The Hunger Games: A Lesson in Game Theory

The Hunger Games: A Lesson in Game Theory March 28, 2012

In its first weekend, the Hunger Games brought in over $155 million in North American ticket sales.  Hundreds of thousands of people went to the theaters to watch what might be named the best film of the year.  Little did they know that one of the most fascinating theories in economics was being taught on the big screen: game theory.  On to that in a second, but first a little about the movie…

Hunger Games Quick Summary

If you’re not familiar with the storyline, here’s the real quick summary of the Hunger Games movie.  Twelve districts must sacrifice a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to fight as ‘tributes’ in the annual Hunger Games.  Of the 24 tributes, only one survives and is crowned victor.  The 24 young men and women can form alliances and build pacts, but ultimately the Hunger Games are designed to kill off all but one person.

So where do economics and game theory meet?  You see, with game theory, two players are presented with actions or choices.  Those choices lead to an outcome with different payoffs, one being better than the other.  Each player must decide on a choice based on what they know.  The assumption is that each player will adjust their strategy based on what they believe the other person would do.

*Spoiler Alert*  I’ll be using real examples from the movie, so if you haven’t seen it, you might not want to read.  Though, I won’t give up the very end of the movie.

In the movie The Hunger Games, it comes down to the final two people.  Since they’ve formed an alliance, they don’t want to kill each other.  In fact, they’ve decided that the best option for both of them is to die together by poisoning themselves at the same time just to stick it to the Hunger Game judges.

Game Theory in the Hunger Games

This scene is a classic example of game theory.  Here’s a chart to show the choices and outcomes from the decisions that can be made by both people (we’ll call them Tribute 1 and Tribute 2).

Tribute 1


Tribute 2 (T2)
Take the Poison

Don’t Take the Poison
Take the


(T1 Dies, T2 Dies) (T2 Wins, T1 Dies)
Don’t Take

The Poison

(T1 Wins, T2 Dies) (T1 Survives, T2 Survives)


***But Both Might Be Killed because They Didn’t Follow The Hunger Game Rules of Having Only One Winner.

If both take the poison, they die and the game is over, and they’ve successfully ruined the Hunger Games (ruining the Hunger Games is a good thing).  If Tribute 1 takes the poison and Tribute 2 decides not to take it, Tribute 2 will win the Hunger Games and will amass a significant sum of money.  Of course the same is true for Tribute 1.  The final option is for neither of them to go through with the poison, which could result in both of them being killed by the Hunger Game judges.

Since they ultimately want to ‘stick it to the man’ the best option would be for both to take the poison.  But, holding true to game theory, you still face the temptation to change your mind based on what you think the other person will do.

So which choice did they make?  You’ll just have to read the Hunger Games books or see the movie to find out.

I’m just here to point out the economics lesson. :)

Have you seen the movie? Did you catch the example of game theory at the end?  If you loved the movie (like I did) hit the +1 button or like this article on facebook.

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