The Joker: A Game Theorist?

By Drishti Rana

“Some men just want to watch the world burn”

The infamous phrase by Alfred Pennyworth manages to capture the very essence of the joker’s derangement. Anyone who’s followed The Dark Knight trilogy would agree that  Heath ledger’s character as an inscrutable evil stands to be a masterpiece in the DC universe. With his smeared clown face and twisted humor, the anarchist supervillain, self-described as the “agent of chaos”, was a far cry from Jack Nicholson’s hammy variant of the same character in 1989. Apart from his apparent sociopathic traits, we know little regarding his inner-psychology and can solely speculate at his true motivations based on a strange fascination with keeping Batman’s interest. Whatever may be the true nature of his diabolical doings, one thing is certain, his interest stretches beyond tangible goods. 

Thirteen years later and the characters’ darkness still manages to confound and ultimately flutter the audience. But apart from all the heroics, it’s safe to say that the joker who wants to “just do things” doesn’t literally “just do things” in the movie. As obscure and random as he portrays himself by using such phrases as  “do I look like a guy with a plan?”, he is a meticulous thinker manipulating the notions of game theory in each of his heinous plans.

Now, what is game theory?

Simply put, game theory is the study of fundamental maneuverings in human interaction. By observing two players playing Tic-Tac-Toe, for example, you may create a mathematical formula that displays all of the many potential moves each player might make, and then conclude which strategy is most likely to win.

 1950’s, a time when the cold war was at its zenith, saw a heightened application of this model of game theory to forecast enemy conduct. We owe it to the American mathematician John Nash who contributed greatly to the model of game theory during this time. Nash claimed that if everyone in the game is striving for their self-interest, they would eventually achieve stability — a position in which everyone receives what they want without fighting. Alternatively, in Cold War terms, everyone may go about living their conventional lives without fearing the possibility of being blown up by a nuclear weapon. 

Everything the Joker does in The Dark Knight is based on a particularly bleak interpretation of game theory — that humans are entirely motivated by self-interest. It reveals the 19th-century philosophical thought of the homo economicus, or economic man, as universalized by philosophers like John Stuart Mill and Adam Smith. Joker is an economist, in this sense. He not only designs these nefarious games, but he also thinks strategically about them. This means he bases all of his decisions on what the other players are thinking, which makes him very proficient in backward induction. This is a fancy economic idea that asserts that in a sequential game in which a player can see what the other player has picked, the observer may foretell what the other player would choose, and therefore predict the game’s result, or what Game Theorists refer to as the Sub-Game Nash Equilibrium.

The Dark Knights’ iconic opening scene tries to introduce the slippery persona of the supervillain but with an economic lens, one can see how he uses incentives, asymmetric information, and backward induction to design a game.

Five robbers attempt an intricate bank robbery. The Robbers are agitated by the fact that the joker would seize an even share without performing comparable work. Nonetheless, they storm the structure, and then something unexpected occurs. Each of the robbers turns against each other and shoots the other one by one, as instructed by the game planner (Joker) himself.  The incentive being an extension in the share by reducing one of the team members.

Precisely, the outcome that the joker intended in the first place. The Joker capitalizes on this tension by directing the thieves to kill their comrades after their jobs are completed. 

You see, the joker required the robbers to work collectively not merely to take all of the money, but also to kill each other one by one. Any economist can understand how these two limitations on increasing the Joker’s profits might be conflicting, and how the incentives operate against one another. They cannot work together and at the same time kill each other. However, this is what he desired to achieve and so he did through an instrument that’s not common for economists to use -Asymmetric Information. A scenario in which one actor, or player, has different knowledge about the elements of a choice than another agent, or player. This clever approach led to a unique equilibrium in which the joker got to keep all of the money that the robbers robbed, correspondingly, excluding them from procuring a portion in the pie. The robbers were blind to the fact that they too, might fall victim to the same deception they used on the other. A good instance is the second robber on the rooftop who shot his companion. He doesn’t consider the possibility of a similar occurrence by the other robber who was instructed to do the same. In economic terms, he wasn’t able to backward induct because the information administered to the robbers was asymmetric. 

The Joker’s bank robbery is predicated on the premise that the robbers operate on the pleasure principle and are motivated by covetousness. If enough money is provided, they’ll turn on each other for a piece of it. The plan would have fallen apart like a swaying Jenga tower if any one of the robbers would have seen through the plan. Lucky for the joker, they did successfully manage to give the “prince of crime” what he had hoped for, the entire pie. 

So one can conclude- the trickster with a ghoulish appearance is well-versed in how people make decisions, as well as the complexities that occur when people have to make judgments that affect one another. He also appears to understand how incentives operate and how outcomes are very sensitive to changes in antecedent states, implying that a little tweak in incentives can result in a notable change in the outcome.

All of Joker’s interactions with other characters are based on one basic idea that the world lacks altruism and every action is somehow rooted in egotism and acquisition.  This thought process is employed in his final game or ‘social experiment” as he calls it in the movie.

In this particular scene, the pier sees two boats, one carrying Gotham’s criminals and the other a bunch of civilians. The joker takes control of the ferries and brings them to a halt in the middle of the river. And now he announces this,  

“Each of you has a remote, to blow up the other boat. At midnight, I will blow you all up. If however, one of you presses the button, I’ll let that boat live.”

Each boat with the detonator for the other boat is now thrown into a psychological dilemma. This scene stands to be one of the most analyzed scenes of all time and is loosely based on the game of “ prisoners dilemma”

What is a prisoner’s dilemma?

Prisoners dilemma is a game wherein two prisoners are held in separate rooms. Both the prisoners have two options either to confess or to not confess. If none of them confesses, they are only sentenced to three years in jail. If they both confess, they will be sentenced to five years in jail. However, if one of them confesses and the other does not, the person who confessed is released while the one who didn’t is sentenced to ten years in prison. Although the prisoners recognize that they would be better off by not confessing, the incentives and the lack of communication almost often result in confessions by both the prisoners.

Concerning the movie, what’s fascinating to note is that the joker did an excellent job in recreating the Prisoner’s Dilemma; the boats couldn’t communicate, collaboration would resemble Pareto optimal situation, and there was a rigid dominating strategy to not cooperate. Because self-interest is a core proposition of game theory, Joker expected that the people of two ferries would employ the optimal strategy of detonating each other. After all, time was running out and each of the players was thrown into a moral quandary. 

Joker’s strategic but naive perspective on human nature hinted at an outcome that would mean the end of humanity by humanity itself. Having placed them in a psychological dilemma, he imagined that the desire to live would serve the wickedness that’s buried within each of them. As a result, each ferry would detonate the other ferry. The joker was assured that the event of detonation by both the ferries would establish the fact that deep down everyone’s as ugly as him. However, his ambitions are thwarted by a blind spot in his reasoning. 

What he failed to consider was the fact that, apart from Batman, the people possessed something he couldn’t comprehend. Compassion and Inherent Goodness. Following the interaction of emotions and morals, the end of the game proved to be different from what the joker had anticipated mirroring the idea that individuals don’t inevitably make choices based on rationality and optimal payoffs, and this is what the people of Gotham city established by adopting the passive strategy and buying adequate time for batman to reach the joker. 

Jokers’ cold view of human nature and instinct failed to factor in the human conscience. This is what the game theory suggests, one can never accurately account for all the possibilities and such a failure in factoring for all possible sources of utility will result in incorrect payoffs and, as a result, unexpected tactics and outcomes.

It’s remarkable to see that this is the only time when the joker seems disappointed in the entire movie. This is the time when he realizes that he lost the battle for the “soul of Gotham” as a result of the purest act of good by the people of the city itself,  who conquered fear by simply rejecting it, and it’s one of the reasons why The Dark Knight’s themes are still relevant today. 


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