Enjoying: A Prisoner's Dilemma

A Prisoner's Dilemma is perhaps the most engaging piece of theatre I've been to since I saw David Mamet's Speed the Plough. I saw Speed the Plough maybe 15 years ago and it has this amazing moment right near the end which hinges on one decision that one of the characters has to make. The pause while the character is waiting to tell the others what he is going to do is just nail-biting.

A Prisoner's Dilemma revolves largely around decision making as it is a pretty thorough investigation of Game Theory. (According to Wikipedia - Game theory attempts to mathematically capture behavior in strategic situations, in which an individual's success in making choices depends on the choices of others.)

In essence it boils down to cooperation, trust, selfishness and betrayal.

It frames a series of short discussions and examples of practical applications of Game Theory inside one of the classic Game Theory scenarios, the Prisoners Dilemma.

Two suspects are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated both prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal: if one testifies ("defects") for the prosecution against the other and the other remains silent, the betrayer goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must make the choice of whether to betray the other or to remain silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation. How should the prisoners act?

The play sees the prisoners in their cells between a series of these interrogations, discussing a range of ethical problems related to game theory and playing games (such as rock/paper/scissors) to pass the time. Where this play really kicks things up a notch is that most of these discussions then have a heavily interactive element, with members of the audience called upon to make the decisions that are the basis of these problems.

This is done in a very (computer) game like manner, either using a torch (with blue and red cellophane squares) as a sort of mouse cursor for a basic point and click adventure game puzzle, remote controls to move the actors around the stage, joystick controllers to determine player/actor actions in a poisoning game or the simpler action of drawing stones from a bowl.(Or choosing not to)

Not surprisingly, this was right up my alley having been swimming around in game design theory for the last few months and it was an incredibly effective way of making the audience a significant part of the show.

As a show itself, it was simply but well staged - it made use of some really interesting trombone generated electronic music and the performances were strong. The performers were also quick enough on their feet to accommodate the unpredictable audience actions (even though decisions tended to be either/or scenarios).

Sadly the season has finished in Canberra but if you get the chance to see it, do.
Interestingly, they tour it as an educational piece and take it to maths nerd conferences a lot as well.

They also track the decisions made in each show and post the stats on their website, which is just so nerdy is has to be cool.