Strategic Thinking in Rupaul’s Drag Race All Stars: a game theory analysis

Rupaul’s Drag Race All Stars is an American reality competition show for drag performers. In simple terms, the format is this: a group of contestants each episode compete in different challenges related to drag, each week one gets voted of the show and when there’s only one left, that contestant is crowned the winner. A feature of the All Stars game that is different from an ordinary season of Rupaul’s Drag Race is that instead of the judge (Rupaul) deciding who’s sent home, the winners of the episode challenges decide which of the two worst-performing contestants that gets eliminated. This introduces a strategic element into the competition, and this is what will be analysed in this text.

If you are the winner of the episode challenge, should you eliminate the strongest competitor or is there an advantage to gain from acting fair and eliminate the weakest one? Is it strategic to form alliances? Why is it, that in the show, the contestants tend to establish a norm of always sending home the weakest of the bottom contestants? These are some of the questions questions I will answer by using the tools of game theory.

The full text can be read here. I’ve listed the key points fro the text down below:

  • The rules of Rupaul’s Drag Race All Stars edition introduces an element of strategy that doesn’t exist in the ordinary version of Rupaul’s Drag Race.
  • The strategy relevant decision is about which of the bottom contestants to send home when being an episode-challenge winner.
  • I construct a simple game theory-model of the allstars-game, and show what predictions it makes about how contestants will act.
  • The element of randomness is key to why there’s a strategic element in the game. If talent would determine winning and losing perfectly in the episode challenges, there would be nothing to gain from acting strategically.
  • As we will see, the basic allstars model I construct fails in predicting player behaviour, and I propose a number of modifications to explain why the real game turns out the way it does.
  • In the real game, we see a more or less explicit agreement being established to refrain from acting according to the way the model predicts (i.e. that winners eliminate the strongest competitors in order to better their own odds of winning), and instead always eliminate the weakest of the bottom contestants.
  • The conventional view of why such a pact come to be, and the reasoning given for this agreement is that they wish to “play fair.” The model however shows that noble motives are not at all needed to explain this behaviour. Agreements about strategy that benefit the most talented at the expense of weaker contestants are likely to arise, at least initially. This is because these contestants both have an incentive to advocate such an agreement and a way to enforce it through the threat of eliminating defecters.
  • Even though the standard allstars-model’s main prediction about behaviour don’t fit with the real outcome, with some modifications, we see that it can be used to explain a lot of behavioural patterns observable in the real competition.


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