Surviving the Online Survivor Game

The article's author, James Hayden, with the Survivor TV show logo

When James Hayden took part in an online strategy game based on the TV show Survivor, he soon realised he'd have to figure out a strategy for dealing with his stammer too. Find out how he got on.

Recently I participated in an online Skype-based game called Survivor, based on the reality TV show which was cancelled in the UK but is still going strong here in the US. I applied because, why not? In lockdown there's not much else to do. 

I received an email five days before the game started asking if I still wanted to play. I told the host that I was ready to go. I had five days to figure out my strategy, but more importantly figure out how my stutter could/would impact my game. 

A bunch of questions raced through my mind. What would be the best way to disclose my stutter? Would my tribemates care that I stutter? Would they use it as a reason to vote me out early? Would they falsely believe that I'm stuttering because I'm lying? 

Knowing I would be video chatting with a lot with strangers in a game setting made me a bit apprehensive to say the least.

I also had to get comfortable with the fact that I would be watching myself stutter a lot over the next few weeks. Knowing we would be using Skype was the hardest part. As I recently mentioned in my article 'My speech during the Covid-19 pandemic', I've been uncomfortable watching myself stutter as a result of everything going on. When I do use video chat platforms it's with people that I feel comfortable with, or it's for classes that I'm guest lecturing for and they don't care about the fact I stutter. Yet, even then I'm uncomfortable with the image I'm seeing in the box that has "James" in the lower left-hand corner. Knowing I would be video chatting with a lot with strangers in a game setting made me a bit apprehensive to say the least.

Let the games commence

All these questions were quickly answered on day 1. Once the game started, I was put in a Skype group chat with the other nine people on my team, or 'tribe'. We started talking about what we did and where we live. Within minutes of meeting them I typed "I just want to let everyone know that I'm a person who stutters. All I ask is that you don't try to finish my sentences. If you have any questions, please ask me." Everyone on my tribe (shout out to 'Hanúha') was instantly receptive to it and thanked me for sharing. With those words, they proved to me that my stutter would be a non-issue (as it should be). 

I'm glad I disclosed when I did because shortly after meeting we had a video call to put names to faces. Since everyone knew, my tribemates recognised I was stuttering and not having internet issues or lying.  Everyone was respectful and gave me the space to stutter openly and without judgement. That was much appreciated. 

My Survivor experience taught me how to become comfortable watching myself stutter and being OK with my biggest vulnerability being recorded for posterity.

This was the quickest I've ever disclosed to a group of strangers. I think it had to do with the fact that the National Stuttering Association's online Conference was the same day the game started here in the US, and that gave me a little boost. I also felt more comfortable and open about this part of myself. My instant disclosure helped me make connections during the first couple of days in the game. 

One of my biggest insecurities about stuttering — being recorded — greeted me very early on. During every round in the game we had to give a 'confessional' where you have to talk to the camera about what was going on. We had the option of writing our confessionals but I thought it would be best to record them — I knew people were following us live and I wanted to give them a show. I could use body language and change my tone when needed. I recorded my first confessional and immediately watched it back, which is something I never do. But I didn't notice my stutter that much. As the game progressed, I continued recording them. The more I watched them back, the more comfortable I got watching myself stutter. What made me uncomfortable was how cocky, confident, and comfortable I came across. Those are three cardinal sins in this game and I fell into them.  

Becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable

I ended up in 13th place, out of 20, just missing out on the 'merge and jury' phase (the equivalent to making the playoffs). The three cardinal sins I mentioned earlier came back to bite me and I was blindsided in a pretty epic way. As a superfan of the show, it sucks. Yet, I got a lot out of the experience. I proved to myself that I can play this game and do it well (I just need to tone down the confidence and not be too comfortable next time). More importantly, I became comfortable with the uncomfortable. 

For years, being recorded and watching myself stutter were things I hated doing. I would only do it when the situation required it and would rarely watch it back. The first few times I showed my TEDx talk to people I left the room because of how uncomfortable it made me. When I watched that for the first time, I almost turned it off after ten seconds because I was just that uncomfortable.  

Recently, I've been using Zoom more for meetings that would've taken place in person and I was extremely uncomfortable with the image I saw of myself. It made me wonder just how uncomfortable the rest of the people in the meeting were watching me stutter. But I can honestly say I'm now comfortable with it. My Survivor experience taught me how to become comfortable watching myself stutter and being OK with my biggest vulnerability being recorded for posterity. I didn't come close to winning, but I won in my own way. And for that I'm thankful for my downfall. 

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