The Hunger Games and Game Theory

I do not usually write posts about popular culture topics, so this blog will open with a first which is a SPOILERS WARNING. This article may ruin the ending of The Hunger Games if you have not seen the film or read the book yet.

With that out of the way, I can move onto the main area of discussion. One might think that The Hunger Games, which opened at cinemas nationwide on the 23rd of March, might not have much to teach the viewer about economics, but that would be a mistake. The film has some important insights into the nature of competition and game theory.

The film follows the story of Katniss Everdeen, a teenage girl who volunteers to combat 23 other juveniles in a battle to the death in order to avoid the same fate befalling her sister. She strikes up a friendship come romance come rivalry with one of her opponents who hails from the same district of the film's dystopian future as she does. Katniss has to rely on her own survival skills to make it back to her family but is also faced with difficult decisions along the way in regard to who she can trust. There can be only one winner of The Hunger Games and only one can return to their home, co-operation in this environment can only go so far.

This is very similar to game theory and I am sure that had John Forbes Nash been alive today he would have found the questions raised by this literary sensation fascinating. Nash's game theory is a study in human selfishness which attempts to find mathematical and logical optimal solutions to real world problems. His results are bleak and frequently point to the power of human greed as a means to achieve the optimal result from any situation. Nash won the Nobel Prize for economics for his efforts and his theories underpin a lot of the prevailing market ideology and government policy. I have blogged on Nash and his theories before.

In a typical game theory situation there is a trade off between cooperating with the other player(s) and behaving selfishly for personal gain. Frequently you do not know what the other player's moves are or how they affect yours until after you have made a key decision. Nash found that there is always an incentive to betray trust for personal gain as in any one moment the other player(s) is likely to be betray you if they are behaving logically according to game theory.

In The Hunger Games itself there is an incentive to cooperate with one or more opponents against further opponents. Katniss teams up with Rue during the game to great effect whereas Peeta Mellark (her rival/love interest) allies himself with the stronger and better trained players. However there is an incentive to betray trust at any point as there can only be one winner. During the course of the game Peeta switches sides to help Katniss defeat his former allies. Signs of personal weakness are rewarded with timely betrayal and several characters come to an abrupt end at the hands of their recent allies. At any moment there is an incentive to betray trust just as whoever you are allied with is likely to also be planning the moment they turn on you.

This all sounds very bleak and has led many to doubt the human virtues of cooperation and altruism but there is a positive side to game theory. More recent experiments have been based upon the idea of iterated game theory where games are not played in isolation but repeated over and over with the long term outcomes monitored. These studies have shown that there is a mathematical advantage to altruism in iterated game theory. If you cooperate in the long term, through repeated games then all parties can each gain greater results than they could have achieved through seeking personal glory.

The Hunger Games also has an argument for cooperation and altruism if you view not as a single game but a series of games Katniss repeatedly plays against a changing series of opponents. There is a clear incentive for her to cooperating with weaker plays against the players with advantages. Ultimately Katniss's victory in The Hunger Games is achieved because she works together with others and uses their competitive advantage against her opponents. She also exploits the selfish players willingness to turn on each other to thin the field. At the end of the film Katniss is able to save herself and Peeta not because of their ability to work together to achieve a common goal but because they are able to trust each other.

The Hunger Games shows that there is not only an incentive for cooperation but also for trusting others even in an single victor environment. It is a strong argument against Nash's dark view of human nature as motivated by selfishness and personal gain. In our personal lives as well in society as a whole we need to learn from Katniss example of helping the weak, harnessing the power of cooperation over selfishness and above all that we need to trust each other.