A Game Without Game Theory

So, an unacknowledged guilty pleasure of mine is MTV’s “The Challenge”.  For those unfamiliar, the show takes “stars” from various MTV reality shows and puts them through a variety of challenges in pursuit of determining who is the best at… well, something.  Oh, they also hope (or create) tons of drama of one type or another.  I mean, it is an MTV reality show after all.

Anyway, this year’s Final Challenge presented a novel twist.  First, a bit of context.  “The Challenge” rotates through various themes to spice things up.  A common one — and this season’s — is Rivals, wherein teams of two are comprised of players who have beef of one kind or another with each other.  Three teams make the finals.  Assuming they finish, each is guaranteed a prize: $275K for the first place team, $50K for the second place team, and $25K for the third place team.  But here comes the rub: whichever teammate performs better throughout the final challenge has the opportunity to divvy up the prize money however they see fit.  The teams, who largely buried their issues over the course of the season in pursuit of their place in the final, immediately start discussing who is going to screw over whom.  This is done both live as they prepare for the challenge, in team interviews during breaks in the challenge, and in one-on-one interviews recorded after the day’s events but structured so as to not give anything away not yet shown.

So, again, here is the basic premise of the final:

  1. Teams of two complete a series of tasks as fast as they can.
  2. Each partner completes one component of the task individually.
  3. Whichever partner completes his/her component faster gets a point or points.
  4. The team cannot move on to the next task until both have completed their individual component.
  5. The team that completes all the components fastest wins, second fastest gets second, and slowest gets third.
  6. The partner with more points on each team gets to choose how his/her team divvies up their prize money.

To me, the strategy seemed obvious: force your teammate to agree to a 50/50 split or refuse to participate… especially if you suspected you were the weaker teammate or that your partner was likely to screw you.  If you refuse to participate, the partner gets nothing.  They need you.  Yes, they sacrifice their chance to potentially keep all the money but if they refuse your bargain, they guarantee walking away empty handed.

And yet… no one attempted to negotiate any such bargain!  And, ultimately, the weaker teammate on the first place team was left with nothing when her partner chose to keep the money all for himself (the stronger partner on each of the other two teams opted to share).  Now, it is possible that such bargains were barred by the producers of the show; there is all sorts of rules in these competitions that the viewing audience never knows about.  It is also possible that such bargains were attempted but edited out… though that would mean they were abandoned and why?  Given what we saw on camera and recognizing that competitors on MTV reality competitions aren’t exactly MENSA members leads me to believe that simply none of them even recognized the power they held.

Either that or I’m fundamentally misunderstanding game theory and am missing an obvious hole in my plan… at which point I’ve just written 500+ words and accomplished little more than showing I don’t have the mental fortitude to compete on MTV’s “The Challenge”.

So… am I wrong here?  Am I missing something?  Is there a better strategy?  And have you ever seen people in a situation that seemed to have such an obvious and well-documented solution that no one even seemed to consider?  Bonus points if it haves you yelling at the TV for literally the least consequential competitive endeavor on television at that time (I watched the final episode On Demand during primetime Olympics coverage).

Image by brewbooks A Game Without Game Theory

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10 thoughts on “A Game Without Game Theory

  1. So what would prevent the stronger partner from agreeing to share at the start, but then at the end defecting anyway and taking all the money?


  2. Nothing but “honor” and “trustworthiness” are real currency in the game. Part of why the one guy took the money was because his partner previously backed out of an alliance. But no one even tried!


    • I don’t know if this is the reason, but most people have artificial boundaries that limit their available actions. When you are told by an authority figure that “the winner gets to decide”, you may take that as inviolable and not try to find a way to subvert the winner’s decision by getting them to pre-commit to giving you something.

      Another possibility: (This is really just a variation on your MTV-contestants are stupid hypothesis.) Maybe the weaker contestants were more focused on themselves and thought “well, if I don’t try, I’m guaranteed to get nothing. I might as well try and hope the stronger person is nice to me.”


  3. It looks like it’s set up as a dictator game. The “rational” move by the dictator is always to keep all the money, and that dominant strategy is easy to figure out. Economists, sociologists, and psychologists use the dictator game (and the related ultimatum game) to try to understand why people sometimes act “irrationally”. Generally speaking, the outcomes are usually related to social norms such as “‘honor’ and ‘trustworthiness'”, as well as fairness, and the possibility of repeated games: I might be the dictator next time, so you have a rational incentive to give me some money.


  4. Was the show presented in such a way that it was incontrovertibly filmed as-it-happened?

    That is, did they ever say to the players “the higher scoring player gets to divide the money” at a point which could not possibly have been after the rest of the filming?

    Because I could absolutely see something where they were told all along “you’ll split the money evenly”, and only after the competitions had been run would they say “oh wait we changed our minds, the high-scoring player gets to split it”. (Along with a contract clause that says “say anything about this show and you’ll be sued so hard we’ll own your DNA”)

    Voice-over during action? Talking from the narrator/emcee while looking at players? You can’t even trust things with the host speaking and the players are also in the shot, because that could be a pick-up filmed later and cut in during the editing.


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