Game Theory in the Hunger Games

March 19, 2012 in Editorial, Top

(Spoiler Information: The first half of this article doesn’t reveal anything more than what is already in the trailers. We’ll throw up another alert when it begins to get more ‘spoilerey’.)

Katniss is heavily restricted under Panam’s social structure and a prisoner of the Hunger Games. She must use her rage at the capital and her obstinate attitude to protect herself and those she loves from coercive rule and an unsettling future.

But how does the Hunger Games function? Why don’t all the tributes just agree not to kill each other? The Prisoner’s Dilemma helps to answer this question. Let’s take a look at Katniss and Peeta, the two primary protagonists of the book.

Both Katniss and Peeta can choose to either cooperate with each other to try and win the games, or they can rebel. Their decision matrix looks like this:






Katniss and Peeta choose to cooperate. Both might live.

Peeta puts his trust in Katniss, but she kills him, ensuring her return home safe and alive


Katniss puts her trust in Peeta, but he kills her, ensuring his return home safe and alive.

Both Katniss and Peeta rebel and try to kill each other. Both might die.

The surprising insight provided by the table is that while the best outcome happens if both cooperate; individually each should logically choose to rebel. Let’s look at the game from Katniss’s perspective. If Peeta chooses to cooperate, and Katniss also chooses to cooperate then she might live. If however, she chooses to rebel then she will certainly live. Therefore she should logically rebel if Peeta chooses to cooperate.

But what if Peeta chooses to rebel? If Katniss chooses to cooperate in the face of Peeta’s rebellion then Katniss will certainly die. If she chooses to rebel then she only might die. Therefore she should logically rebel. Thus no matter what Peeta chooses to do, Katniss should rebel. Peeta faces the exact same situation.

Hence both should rebel. If you extend this example across all of the tributes you begin to see why cooperation is unlikely. The Hunger Games relies on this principle to effectively function.

(Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t read the books or watched the movie, and don’t want to ruin parts of the plot then stop here.)

But the Hunger Games is also a love story. As Katniss and Peeta grow closer, pretending to be in love, their emotions grow stronger. Decisions made in a Prisoner’s Dilemma game are very sensitive to situational factors. Social interaction, for example, increases the chances of cooperation among members of the game. Cooperation also increases as time goes on. This was demonstrated by Katniss and Peeta who interacted prior to the games, and began to cooperate more closely as time passed.

There is also evidence that male players tend to cooperate more than female players in Prisoner’s Dilemma situations. This was seen in Panem where Peeta is consistently more nurturing and caring for Katniss’s well-being, saying numerous times that he will do anything to keep her alive. Katniss isn’t so sure that she should trust him, and starts the games with the goal to come home alive, even if that costs all other lives in the arena.

While The Hunger Games relies on the effective functioning of the Prisoner’s Dilemma to operate, there are certain conditions under which the ‘logical’ option begins to break-down and cooperation emerges. These conditions were bound to emerge eventually and this, in essence, is what the Hunger Games books and movies are about. The plot revolves around a perfect combination of factors including: social interaction prior to the commencement of the game, staying alive long enough for cooperation to emerge, and the presence of a individual seeking cooperation (more likely to be male). Under these conditions the game begins to collapse.

Enjoyed this article? You might also enjoy finding out how much it costs to sponsor a Tribute in the games, or the population of Panem . You can find those and other interesting things in our Editorials although if you want a selection of our most popular check out the Greatest Hits. You might also want to follow us on Twitter or Facebook to get the latest and greatest from Centives.