Home > Game Theory, Lessons > Game Theory and the Narrative #3, Stag Hunt

Game Theory and the Narrative #3, Stag Hunt

A Stag Hunt is a game similar to the prisoner’s dilemma, in that it is a game about trust and working with a partner (or partners).

Jean Jacques Rousseau proposed a scenario wherein two men went hunting a stag. They could either lay in wait for the stag together, or either one could hunt a hare. The stag will feed both men and provide a surplus; a hare will feed only the hunter who kills it with no surplus. Hunting a hare ends any possibility of catching another hare or the stag. In order for both hunters to eat, each must trust the other to continue to wait for the stag. It is clearly the best solution to the situation, but as time continues each hunter must continue to gamble that the other hunter will not grow too impatient. There are variants of the game where the hunters may, or may not, talk to one another, which can have an important effect on their coordination.

For the narrative, we should understand that readers want protagonists to work together for the greater good- for them to make the best choice in this scenario and wait for the stag. Dramatic tension can be inserted by making it look as if the protagonists wont wait for the stag, or, better yet, making one of the hunters an antagonist, which would lead the reader to believe the protagonist will lose the game based on his overabundant trust. The antagonist might, believably, choose to wait for the best solution, or he might, also believably, choose to be selfish after waiting ‘long enough’.

In effect, the final book of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy has two, or more, protagonists engaging in a high-stakes, non-coordinated stag hunt. The effect is thrilling, because the reader is never sure all protagonists will all continue to seek the best overall solution (the ‘stag’). Sanderson does a great job of giving different protagonists options that seem appealing but less full-filling (‘hares’).

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