Game Theory in Popular Culture

Published on Thursday, November 05, 2009 in , , , , , ,

Numb3rsIn my prior Game Theory post, I briefly mentioned the classic bar scene from A Beautiful Mind as one example, but there are far more examples of just about every aspect of game theory to be found in popular culture.

One common game theory scenario is known as “The Pirate Puzzle”. Here's the description, courtesy of the Mind Your Decisions blog:

Three pirates (A, B, and C) arrive from a lucrative voyage with 100 pieces of gold. They will split up the money according to an ancient code dependent on their leadership rules. The pirates are organized with a strict leadership structure—pirate A is stronger than pirate B who is stronger than pirate C.

The voting process is a series of proposals with a lethal twist. Here are the rules:

• The strongest pirate offers a split of the gold. An example would be: “0 to me, 10 to B, and 90 to C.”
• All of the pirates, including the proposer, vote on whether to accept the split. The proposer holds the casting vote in the case of a tie.
• If the pirates agree to the split, it happens.
• Otherwise, the pirate who proposed the plan gets thrown overboard from the ship and perishes.
• The next strongest pirate takes over and then offers a split of the money. The process is repeated until a proposal is accepted.

Pirates care first and foremost about living, then about getting gold. How does the game play out?

Most people would think that these conditions would tend toward a fair division. When it's played out, though, it's amazing how little gold the strongest pirate needs to give up. Ian Stewart's article, A Puzzle for Pirates (PDF), clearly explains why.

If this situation sounds familiar, it's because a similar situation arises in the first 5 minutes of the movie The Dark Knight, although the Joker adds his own twist:

Mind Your Decisions goes into more detail on this scene, game theory wise. For that matter, it even has a good analysis on the A Beautiful Mind bar scene I mentioned earlier.

Someone writing the script for The Dark Knight must've enjoyed studying game theory, as the movie is full of such scenarios. The later scene with the ships and detonators is also a good example of game theory.

One game theory scenario that will be familiar to most of you is the classic game of chicken, especially for those who've seen Rebel Without A Cause:

When it comes to games like chicken, the best thing to do is avoid the game altogether by changing it. If you can't get out of it, there are really only 4 basic ways to win chicken, as the crew of the USS Montana in this Dutch ad can attest.

Between the pirates, the joker's victims on their respective ships, and the USS Montana, there certainly are a lot of ships used in game theory scenarios, and we're not done with them yet. Here's a modified game of Battleship, described in an episode of Numb3rs:

When Charlie mentions game theory as studied by Rubinstein, Tversky and Heller, it's not only a funny line. It's actually a real paper, which is available online here.

There are many more examples I could give, but I figured it was best to start off with some popular references that offer clear demonstrations. If you'd like to find more examples, check out Game Theory .net's pop culture section, especially their television and movie sections. There's even a YouTube user named gametheoryclips who offers many scenes that could inspire further game theory research.

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