fresco; Friday; Harbour; Imperial Settlers; Scoville; Takenoko; Viticulture (10)

For games for which I have currently recorded between 3 and 5 plays (25):

Most likely to enter H-index someday: Codenames: Pictures; The Grizzled; Hey, That's My Fish!; Paperback; Red7 (5)

Likely to enter H-index someday: Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small; Biblios; Cacao; Get Bit!; Hive; Isle of Skye: From Chieftain to King; King of New York; Lost Cities; Love Letter; Valley of the Kings (10)

Possible to enter H-index someday:  Apples to Apples; Caverna: The Cave Farmers; Eggs and Empires; Elysium; Macao; Machi Koro; Medieval Academy; Mottainai; Notre Dame; Villages of Valeria (10)

Unlikely to re-enter H-index: Puerto Rico

And ten games for which I have recorded either one or two plays that I think could contend for my H-index someday: Flip City; For Sale; Gravwell; Kaiser; Lanterns: The Harvest Festival; Oh My Goods!; Qwirkle; The Resistance: Avalon; Roll for the Galaxy; Tides of Time.


This ended up being a much deeper dive than I had initially anticipated. I would estimate, including time going through my BGG history and collecting data, analyzing the data, doing a bit of research, and writing this post, that I spent well over thirteen hours in total composing this post over the span of three weeks. But I learned (or at least re-realized) a lot about myself as a gamer along the way, and that makes the whole journey worth it, right?

I really enjoy monitoring my H-index and using it as a way to measure myself as a gamer. Even though I have greatly broadened my gaming horizons in the past three years, I continue to use H-index as a way to continue pursuing depth in a hobby that often does not seem to lend itself naturally to supporting such endeavours - "cult of the new" and all.

My current ongoing goal is to achieve one new level of my H-index every quarter, which generally means playing all of the games currently at that H-index level at least once and then playing at least one of the games with slightly fewer plays repeatedly to have it catch up with the rest. I have been able to advance my H-index in each of the past six quarters (although just barely this time), and I expect to be able to do so in at least the next two quarters that remain in 2017.

I decided this year to remove all other external challenges like playing ten games ten times each (10 x 10), or playing all of the games in my collection a certain number of times, as I had found them too restrictive in determining which games I would play, and I found myself not enjoying the feeling that I had to play a particular game to achieve a challenge. But I decided to keep the one external pressure of advancing my H-index for a few reasons: it's much easier to manage playing a half-dozen or so games once a quarter; I think it's good to have at least one guiding external goal helping advancing my game playing; I often find myself gravitating toward these games anyway; and I think it's a really valuable measure of how accomplished I am as a gamer.

It seems kind of silly in many ways that it feels like such an accomplishment to have achieved this H-index of 20, since all it means is that I am enjoying certain games enough to play them repeatedly, which is kind of the point of owning games at all; the strange reality underlying this whole analysis is really that I will not play most of the games I own even twenty times.

I recognize that that realization might not make sense to a lot of non-gamers - after all, it does not necessarily seem to make sense to keep buying games when I seem to barely play the games I own - but I know that most people in the hobby will understand my predicament. I enjoy playing new games, but I also really enjoy replaying games I love, and so I keep adding games I like playing to my collection so that I can play them more. And despite how much I do already play, I know I could always play more.

It is possible, of course, that at some point that I will have to reduce the number of games that I own or play, particularly in order to keep advancing my H-index, but I have not yet reached that point in my life or in my gaming. For now, I am proud of the advancements I have made as a gamer, and I am happy that I continue to keep my H-index in mind as I keep gaming and that I do have an H-index that is as high as it is. It validates the fact that I am a veteran board gamer who pursues both breadth and depth as I play, and, if nothing else, it gives me something to obsess over and enjoy in a far-too-nerdy self-indulgent way.

Friday, June 16, 2017

All the Bells and whistles

The first time that I fully realized that "Rob Bell" had become a distinct indicator of a particular worldview within Evangelical Christianity was just before I moved back to Saskatchewan. Sure, I was aware that he had become persona non grata in many circles when he published Love Wins - I even wrote a blog post about the controversy when the book was released - but I was not quite as aware as to how deep the anathema toward Bell ran, particularly in the Bible belt here on the prairies - and believe me, it's deep.

It seems as though when people hear that I like Rob Bell, they have one of a few reactions, of which the most direct and obvious are those who are virulently opposed to him and what they perceive that he represents - namely, a "watered-down" Christianity that they believe does not (and cannot) represent a life devoted to following Jesus Christ. They may react with the aforementioned repulsion and disgust at his heresy, and they may lump me in with his lot. Or the reaction may be softer, despite the fact that they still believe that he is a heretic, and they may more gently wonder and question how I can like him and his work when he seems to them to be far from the Christian worldview they know.

There are some people, however, who react with far less vitriol, derision, or vehement opposition. Their responses vary: confusion ("He was that pastor in Seattle, right?" "No, that was Mark Driscoll. Bell was at the other Mars Hill..."); mild recollection ("Wasn't he the NOOMA video guy?"); slightly fond nostalgia ("Oh, so that's what he's up to now - I read that Elvis book a long time ago"); or even mild interest ("Huh. Sounds like he's up to some interesting things - maybe I should get his new book").

And then there are those of us who have stuck with Bell over the years. We have journeyed with him as he left ministry in the wake of the furor over his supposed universalism of Love Wins. We have continued to read his books and follow him on social media as he has partnered with Oprah and Carlton Cuse and written some very interesting books and generally been freed from some of the shackles of the expectations and limitations of being a prominent author in the Evangelical Christian world. It has been a fascinating journey, and I thought it would be valuable to recount how Bell's journey has interacted with my own over the years.

My journey with Rob

I first read Velvet Elvis a year or two after it was released, sometime in 2006-2007. It was a period in my life in which I was working through what I thought about church and Christian culture, and in which I was really starting to expand my worldview and the way in which I thought Christians and the church should interact with the world. Bell, along with authors like Donald Miller, Brian McLaren, and Bruxy Cavey, started to give me a new lens through which to see the world around me and a new language with which I could express the ways in which I could already sense my previously narrow Conservative Evangelical worldview expanding.

I appreciated Bell's early works, including Velvet Elvis, Sex God, and Jesus Wants to Save Christians. I should actually revisit those works, since it has been a decade since I have read any of them, and I read them all before I started writing reviews on GoodReads. I particularly identified with his work on creativity and suffering, Drops Like Stars, as an artistic endeavour, and I have recently been feeling a need to return to that work as inspiration on my own creative journey.

And then there's that crucial book in his journey, Love Wins, which was superficially about hell. It was the book that marked the turning point in the general attitude toward Bell, as he was accused of being universalist and turning his back on Christianity by more conservative Christian authors and leaders. Bell went from being the mostly innocuous bespectacled NOOMA guy - although there were some pockets of Evangelical Christianity who had virulently opposed his work from the beginning - to a divisively heretical force who was distracting people from Jesus and Christianity and acting as a poison in the church - at least according to his critics; as a result, he (and arguably the reader of his books) was summarily "excommunicated" (or at least ostracized and delegitimized) from fellowship in the general Evangelical ether.

Here's the thing with Love Wins: I read it at the time, and I appreciated it for what it was - a conversation starter. I did not think at the time that it was his best work, and I think there are more problems with the book in terms of his presentation and even some of his arguments than with any other books, but I still appreciated that he was putting something into the conversation. And although I understood how it was controversial, I did not think it should have been.

What he was saying was not what he was being criticized as saying, and it became clear that there was a lot of agenda on the side of the people who were attempting to exclude him. There was some legitimately interesting dialogue at the time, including Francis Chan's response book Erasing Hell and Hellbound?, a documentary from a Canadian filmmaker who had already been working on his project and was able to use some of the controversy to promote his film.

But I lost track of Bell for a few years after that, and I do not really know why; I was not avoiding Bell, but I was not really engaging with his work, either. I can look back at the books I read in that time using my history on Goodreads, and although I owned his next book - What We Talk About When We Talk About God - for several years, I just never got around to reading it. But I still considered him to be very influential on my life and one of my favourite authors - enough so that he was often one of the first names I would list when I was asked about my favourite people who were writing about faith.

Then, last fall, I read Bell's then-most recent book, How To Be Here, and it reignited something in me and inspired me to catch up on what I had missed in those intervening years. I have since read his previous two books - The ZimZum of Love, which is about marriage, and What We Talk About When We Talk About God, which is about, well, God - and I am looking at revisiting several of his other books over the summer; after all, they are all very easy to digest, and they will make some great summer afternoon reading (not to mention great fodder for a future blog post in which I rank his works).

I am also planning on finally watching all of the NOOMA videos, of which I had only watched a couple when they were popular back in the early aughts; it's kind of funny, actually, that I never really caught on to Bell through the series that made him popular. For that matter, it's kind of funny that I have rarely interacted with Bell through his audio/visual presentations, including his current podcast, the RobCast (I'm too full on podcasts right now to integrate another one, but his would be at the top of my list), considering that he is arguably much stronger a speaker than he is a writer.

It has been a lot of fun catching up with him and seeing how his space connects to my space; it has been kind of like reconnecting with a long-time friend after a few years - one of those friends with whom you just lost touch for awhile until you found a really meaningful point of contact. And then once you have reconnected, you start to have a really significant relationship again and you wonder how you ever were not in contact and you realize that this person is really important to you. That's where Rob and I are at.

What is the Bible?

Part of the reason I have been excited to catch up on Bell's bibliography (pun intended) was the release of his new book this spring: What Is The Bible? I was excited to see where he had been and where he was going, so I made sure to read his earlier books before starting on this new one. Here's the review I posted about What is the Bible? on GoodReads:

What Is the Bible?: How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About EverythingWhat Is the Bible?: How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything by Rob Bell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"What is the Bible?" It's a big question, and it could be very problematic for someone like Rob Bell to wade into these waters. But Bell seems to fully have embraced his status as someone who is not received by much of the church, and he is pushing ahead with writing the things he needs to write for the people who will receive them; I, of course, am one of those people, and I have been since I first read Velvet Elvis well over a decade ago.

There's a point well into this book in which Bell relates a story about delivering a sermon when he was in school. He knew he wanted to do something different from the norm, so he did, and as he tells it, his professor's reaction was: "You can take it further". Well, in What is the Bible?, that's what he does, and I think he does so with great success.

In fact, this might be the furthest that Bell has ever gone - or at least as far as he has gone since Love Wins - and there is an argument to be made that this is his most significant work, period. Velvet Elvis might still be the best entry point to Bell, as he brings up many of the ideas that he explores in further detail in his later works in that book, but I would posit that What is the Bible? might be the one that I recommend people read once they make it through Velvet Elvis.

He spends the first 70% of the book working through the idea of why the Bible matters, as well as how to read, interpret, and apply the Bible (so to speak), but his point really boils down to one emphasis: the Bible is a collection of stories written by people with a particular cultural lens about their understanding of their experience with the divine.

He spends a lot of the book repeating variations on this idea, but it's worth the repetition, since he is quite deliberately working against some very entrenched ideas in the way that the Bible has come to be understood by a large segment of its adherents. Bell is much more in line with a post-modern deconstructionalist view of the text, and he seems to be much more cognizant of current literary critical trends than many other faith-based writers are.

The final section, in which he processes some of the key questions he often receives, is bound to be the most problematic for people; of course, anyone who starts a Rob Bell book is usually already on a certain track of thinking, but it's the final portion in which he really takes it further. Bell really digs into some of the ways that the Bible has been treated and perceived and the descriptors that are used to defend and argue the validity of the Bible - authoritative, inspired, inerrant - and he moves toward some very interesting and valuable interpretations of those concepts.

As usual, I find myself agreeing with most of what Bell says, and I am able to see past the 5-10% that I find somewhat problematic. I really appreciate how he states things, and I often find that he helps me have language to describe my own positions. I think the best takeaway I had from What is the Bible? was when he wrote that we are to read the Bible "literately", rather than "literally"; in fact, I think that short statement essentially sums up the entire book.

I love that Bell continues to frame his work in a pastoral and conversational lens, and that he writes in such a way that his books serve as a valuable entry point for much more discussion. That said, he himself acknowledges in a short epilogue that people reading this book in particular need to be ready and able to engage in a different way of thinking, and that not everyone is ready to go there. I am glad that he continues to take it further, and I think that What is the Bible? is invaluable for helping a new generation approach this text in a new way.

View all my reviews

For whom the Bell tolls

I know that even reading Bell's books - much less writing a post like this in praise of Rob Bell - could be problematic for me, since it further entrenches me in a particular corner of the Evangelical Christian world - one that is perceived as being further from "the truth" - and, quite frankly, I am okay with that. I'm not in the same camp as much of the "Gospel Coalition" or contemporary North American Evangelical churches, and I, for one, tend to think that's a good thing.

Even if you do not know me well enough to know that I share a lot of Bell's viewpoints, you can get a good sense of where I am at by taking a look at the kinds of authors on my shelf: Brian McLaren, Matthew Paul Turner, Shane Claiborne, Sarah Bessey, Rachel Held Evans, Nadia Bolz-Weber, and Peter Rollins, for starters. I recognize that there is a lot of criticism toward Bell and these authors from a segment of the Evangelical church, but it does not matter to me.

I appreciate the fact that these authors - among many others - are exploring new ways of living out faith and expressing themselves and finding themselves in new contexts and constructs. I find a vitality in their journeys that mirrors my own experience in my faith journey, and I am excited to see how Bell and these other writers are wrestling with many of the same big questions which which I find myself confronted.

And look, I get that Rob Bell is not perfect, and I am not saying that I think he is. I do not agree with everything Bell says or does, and it would be ridiculous if I did; I doubt even Bell himself does. But I can say that I agree with a lot of what he says, and that the value that Bell brings to the general dialogue is not just in what he says, but the very fact that he says it. He is engaging some very difficult issues, and I generally think he does so in a way that is responsible and gracious and intelligent and well-informed and beneficial for those who are willing to take the journey with him.

Perhaps what I continue to appreciate most about Bell is that as he writes and speaks and lives, he continues to cultivate a pastoral presence as he seeks to guide others to Jesus. He has never wavered from that goal, as critics have accused him of doing so, and he just happens to be "pastoring" a much different community in his current life in California than he did when he started writing books over a decade ago.

I consider myself to be part of that community by extension through his writing, and I am glad that Bell has been a pastoral influence on my life, as I strongly believe that he has been integral in my own journey with Jesus. I am glad that he continues to "take it further", and I am excited to be a part of his journey and to have him be part of mine.

Friday, June 09, 2017

The Legend of Perler: A visual essay

It started off simply enough: I decided that I wanted to start a new Perler project over the April Easter break. I was feeling inspired by playing the new release The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, so on a whim I decided to dig back into the archives and to try to make a project that had been on my radar for a long time: the logo from the original NES The Legend of Zelda.

I (wisely) realized that doing the whole screenshot might be a bit much, especially without mini beads, so I settled on creating just the main part of the logo, using a T-shirt I had recently acquired as my inspiration.

I had never attempted anything this large or ambitious before, but I figured I would just start and see what happened. It was at about an hour in that I realized that I had perhaps started something that might take a bit more time than I had initially expected. I did, however, (mostly) remember to take pictures of my travails at various points through the process, so I thought it would be interesting to recount my journey in a visual essay.

The Start

Here's my progress after the first and second hours, respectively. It was at this point that I realized that this project might take a bit more time than I had expected, as it took an hour to do the initial outline alone. I also realized that I did not have enough boards or enough space to do the whole project at one go, so I knew I would have to finish it in pieces.

Hour 1 - The basic outlines

Hour 2 - Filling in the Triforce
Hour 3 - Filling in the middle letters 
Hour 4 - After filling in the greenery and the sword, the first section is ready for ironing!

Hour 5(ish) - The starting section is ironed!

The Legend continues...

I knew by this point that it was only going to become more complicated as a result of my insufficient planning at the start of the project, and I realized that I would likely have to add the other pieces - the top, the "Z", the "A", and the tip and hilt of the sword - one by one. I realized that the main difficulties would be in figuring out how to line up the beads on the boards, as well as lining up the ironed sections successfully.

Hour 6 - It took awhile to figure out the beading, but it looks good so far.

Hour 6.5 - The top and "A" are ready to be ironed!

It was at this point that I decided to try something I had not tried before: the "masking tape method". The method involves placing masking tape over the top of the beads on the board; I used painter's tape since it is wider and easier to remove afterward. Once all of the beads are taped down (overlapping the edges of the tape, of course), it is easy (in theory) to flip over the boards, keeping the beads in the same arrangement. This method is recommended for preserving the boards, since they can warp from the heat of the iron if the beads stay on the board during the ironing process; it is also recommended for larger projects that will be completed in pieces, like this one. It is also not easy, as I soon discovered.

I struggled with the initial tape placement, and I had to do a fair bit of Perler surgery to make it work after I flipped it over. Despite my best efforts, however, there was still one small section that I had to give up on and rework later; of course, it happened to be the most intricately detailed portion of the whole piece that used the most colours.

Hour 7.5 - The top and "A" that survived to be ironed using the masking tape method.

Hour 7.5 - The aftermath of the small section that did not survive the initial taping.
It took a fair bit of effort, but I managed to get the rest of the top lined up fairly well with the existing piece. I wasn't able to connect the "A" at that time, but I was just happy that it was working so far.

Hour 8 - The pieces that ironed together.

Getting closer to finishing...

After some time away from the project in part due to silly things like work and life (as well as needing to go pick up another bag of red beads), I resumed work on re-beading the top and adding the "Z" on the left side of the logo. My three-year-old nephew was particularly keen on helping with the beads, but of course it happened to be in that most intricate section that had not worked with the tape method previously. It was also quite fortunate that the edge of the "Z" ended exactly on the edge of the board. I had not planned for that to work out that way, but I was glad it did.

Hour 8.5 - The restoration of the section that did not survive the first attempt at the masking tape method.

Hour 9 - The last letter is outlined!
I neglected to take pictures for a couple of intermediate stages at this point, but suffice to say that the whole process was becoming a lot easier by this time. Despite my previous failure, I decided to again attempt the masking tape method - and it worked this time! I knew that my troubles were far from over, though, as the real trick would be managing to line up this new ironed piece on both the top and the sides in such a way as to hide the seam. As you will see, I was proud of the result, even though it took a lot of ironing.

Hour 10 - The masking tape method worked this time!

Hour 10.5 - The ironed piece to be added to the existing base.

Hour 11 - It worked!

The Finishing Touches and the Final Product

At that point, there was not much left to do to finish the project. I had to add the already-ironed "A" to the right side of the base as well as designing, ironing, and attaching the hilt and tip of the sword.

Hour 11.5 - The final two pieces
And suddenly - DA DA DA DAAAAAA!!!! - it was finished! Here's the final breakdown of some of the numbers I calculated:
  • 5,852 beads
  • 9 colours used
  • 16 boards (including two with one and three beads, respectively)
  • Over 12 hours total work over the span of three weeks
  • 6 ironing sessions, for a total of about three hours
  • 2 trips to Michael's to purchase extra beads (black, red, and cheddar)
  • 1 mistake that no one except me will ever notice
Hour 12+ - The final product!


Image result for it's dangerous to go alone take thisThis was by far the largest bead sprite project I have ever undertaken, and it was my first large project in years, so as you might imagine, I learned a lot throughout the process. I was happy to finally use the masking tape method successfully, but I also learned that I will need to do more preparation for future large projects in terms of planning for boards, beads, physical space, and time. I don't know if I will attempt another similarly ambitious project in the future, but I did really enjoy getting back into the hobby, so I imagine that I will work on some smaller projects over the summer, like some coasters and fridge magnets.

And for anyone wondering where I managed to convince my wife to allow me to put this up in our house - I didn't. I ended up giving the piece as a wedding gift to friends of mine who had initially introduced me to bead sprites when they were working as my camp staff five years ago; as I think about it, however, I probably should have made this scene for them. Maybe I already have my next big project lined up...

Thursday, June 08, 2017

A review of Peter Rollins' Insurrection

Insurrection: To Believe Is Human To Doubt, DivineInsurrection: To Believe Is Human To Doubt, Divine by Peter Rollins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Peter Rollins has been on my list of authors to read for a long time, as he is one of those authors that a lot of authors I read and people I respect have mentioned and recommended. Although it took me years to finally get to reading one of his works, I would not be surprised if I read through all of the rest of his books in the next few months, judging by how much I appreciated his writing and his thought process in Insurrection.

I started reading my way through Rollins with Insurrection, his fourth book, because it seemed from what I had read about his work that this is the point at which much of his philosophy of "pyro-theology" started to emerge in a more clear manner. Rollins discusses pyrotheology as the burning away of any and all presuppositions and worldviews that would otherwise interfere with our theology, including (especially) the elements of religion and Christianity that have served as a security blanket to followers of Jesus. He deconstructs many of the ways that churches have come to believe and practice in order to reach back to the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Christ without the trappings that have obscured those events over the past two millennia.

I have read similar works that have contained similar arguments by authors such as Bruxy Cavey, Brian McLaren, and Rob Bell, but Rollins' take is, in my estimation, the most philosophically driven and abstract of these kinds of works. Cavey, McLaren, and Bell have some investiture in "pastoring" readers through their new understanding as a result of their vocation as pastors, whereas Rollins seems to have much more interest in pursuing the thought experiment to its logical conclusion (or even past that point at times) as a philosopher and thinker, without the same kind of regard for caring for his audience as in those other works, a factor that seems to unfetter him in order to allow him to craft a "headier" argument.

It is not difficult to see why Rollins' work has become so influential on those other writers or in the context of the post-modern church movement of the past decade (a movement that is often labeled as "emergent" even though that is somewhat of a generic misnomer). He has taken a lot of the ideas that have been espoused within the context of deconstructing theology and expressed them in a way that is accessible and meaningful.

That's not to say that Insurrection is necessarily that palatable or easy; in fact, it is quite challenging at times to make it through, as evidenced by the fact that I had to restart it after several months away and then it still took me a lot longer than I had expected to make it through the text. Its difficulty lies in just how much Rollins packs into his writing and thinking and the level of deconstruction that is happening; it seems as though, just at the point at which he can't go any further that he does, and that step opens up a variety of questions about institutional implications and personal ramifications.

That said, I think it's worth it to read Insurrection if you're like me and attempting to engage on a journey of reflection and deconstruction in order to peel away the layers of culture that have obscured the character of Christ within the church. On the other hand, if you have not started to ask questions about the Christian culture and worldview, you might need someone else to ease you into this kind of thinking. I would not recommend Rollins as a starting point - Bell is the obvious gateway author for that kind of thinking - but I would say that a journey that begins with Bell logically leads to Rollins.

I felt as though I missed so much as I was reading through this book, whether it was because I could not nearly hope to consume it all on a first reading or because I do not yet have the faculties to be able to process everything that he was saying. I think this is definitely a book that I will have to read again, particularly after I have read the rest of Rollins' works. I think it has the potential to be quite the journey, and I'm looking forward to it.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Thoughts on Survivor: Game Changers

[SPOILER ALERT for Survivor: Game Changers, obviously.]

Survivor's 34th season ended two weeks ago with an eventful finale, and as has been my tradition for over a decade, I have a few thoughts to share about the season that just passed. I really enjoyed this season for the most part. There was a lot of great strategic moves in the game, many memorable moments (some for unfortunate reasons), and a lot of entertainment in addition to the generally heightened gameplay.

(As somewhat of an aside, I find it somewhat strange that I have not written thoughts after each season - just mostly after the even-numbered seasons that air from February until May. I wonder why I do not seem to write out thoughts after the seasons that air in the fall, but I think it's likely mainly because the narrative for the "year" of Survivor feels much more complete in May than it does in December. Then again, I did write a piece after Survivor: Cambodia - Second Chance that December, so maybe it just depends on whether I feel as though I have much to say about the season or not.)

Sarah was a deserving winner, to be sure, although I was slightly disappointed that Brad Culpepper did not get at least one more vote from the jury. Although I was initially not as sure where to rank Sarah in terms of my overall ranking and classification of winners, I think she slides in the top half of my ranking at number 15 near the top of the "Managers" category, just behind Yul Kwon from Cook Islands and just ahead of Adam from Millennials vs. Gen X and Denise from Philippines. She, like Adam, managed various alliances and game circumstances, and they earned their wins. I think, however, that it's going to continue to become more difficult not to rank winners in more recent seasons higher in the overall rankings because the competition is generally more intense and the game is getting more convoluted - more on that later - and the game is just stronger overall.

There were three overarching observations I had about this season, particularly as it relates to the overall narrative and progression of the game as a cultural phenomenon and an example of game theory. This season demonstrated the need for the producers to pull back on the twists, the benefits of including returning players, and the continued development of narratives both of the show in general and of specific players.

Too many twists

Survivor: Game Changers continued to demonstrate how the game is changing in terms of strategy and quality of competition. I have alluded to how Survivor has been changing in posts on recent seasons, including my thoughts after Survivor: Cambodia - Second Chance, the most recent season to feature an cast entirely comprised of returning players, but I think it's worth making it clear what I think is going on with the game in general.

Game Changers demonstrated that the evolutions that have been solidified in recent seasons seem to have taken root in the DNA of the game. Alliances are more fluid than fixed, social gameplay continues to be more prominent, and players (like Sarah) who would have once been considered "flip-floppers" because they shifted alliances are now winning the game; in fact, three of the four most recent winners were known for their movement between alliances. This shift remains one of the few genuine strategic changes in the game in its 34 years, and it is arguably the most vibrant and vital to the game's continued development, which is why it is so disappointing that it seems like it may be ruined by the producers' reliance on gimmicks that interfere with the progression of the game.

It was less than a year ago - just before Millennials vs. Gen X - that I sorted through all of the twists in Survivor history and ranked them in my list of Top Survivor Twists. At that point, I had no idea that, only two seasons later, they would use half of them in one season, in addition to adding a new one - two tribes going to Tribal Council voting out one member between them, ultimately resulting in Malcolm being voted out by another tribe.

Malcolm's unfortunately early ouster, which came in just the third episode, was the first sign that the game designers would be mucking around more than usual with various twists this season, but it was not the last. It seemed like almost every episode (each of which usually represents three days on Survivor) had its own twist, and it seemed that by the end of the game that there were at least a half-dozen twists in play at any given time, which, in the opinion of this long-time fan, represented too many twists.

Twists have been a part of Survivor from its onset, and I think that there should be some twists to keep the game fresh; after all, the game is better when it provides moments for unexpected things to happen. It is still surprising, after all, that the show lasted so long without instituting some of these twists in the first place. But the scales have tipped too far in favour of the twists, and there is now too much affecting the game, as demonstrated not only by what happened to Malcolm, but also by the Tribal Council in the finale, which started with six players remaining.

Since Survivor moved to a Final Three, the Final Five (rather than Final Four) has become the line for being able to play any Idols or Advantages, so players will often play an Idol at that point because it is useless afterward - and this case, they all were played. Brad had Immunity from the challenge; Tai played his two Immunity Idols to save himself and Aubry; Troyzan played his Immunity Idol to save himself; and Sarah played her Secret Advantage to save herself. All of that action ended up with Cirie, who had received no votes in the initial vote before all of the Idols and Advantages were revealed, being left as the only person who could receive votes. In the end, Cirie was forced out without a revote; technically, she did not receive any votes against her, yet she left the game (though at least Jeff let her say that "the tribe has spoken").

There was a symbolic nature to Cirie's exit, as she has had a reputation as one of the better players in Survivor history yet she was unable to do anything to prevent her own ouster. Sure, she could have found an Idol earlier, but my point is that not having found an Idol or Advantage should not necessarily mean that she could not win; rather, the twists should be able to played in order to help a player win, rather than being needed to win, as seemed to happen in this season.

The end result is that I felt as though the game was affected too much by its twists, and I believe that it ultimately negatively affected the game. Two strong players ended up being victim to very unusual circumstances, and I believe that the season - and the game - suffered for it. I sincerely hope that the presence of twists was increased for the "Game Changers" theme, and that the producers reduce the external ways that the game might be affected in future seasons. In fact, I think it would be really fascinating at this point to see a "pure" game of Survivor with no swaps, idols, or twists - just all strategy, social navigation, physical competition, and random circumstance.

On Returning Players

The key to a successful season of Survivor is not in the location, the twists, or even the theme: it's in the players and personalities who play the game. Great seasons invariably have great players, whereas weaker seasons have players who are not as strategically or socially aware or who are just not as interesting. And the best way to ensure great players is to feature players who are known commodities who have played the game before.

Survivor seems to have realized this fact about five years ago, which is why there have been more seasons with returning players in the most recent third of the show's history. Ten of the thirty-four seasons have featured returning players: seasons 8 (All-Stars), 16 (Micronesia), 20 (Heroes vs. Villains), 26 (Caramoan), 27 (Blood vs. Water), 31 (Cambodia), and 34 (Game Changers) have featured casts consisting of at least half-filled with returning players; seasons 11 (Guatemala), 22 (Redemption Island), and 25 (Philippines) included one returning player per tribe. Four of the seven seasons with at least half the cast of returning players have aired in the show's most recent nine seasons, and there has not been a stretch of four consecutive seasons without any returning players since seasons 12 to 15. In short, Survivor is featuring returning players more frequently, and that's a good thing; in fact, there's a good argument to be made for featuring even more returning players.

There have been a total of 498 contestants on Survivor, 91 of whom have competed multiple times (69 twice, 18 thrice, and four - Boston Rob, Rupert, Cirie, and Ozzy - at four times), leaving over four hundred contestants who have not yet had even one chance to return. I would imagine that the nine players who were not chosen by fans to participate in Survivor: Cambodia - Second Chance will join the group of returnees at some point, as Brad and Troyzan have already emerged from that group, but there will likely be more to join those ranks in the near future.

Granted, many of the 403 living players who have not played again did not demonstrate enough strategic, physical, or social skills, or entertainment value to warrant another shot, but there are definitely enough names remaining on that large list that it would not be difficult to stock several seasons with genuinely interesting returning players - enough so that it is hard to imagine that every third or second season should not be comprised significant from that existing roster of players. I think at this point in the show's history, that a new player really has to set themselves apart - as many of the returnees in Game Changers did - in order to play again.

I know that some fans remain mixed on the inclusion of returning players, or at least cynical of the producers' seeming over-reliance on them, particularly in regard to certain personalities, but I remain convinced that including returning players is better for the game and for the entertainment value, and I believe that returning players are particularly key to the development of narratives both within and beyond the construct of the show.

On Narratives

I wrote about the idea of story and narrative in the context of Survivor back after Philippines aired in the fall of 2012. It was in that season that Jonathon Penner brought up the idea within the game of how players wanted their narratives shaped for what I felt at the time was the first time in which a player within the game brought up the idea of overall narrative in a way that shaped the game. Probst, of course, has constantly sought to have players reflect mid-game and post-game on their story and how Survivor has been a part of it, but I felt a real resurgence to that concept again this year. (There is, of course, also the narrative of the game itself, but I will leave that for the Conclusion to this post.)

Perhaps the reason for that renewed focus is that it is much easier (and perhaps only possible) when a player is returning to the game, particularly after their initial return. New players often seem to (necessarily) be so focused on the development of the game that they do not seem to be able to devote much (if any) time to the kind of self-reflection that indicates an awareness of life outside the game (or, if they do, it is not conveyed to the audience). So in seasons that have a significant portion (or entire constitution) of returning players, the idea of narrative is heightened. But even in the midst of a season full of returning players, there were a few whose narratives stood out, and I have a few thoughts on those players, particularly the ones who returned for a third or fourth time.

Ozzy and Cirie were returning for their fourth times, and it was hard not to see there being some clear conclusions to their respective narratives, especially since they rank number 1 and number 2 in all-time days played on Survivor after this season. I would not be surprised to see this season being the end of Ozzy's narrative, as he has now been the second person voted out after the merge in his past three seasons and seems not to be able to apply the things he should have learned from previous editions of Survivor. Although he remains one of the most popular Survivor players ever, I wonder if he will be asked to play again, or if we have seen everything he has to offer. Cirie's future in the game is a little more difficult to guess, but if I had to venture a guess, I think she would play again if asked.

There were several players returning for a third time, each of whom merits at least a short mention. Jeff Varner's Survivor story is certainly done after what he did this season (more on that in a bit), and I would imagine that Ciera's narrative might also be finished after her last-place finish. I think former winners J.T. and Sandra are probably done, although I could see them wanting to come back in the future (especially if the long-rumoured All-Winners edition ever actually materializes).

But there are two other third-timers who deserve a bit more attention: Malcolm and Andrea, both of whom were playing for their first since Season 26, Caramoan - Fans vs. Favourites 2. Both returned for Caramoan as young players shortly after their initial seasons, and both have demonstrated a high level of social and strategic acumen in their three seasons. I would not be surprised to see both of the two return in the future, especially as they remain quite popular, and I think that both could still find a way to make it to the Final Three (which neither have done).

Of the second-time players, I think that Sierra, Aubry, and Michaela are the most likely to come back in the future, although there is one more player who needs to be mentioned here: Zeke, who was victimized in one of the most brutal moments on the show when Varner outed him during Tribal Council as transgender. Zeke's conduct both in the moment and since has been admirable, and I wonder what is in store for him both as a Survivor and in his new-found role as a public representative of his community; for what it's worth, I don't think his Survivor story is over yet.


Despite the shortcomings of this season in terms of the preposterous prevalence of twists and their influence on the game, I would rank this season somewhere in the mid-teens in terms of the history of the show. There was enough entertainment value, strong gameplay, social strategy, and physical prowess to continue to draw me in, and, aside from a couple of odd casting choices, I think this was one of the better casts of contestants that have competed on the show.

The show is consistently strong, and I still think that many of its best seasons have been later rather than earlier in its run, so I still hold out hope that there there is yet a lot of life left in the concept of the show even after 34 editions. I continue to be impressed with how the show and its competitors are constantly undergoing reinvention, and I think that is mostly a positive thing for the show (especially if the producers rein it in with the twists).

I did want to make one final comment on what was arguably the most memorable moment of the season: the Tribal Council with Varner and Zeke. It was one of the first moments that went viral and really seemed to transcend the show in years - maybe since Russell Hantz' first appearance in Samoa (season 19) or Boston Rob's victory in Redemption Island (season 22). I think that moment - aside from being genuinely compelling on a human level in the moment and as part of a much larger narrative about the place of transgender people in society - was an example of why Survivor continues to set itself apart from its reality TV companions.

In its best moments, there is an ability that Survivor has to function as a commentary on the human experience that I believe few - if any  - other reality shows can match. Sure, there is an aspect of Survivor that is functionally "reality television", and there are some constructed realities and personalities within the show, but I really believe that there is a realness in the show that cannot be matched by other shows.

The combination of social, psychological, physical, emotional, and strategic stamina, perseverance, and skill required to navigate Survivor continues to make it unlike any other show on television, and its narrative continues to shift and change and grow. The narrative of Survivor - the show, the game, and the phenomenon - is far from over, and the game is still changing, even after 34 seasons, which is why I still love watching it after 17 years.


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