Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Star Wars and The Prisoner's Dilemma

Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith was released in theatres at 12:00am on the morning of Thursday, May 19. I had managed to wangle a free ticket to one of the midnight shows, thanks to Google (and my contacts who shall remain nameless), which had reserved a whole screen at AMC Mercado. I showed up at 11:20pm and, in an ominous sign, had a devil of a time finding a parking spot within a quarter mile of the theater. I resigned myself to living with a front row seat.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I walk in and find tons of empty seats all over the place, even a few in the back row! Given that the parking lot was full (and presumably, all other screens were packed to the brim), I was left with three theories to explain this strange set of circumstances:

1. Google employees (and friends thereof) simply aren't big Star Wars fans.
2. Google employees are neutral to what seats they watch a movie from.
3. Google employees understand the Prisoner's Dilemma.

Theory (1) was quickly ruled out in a few minutes as the place filled up (partially with light-saber-wielding Jedi) right before the movie started. Theory (2), while possible, appears improbable since I can think of no reason why a Googler would be seat-neutral when the average human is not. Which leaves us with Theory (3).

Finding seats in a theatre is a classic example of the Prisoner's Dilemma. For simplicity, imagine that each person can come in at one of two times -- Early or Late -- and everyone's objective is to find good seats while coming Late. Now, a selfish person would try to come Early -- ahead of the others -- to get the best shot at a seat. But if everybody were selfish, they would all end up coming Early and will have to rely on luck to get good seats. The net effect is that everyone's time is wasted without actually improving anyone's utility. If instead, they had all agreed to come Late, they could at least have saved themselves their time and would still have had the same shot at landing a good seat. Cooperation is, therefore, key to resolving the Prisoner's Dilemma, as the employees at Google seem to have realized!


Blogger grenade said...

Ah, but theory (3) would indicate a popular knowledge of game theory accompanied by some equally popular philistinism towards drama theory and Nash equilibrium. The latter being even more incredible given that this particular demographic shows a disposition towards bad movies.

5/25/2005 3:49 PM  
Anonymous Anand said...

The Prisoner's Dilemma is an interesting characterization of this situation.

Is it possible that the occurrence of the Prisoner's Dilemma in the real world points to the efficiencies associated with a government? For instance, is it possible that the Googlers car-pooled to the event, and is it possible that Google simply told everybody to leave from campus at a certain time before the showing? I think that central coordination and the observance of such coordination by all might, in certain circumstances, be the key to greater global efficiencies. This might naturally lead to the notion of a Social Contract, which everybody observes because it is to the communal benefit. It would be interesting to see a a completely free market-based simulation of this situation, where people maximize utilties. Based on the strategies employed by the players, different people will win or lose, but I think it is easy to see that the overall societal utility would be maximized when people cooperate, and this might require the presence of government.

I have seen the same problem with queueing up in airports. When people are queueing up to board a plane, people can again choose to stand in line early or late. If everybody simply makes a rush for the door at the earliest time possible, everybody stands to lose. There is clearly an advantage to cooperation.

With the phenomenon of people queueing up at airports, I have seen what I think are sociological differences. In some countries, I have noticed this phenomenon of everybody making a rush for the door, while in other countries, people are noticeably more concerned about protocol. Perhaps the keys to greater efficiencies also lies in social values. I think these are important even in the case of the movie theater as well. If people are trying to find loopholes in the system, say, by reserving seats for multiple people at a time, the system could again degenerate into chaos. So there is also, I think, a role for social values. Now, that is fair and balanced :)

6/01/2005 9:21 PM  
Anonymous Sriram said...

Prasanna, very intersting post. I am genuinely curious to know if that was the case with Google employees. With the given data, it seems more likely to me that they were not able to find parking and they probably reached the theater just a while after you did. If it was "Cooperation", I am truly surprised. Do post an addendum to your current post if you hear more from a google employee about this.

6/07/2005 12:34 AM  

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