Playing Games with Our Movies

We often make important judgments in our everyday lives. Be it a busy housewife negotiating the price of onions down at the local market or a President making tactical decisions for his/her country. These interactions are commonly studied with the help of game theory, a mathematical tool to model strategic interactions. Games help understand and explain the relations between people by factoring in multiple variables. These variables could range from actual monetary benefits to psychological satisfaction like pleasing your egos. In short Games analyze the interactions by factoring the payoff that a person will receive based on the decisions made by themselves or by their ‘opponent’. Understandably Game Theory is hence very wide ranging, but its origins can be traced back to John von Neumann, Oskar Morgenstern and John Nash

What has slipped our notice is that popular culture throughout the ages have made use of these theories. This has shaped a space for dedicated film makers to create characters that will react in realist ways. Therefore even without most of our knowledge we have been exposed to these games through the movies we have avidly consumed.

Let’s start with the ever popular Christopher Nolan movie, The Dark Knight. We watched first with anticipation, as the thieves rappelled down into the bank to implement their elaborate heist scheme. Then with bated breath, as they quarreled amongst themselves and started to kill each other. And finally, surprised to see Heath Ledger’s Joker left as the very pleased last surviving member of the party. This is a classic example of a Pirate Game. This game is based on 4 decision factors. First each ‘pirate’ wants to survive; second, given survival each thief wants the biggest share of the cut. Third, each criminal would prefer to kill the other rather than give a share of their loot, and finally and most importantly they don’t trust each other. This game is a perfect example of the cut-throat world of Wall Street, or the version of it that the media would have us believe.

This leads us to the second game illustrated by the lesser known classic, Rebel without a Cause. This sensational teenage story of discovery ends with a dramatic drive. The protagonist is challenged by his lady love’s current flame to drive off a cliff. The first to swerve away before the edge of the cliff loses. This is well modeled in the game theory literature as ‘The Chicken Game’.  Though the movie interprets the game a little differently, the implication remains the same: Two people directly compete against each other and the first to give way loses, yet one of them must be willing to put aside their ego and reputation or both will suffer the consequences. If you look past the dramatic cinematic license that the director has taken, anyone who has driven on the narrow Indian roads can relate to the ‘give way or stay your ground’ dilemma of choice. 

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is set in the background of the Cold War. Two parties competing for the world, both capable of annihilating the other. The Hawk-Dove game, two strategic paths, one prize. The movie explores the very real terrors of nuclear warfare. If the Hawk meets a Hawk that is, if the U.S. attacks and the Soviet decides to keep to their threat the world is destroyed by the Soviet doomsday device. If instead the U.S. thinks that the Soviet was bluffing and attacks then the Soviet surrenders and the capitalists win. If the Soviet is indeed poisoning the U.S. water systems and they do nothing to retaliate then Communism becomes the way of the world. If the Dove meets the Dove then they both share the resources. The peaceful strategy seems the most obvious one, but the movie moves to prove otherwise. In today’s highly politically charged globalized world, where the degrees of separation are constantly shrinking this movie plays out as a warning.

The most widely known game is the Prisoner’s Dilemma. It begs to answer the question - is there really honor among thieves? 2 prisoners are separated and pitted against each other. If both of them confess, both are punished but to a lesser extent, if one confesses and one does not, the one that confesses is let off scot-free and the one who doesn’t is punished to the full extent. And if neither confesses then neither of them are punished.  In the raw emotional plot of the famous Al Pacino movie, The Scent of a Woman the young Charlie and his friend witness an act of vandalism. Being from an impoverished background, Charlie has a lot more to lose from not testifying and a lot more to gain by ratting out his friend.  We follow Charlie on his unusual journey as he tries to decide between his own future and his integrity.  Or in terms of the game, between the risk and the payoffs. As consumers we are constantly left as the deciding judges for this game. A company needs to sell its commodity such that the consumer is able to afford it without compromising its quality, the game is on when the competition starts or a similar company comes onto the ring (Mac vs Pc).

Be it the intricate plot webs woven by the reel world for the simple everyday decisions we make, our behaviors are modeled within the framework of these games, often without even our conscious knowledge. : Anticipating our ‘opponents’ moves, calculating our responses and predicting the outcome. Within our own matrices we are all our own Sherlock.

Divya Chandy