A Prisoner’s Dilemma
Boho’s 2007-8 Game Theory-based performance A Prisoner’s Dilemma combines interactive theatre, lo-fi electronics and live trombone / electronica in a performance based on the science of Game Theory and the Prisoner’s Dilemma thought experiment. The narrative follows two scientists taken prisoner, offered rewards and punishments to inform on each other. Woven in and out of this story are a number of interactive game-modules, in which the audience direct the performers using a variety of control devices including modified remote controls and torchbeam cursors.
A Prisoner’s Dilemma featured in the National Multicultural Fringe Festival (ACT), the Adelaide Fringe Festival (SA), the Brisbane Festival Under The Radar Fringe (QLD), CSIRO’s Friday Lecture series (ACT), the Street Theatre’s Independent Season (ACT), the Asia-Pacific Complex Systems Conference (QLD) and an ACT high school / college tour funded by the Foundation for Young Australians.
The show was made possible by the generous contributions of consultants Dr. David Newth from the CSIRO Centre for Complex Systems Science, Patrick Helean of The National Science and Technology Centre (Questacon) and Charles MacInnes of the ANU School of Music.
Game Theory is an influential branch of science which examines situations where multiple players make decisions to try and obtain the best result for themselves. Since the publication of John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern’s Theory of Games and Economic Behavior in 1944, Game Theory has provided insights into fields such as economics, evolutionary biology, mathematics, political science, artificial intelligence and psychology.
Game Theory breaks situations down into games with clearly defined parameters – each player has a set of moves or strategies which are available to them. The rewards or punishments that each player receives are determined by the decisions that all of the players make. Some of the Game Theory games which are presented in Boho’s A Prisoner’s Dilemma are Chicken, Ultimatum, Pigs, Dictator and the Prisoner’s Dilemma. The Prisoner’s Dilemma is one of the most famous thought experiments in the field of Game Theory. The story is generally told along these lines:
Two men are taken prisoner. The police who have arrested them place them in separate cells and both of the prisoners are offered the same deal: They can either stay silent, or betray their companion. If both of the men stay silent, they are found guilty of a minor charge and receive six month jail terms. If they both betray each other, each of them serves two years. Finally, if one betrays the other then the one who remained silent is jailed for ten years, and the traitor is set free. The dilemma lies in the fact that regardless of what either prisoner does, the other is always better off by betraying them. All other things being equal, each prisoner’s optimum strategy is to defect. However, this leads to a term of two years for both of the men, when a six month term is possible if they both co-operate with the other.
The principles of the Prisoner’s Dilemma can be found in a variety of real-life situations, ranging from economic competition between companies to evolutionary biology. Since its formulation, the focus of the Prisoner’s Dilemma has expanded to study the implications of the same two players playing the game repeatedly; a situation referred to as an Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma. A player’s optimum strategy changes dramatically when their opponent is able to punish them for betrayal.
‘Low-Hi-Tech Originality – A lively and original piece of interactive theatre… The two primary performers are both able and engaging, the interactivity does not drag hapless audience members on stage and the production’s content is both intelligent and diverting. 4 stars.’
Samela Harris, The Adelaide Advertiser, Mar 2007
‘The two main actors are intense, funny, and at times frightening in their portrayal of the two prisoners. And the idea is fantastic… Sort of like Waiting for Godot meets Super Mario. 4 stars.’
Dicky, Bank SA’s talkfringe.com, Mar 2007
At the Higher Ground, the Fringe Club venue in the heart of lower Rundle Street, Canberra’s Boho Interactive performed A Prisoner’s Dilemma, a cleverly constructed interactive journey into a Stoppard-like world of game theory and science fiction.
Peter Wilkins, The Canberra Times, p9, 27 March 2007
Compelling on a different scale was Boho’s A Prisoner’s Dilemma at The Street Theatre, which deservedly got a near-sellout season. This gripping exploration of game theory and manipulation cleverly invites the viewer into the play before it grasps them by the scruff and forces them to sit through the consequences of their decisions.
Naomi Milthorpe, BMA Magazine, 10 July 2008
‘[A] bold fusion of performance and philosophy… There is innovative audience participation that challenges the comforts we expect when going to the theatre. Performers walk out and confront us directly, not merely talking at us but forcing us to respond. Passive observation is out; shared experience is in.’
Aaron Ridgway, The Canberra Times, June 2008