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On the Discovery Channel reality series Naked and Afraid, participants are dropped, completely naked, in the wilderness, and challenged to survive for three weeks. The conditions can be brutal, with cast members enduring serious injuries, constant hunger, and the threat of a predator attack. However, this is still TV. Though the dangers are real, help is not far away. Producers will step in to treat injuries, and contestants are often sent home – willingly or unwillingly – if they’re too hurt or sick to continue. But what if the Naked and Afraid producers vanished, leaving the show’s participants stranded? That’s the idea behind Small Game, a 2022 novel by Naked and Afraid alum Blair Braverman.

Blair Braverman was on ‘Naked and Afraid,’ then wrote ‘Small Game’  

Braverman, a dogsledder and writer, appeared on a 2019 episode of Naked and Afraid, after producers recruited her and her husband, Quince Mountain, for the show. (He appeared in a different episode.) After signing on, she flew to South Africa, where she spent 14 days in the wild before she was forced to tap out due to illness. 

The experience got Braverman thinking. What if a controlled survival experience like Naked and Afraid turned real? 

​​”[T]he crew would leave at night, and I was aware of the fact that I really was trusting that they would come back in the morning because we didn’t know where we were,” she told NPR. “We didn’t know how to get out. And so as long as they were going to come back in the morning, then it was all recreational. And so I think that was part of the seed of Small Game – was, what happens if people are sent out for a reality show which is meant to be a decision they make? They’re out there by choice, and it becomes something where they’re not out there by choice at all, a fake survival situation that turns into real survival.”  

What is ‘Small Games’ about? 

In Small Game, a survival school instructor named Mara is recruited to join the cast of a show called Civilization, which challenges contestants to build a new society in six weeks. Mara grew up off-the-grid and has strong survival skills, but working together with her fellow contestants, who include a beautiful, inexperienced woman seeking fame and a tough outdoorsman, is a challenge. Things get even more complicated when the cast faces some unforeseen challenges that leave them wondering whether they’re being tested by the crew or if something more sinister is afoot. 

Braverman drew on her own experiences on Naked and Afraid when writing the book, she told Outside, including her memories of what it was like to be hungry and cold, and also how it felt to be filmed for the show. She also interviewed people who’d participated in other reality shows. That helped inspire one of the book’s details that doesn’t match her Naked and Afraid experience. In Small Games, the contestants are strongly motivated by the prospect of winning $100,000, which will be awarded to those who last the full six weeks.  

“With money like that, she’d have options,” Mara thinks in the book. 

While Naked and Afraid participants don’t win any prize money if they complete their 21-day challenge, shows like Alone do come with a substantial payday for the winner.  In Braverman’s conversations with other reality show vets, “a theme that came through was there was some pressure for people to stay on,” she told Outside. “They could not afford not to make the money. So even if they thought they were really in danger, they were like, ‘I need to win this amount of money.’”

Braverman says she enjoyed being on ‘Naked and Afraid’ 

Gary Golding and Blair Braverman on 'Naked and Afraid'
Gary Golding, Blair Braverman on ‘Naked and Afraid’ | Discovery via YouTube

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Small Game takes a dark look at reality TV, but Braverman has said that she enjoyed her time on Naked and Afraid. 

“I mean, I found Naked And Afraid really fun,” she told NPR. “I found it, like, incredibly physically uncomfortable at all times – constantly thirsty, constantly hungry, like, constantly had thorns in my feet, got surrounded by hyenas a lot. On a deeper level, I found it kind of relaxing because it was very simple. You were only focusing on the next thing at a time. You were focusing on, how am I going to get water? How am I going to make it through the day without eating? I became hyperaware of being part of the food chain.”

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