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Prisoner's Dilemma

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"Just think of it as a game. Whoever talks first is the winner."
Sam Kennedy, Murder by Numbers

A situation arises where two or more characters have two choices: cooperate with each other, or betray each other. Unfortunately for them, although everyone cooperating would be better than everyone betraying, each of them would individually be better off betraying. Furthermore, they are unable to communicate with each other, and each must therefore make his choice in ignorance of the other person's choice, and knowing that the other person will be ignorant of his choice until all choices have been made and tallied. This usually leads them to betray en masse, leaving everyone worse off, but in some instances they can overcome this and cooperate, usually by trust or commitment.

The classic example is two prisoners (hence the name) who are caught and are being charged with some minor offence that the prosecution can prove. But the prosecution wants them for some other crime for which it has no proof. So an offer is made to each prisoner: if he rats out his partner, no charges will be pressed and he will go free… unless his partner rats him out too. If that happens, both get charged with the bigger crime. If both stay quiet, they both get time for the minor charge; if one partner remains silent and the other betrays him, the one who tattled on his partner will go free while his partner is charged with both crimes. Although both cooperating is better than both betraying, it is individually better to betray no matter what your partner does. If you ever get into one of these situations, you'd better hope the other person doesn't have Chronic Backstabbing Disorder.


Note that for cops, a common tactic of Lying to the Perp involves pretending the other guy talked.

The Other Wiki has more information about the subject.

See Mexican Standoff for a more specific example of this trope. Related to Cold Equation, Morton's Fork, Teeth-Clenched Teamwork, We ARE Struggling Together, and Inevitable Mutual Betrayal. Possibly related to A House Divided. Contrast Rats in a Box, Power of Trust, and Game of Chicken.



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    Anime and Manga 
  • In A Simple Survey, ten players are given a card and suspended in nets above a vat of acid. The card has a red and black face and in 10 minutes they will need to show one face. If everyone chooses red, everyone dies; if everyone chooses black, everyone lives; and if it's a mix, all black cards are killed while the rest are spared. Higashikawa declares he will show a black card and orders everyone else to show red, believing the best outcome is to sacrifice himself and save the other nine. Instead, the others are so moved, when the timer ends everyone shows a black card. Except it turns out Higashikawa's card was actually a shade of brown so dark as to be indistinguishable from black. Because not everyone showed a black card, the other nine are slated to die while Higashikawa is to live.
  • In Tiger & Bunny, the heroes sans Wild Tiger and Barnaby find themselves in this situation by Dr. Rotwang. They find themselves trapped in individual cells and bomb collars around their necks. Rotwag tells them that when his android H-01 defeats Tiger and Barnaby, the bombs will go off and kill them. He also tells them that one of them can survive if they press the switch, which will trigger the other bombs (and intentionally hiding the switch would trigger their bomb as well since Rotwag despises NEXTs). Despite bouts of paranoia and doubts, the heroes choose to put their fates in not only Tiger and Barnaby's ability to win but in each other. This works out in the end, as not only is H-01 defeated but Kotetsu's daughter Kaede takes down Rotwag before he could trigger the bombs manually.

    Comic Books 

    Fan Works 
  • In chapter 33 of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, Harry and Draco find themselves in one of these in the combat games — due to how the scores stand, they need to work together to beat Hermione, and only after beating her can they turn on each other to determine the final winner. If their armies pick each other off beforehand "accidentally", that'll make the final battle that much easier… but if they do too much of that, they won't beat Hermione in the first place. Cue flashbacks to rationality training, in which Harry taught Draco about the Prisoner's Dilemma, and pointed out many ways that it could be bypassed — for example, as Draco immediately pointed out, a pair of Death Eaters would never defect, because the Dark Lord would kill them for their betrayal. But in this case, none of these ways apply — including, to Harry's disappointment, the "we're similar enough that we'll surely make the same choice" method — so they need to come up with another solution. They Take a Third Option and abuse the loopholes in how the scoring system handles turncoat soldiers.

    Films — Animation 
  • Beavis And Butthead Do America has a textbook example. When Agent Flemming of the ATF finds notorious weapon smugglers Muddy and Dallas having sex in a garage and arrests them, he proposes a deal. One can either tell him where the X5 Unit is hidden for a reduced sentence, as he knows they've both been connected to it in the past, but was never able to get any evidence, and the other will get the full 60-year sentence in prison for stealing and trying to sell a deadly superweapon. Muddy refuses to say anything as both he and Dallas just got together after being at each other's throats for so long, only to have Dallas backstab him and tell Flemming that Muddy was behind everything and that the X5 Unit was sewed into Beavis' pants.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The Dark Knight has an explicit but a little more sadistic Prisoner's Dilemma with actual prisoners. In the boat sequence, each boat has a detonator to a bomb on the other boat. If they blow the other boat, their own bomb is disarmed. One prisoner even hints at one of the usual solutions to Prisoner's Dilemmas, committing not to blow the other boat by ditching the detonator. Of course, this being the Joker, he has a secondary detonator set to blow both boats if they cooperate, which Batman stops him from doing.
  • In Drive (2011), Nino and the Driver would be better off if the Driver gave the money back and promised never to talk about it, and Nino left him alone. Of course, Nino can't trust him, and decides it's better to kill him.
  • In The Edukators, when Jan and Julie got caught breaking and entering by Hardenberg in his house, it would be better for all of them if Hardenberg could credibly promise not to tell anyone about it and they chose not to kidnap him.
  • In Murder by Numbers the detectives try to pull a classic Prisoner's Dilemma in the interrogation scene, but the trust between the prisoners and the arrival of the lawyers prevents the defection.
  • In Ocean's 8 Debbie Ocean ended up on the wrong side of one with her art dealer/scammer boyfriend Claude Becker. They were both arrested for the scam but while she stayed silent, he not only talked by framed her as the mastermind for what had been his scam. So he got off and she was locked up for five years.
  • Saw V has an interesting situation in that the people in the Prisoner's Dilemma are not told from the start that they are in such a situation. The victims in the film's main game are implicitly meant to work together to make it past all of the traps, but since they (probably rightfully) assume that it's every person for themself, they wind up making things substantially harder as the group dwindles.
  • In the French film Two Days One Night, the owners of a factory offer the employees a bonus if they agree to fire the protagonist, who happens to be the least productive employee (due to her clinical depression). In the long run, it might be better for the employees to stand together and preserve their collective bargaining power. However, in the short run, many of the employees really need the bonus money, and thus vote almost unanimously to fire the protagonist.

  • Atomic Rockets has a whole lot of them gathered in one place here.
  • First Contact: The human ship and the unknown alien ship find themselves stuck in one. If they can arrange a rendezvous and both go home, then each race learns of the other's existence and the possibility of peaceful trade is kept open. But if one of the ships leaves for home and the other tails it back, then the pursuer will learn the location of the pursued's homeworld, giving their race an overwhelming strategic advantage in any potential war. Finally, if the ships fire on each other, then at best one ship makes it home with knowledge of the other race's existence but little to no information on their location or capabilities, and more likely both ships annihilate each other and each race remains ignorant of the other's existence.
  • In The Long Earth, selection pressure from being spread among countless alternate Earths and interacting with sapient but very alien nonhumans creates a hyperintelligent Human Subspecies, and the government orders their largest concentration nuked. As the setting lacks an inter-dimensional communication system, the officer-in-charge has to decide whether or not to carry out the order. The Hero gives them a damned good reason to do no such thing:
    I guess my final point is a practical one. You can't get them all, here today. Doctor, you say you can hunt the rest down. I doubt it. They're too smart. They'll find ways to evade us we haven't even thought of. You won't kill them all. But they'll remember you tried.
  • In The Nexus Series, this is stated to be the nature of the human/posthuman divide. Posthumans are used to an ongoing pogrom, so they hit baselines whenever and wherever they see the opportunity.
    …in Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma, the winning strategy is to cooperate with strangers. But if you meet someone who’s betrayed you in the past, who’s defected against you, you betray them. …If you treat them this way, if you treat posthumans as slaves, if you torture them, if you make them prisoners… You’ll drive them to want revenge. You’ll make them paranoid and angry. You may drive them insane. You’ll create the war that none of us can win. …Prisoner’s dilemma is always iterated in the real world. Defection is a sound strategy when you’re playing against defectors.
  • The Quantum Thief begins inside the Dilemma Prison, a massive satellite in which forcibly uploaded prisoners endlessly reenact the Prisoner’s Dilemma with their neighbors until, theoretically, they all learn that mutual cooperation is the best option, and therefore come out as better people. The precise situation changes (the one we see is two people with handguns in a standoff, but others are mentioned), but a successful betrayal rewards them with minor luxuries for their cells, and being betrayed always means a painful death (which, being uploaded minds, they can just be restored from with all memory intact and forced to play again). Also, their brains are being subtly altered with every death so that non-cooperative behavior gradually gets winnowed out.
  • Shows up (and is referred to by name) in the climax of Star Trek: Federation. The two Enterprises are trapped inside the multisingularity. Neither has enough power to escape on their own. Either could maneuver so as to steal spatial distortion from the other, which would enable their ship to escape while dooming the other. Alternately, they could maneuver so as to essentially bounce a distortion wave between them, which if they get the timing perfect will enable both ships to steal spatial distortion from the singularity itself, but will destroy both ships if the timing is off. But neither Enterprise has working comms, so they have no way of knowing what the other is going to do.
  • The climax of the Xanth novel Golem in the Gears consists literally of four characters repeatedly playing a formalized Prisoner's Dilemma game with each other in order to prove a point that cooperating can pay off.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The Castle episode "The Double Down" unusually presents the dilemma from the interrogators' perspective. The team realizes that two seemingly unconnected murders were prearranged to be done by the person who had motive for the other murder, in order to provide airtight alibis for the one they would be suspected of. Unfortunately they don't have any hard evidence, so if both suspects keep mum they can't prove the theory. To solve it, Ryan and Esposito tell the weaker link while Castle and Beckett are interrogating him that his partner has already given him up to save his own skin, which convinces the bluffed suspect to confess.
  • In an episode of The Commish, Tony uses the dilemma to trap a couple of killers. He has them brought in and kept for hours without food or drink. He explains the dilemma to one, who won't talk, so Tony lets him go. Then he has the DA go into the other holding room and offer the second guy whatever food he wants. The first guy sees the second guy through the office window, with the DA frantically scribbling down what he's saying, and thinks that the second guy is ratting him out, so the first guy blames the second one for the actual murder. A following scene indicates it doesn't stop there: The DA says that they continued selling each other out for every single crime they committed together since they were children.
  • This was frequently invoked on Jeopardy! in situations where there is a tie for first place going into the Final Jeopardy! round. The two tied contestants have no choice but to bet either All or Nothing on the Final Jeopardy! clue, depending on how much they trust the other to bet $0. In the best-case scenario, both bet $0 and are declared co-champions regardless of whether they get Final Jeopardy! right or wrong; worst-case scenario is that they both zero out on an incorrect response and the third contestant wins (unless they too bet everything). However, since ties for first place (and hence the co-champion rule) were abolished at the start of Season 31, this can no longer be done without leading to a Tiebreaker clue.
  • Discussed in the Leverage episode "The Experimental Job". Nate impersonates a college professor in the mark's psychology class and discusses the dilemma, reaching the conclusion that it's always best to betray your partner. Whether or not Nate believes this (he probably doesn't at least with the Leverage crew, given how the team would never betray each other) is irrelevant, since he was just trying to subconsciously influence the mark to betray his government backers so they'd remove their protection.
  • Midsomer Murders: Barnaby uses the trope in one episode to get two individual murderers not to confess, but to witness that they saw the other committing a murder.
  • This was an element of gameplay in The Mole. It was better for contestants to work together and give maximum effort in challenges, because that increased the pot that they were playing for. However, since The Mole was sabotaging the game, and players who incorrectly guessed the identity of The Mole faced risk of elimination in the quiz at the end of the episode, contestants would sometimes sabotage challenges in order to draw false suspicion on themselves.
  • In the Quantico episode "Cover", FBI Academy Deputy Director Miranda Shaw uses a variant as a Secret Test of Character. After getting her FBI cadets pissed off at each other, she tells them that they are to vote for three candidates to be cut from the training program. Refuse to vote, and she cuts ten. Alex tries to get her classmates to abstain, but Simon chickens out. Truth is, Miranda wasn't planning to cut anyone: the correct response was to stick with each other regardless of personal feelings, and she gives Simon and the candidates about to follow his lead a What the Hell, Hero? speech and threatens him with expulsion if he makes another mistake like that.
  • The Rizzoli & Isles episode "All For One" involves three suspects involved in a hit-and-run of a teacher at their high school. The three suspects were all best friends along with another girl whom had attempted suicide after the teacher had pressured her into sex and tried to get her expelled, leaving her in a coma. Since Massachusetts law only allows for the prosecution of the driver, the three suspects are interrogated separately to admit who was driving the car. Despite knowing they faced prison for murder, all three suspects claimed to be the driver to protect the other two when interrogated. This left the detectives unable to identify the driver and forced to let the girls go free, resulting in the three of them beating the Dilemma.
  • Several game shows have made use of this mechanic as an endgame, such as Shafted, Friend or Foe, Golden Balls, and Take It All. In any case, a pair of contestants must choose to either split a jackpot between them, or take it for themselves. If one contestant chooses to steal it, they take all the money and the other player gets nothing. If both choose to take it, they both walk away with nothing. Of the examples, all of them had formats where players were eliminated throughout the game, and tended to rely on the contestants having clashing personalities to build up tension and conflict. Friend or Foe however, did this once to every team throughout the game, either after they were eliminated (as a Consolation Prize), and once more with the winners at the end of the show (as the second half of a Bonus Round).
    • The The Bachelor/The Bachelorette spin-off Bachelor Pad featured this mechanic with a $250,000 jackpot between the final couple, but being divided among all the eliminated contestants if they both chose to steal.
    • A man who describes himself as a "professional game show contestant" studied Golden Balls and realized that the face-offs all followed the same formula: if one contestant was absolutely sincere in their desire to split the money, they were actually planning on stealing. Every single time. So he devised a better solution: he went on the show, made it to the final round, and then immediately told his fellow finalist that he was going to steal the money (albeit with the caveat that he would split the money after the show). 100% certainty, absolutely no room for compromise. Most final rounds went on for five minutes; this one lasted 45 minutes, with the unfortunate second man trying everything to convince the professional to change his mind and split. Eventually, the other guy agreed and picked to split, at which point the professional revealed that he had done the same. The kicker? After the show, the other guy was interviewed and asked what he was planning to do before he was harangued; he was going to steal.
  • The premiere episode of Survivor U.S. Season 41 features a version of the prisoner's dilemma. Three players, one from each tribe, are taken away on a boat and have to trek up a hill together, getting to know each other. At the top of the hill, they are told that upon going back down separately, they will each face a decision. The decision turns out to be either "Protect Your Vote" or "Risk Your Vote." If any of them choose "Protect Your Vote," then it's status quo for them. However, if all three choose "Risk Your Vote," then all lose their vote in the next Tribal Council. If, however, only one or two choose "Risk Your Vote," then those choosing "Risk Your Vote" receive an extra vote that can be used any time up to the final six. Ultimately, this is what happens. Danny chooses to protect his vote, but both Xander and JD risk it and earn an extra vote, learning the result of their decision at Tribal Council.

    Video Games 
  • A minor character in Baldur's Gate II will ask the Player Character how they would respond to a modified version where a pair of siblings are captured by a sadistic wizard in individual cells and each given the option of pressing a button in their cell or not. If only one person presses the button, the other goes free, but if both or neither presses the button both die. Depending on your answer, the character will 'reward' you with a challenging but rewarding battle or a zero effort battle with no reward. Alternatively...
    Minsc: This is silly, buttons is not how one escapes dungeons! I would smash the button, and rain down beatings on the wizard liberally for playing such a trick!
  • Dead by Daylight:
    • The Pig's gimmick is called Jigsaw's Baptism; she places the Reverse Bear Traps iconic to the Saw series onto Survivors she downs. These traps are inactive until a generator on the map has been completed. Once that happens, the trapped Survivor has only a limited amount of time to remove the trap or die. This means the other Survivors can either hold off on generators to avoid risk to their teammate, or keep going and potentially doom them while saving themselves.
    • The Plague's power, Vile Purge, consists of her vomiting on Survivors. If the vomit is not cleansed by using Pools of Devotion, fountains scattered around the map, the Survivor will eventually become a One-Hit-Point Wonder until they do and spread the sickness to any other Survivor or environmental item they interact with. Cleansing the illness, however, allows the Plague to go to whichever fountain was used and upgrade her Vile Purge to Corrupt Purge, changing her vomit to red and allowing it to damage Survivors she hits instead of infecting them. The choice for Survivors then becomes either don't cleanse and heal, meaning the Plague can down them in one hit instead of two, or cleanse and potentially give the Plague a much more dangerous ranged attack.
  • A sidequest in Destiny 2 involves a group of Fallen who have been captured by the robotic Vex. As part of an experiment, the Vex put the Fallen through a variant of this experiment, offering to allow any Fallen who would kill their companions to go free. None of the Fallen would turn on their fellows.
  • One of the games in The Jackbox Party Pack 3, Trivia Murder Party, has a minigame based on this scenario called "Decisions, Decisions". The host leaves a pile of money for the people in the game to take. If at least one person takes the money, anyone who didn't take it dies. If everyone takes the money, everyone dies. The only scenario where everyone is kept alive is if absolutely nobody takes any money, but would you really trust your friends to cooperate with you, especially if it involves more than 2 people?
    • Trivia Murder Party 2, from the sixth Party Pack, has "Dumb Waiters", where the participants are given a choice of two different dumbwaiters to board. If everyone picks the same side, they all get to live; otherwise, the host will drop everyone on the heavier side to their doom. So while you could coordinate and agree that you'll all pile onto the left or right dumbwaiter, a single defector can screw over the others… while multiple defectors could easily screw over themselves.
  • In Knights of the Old Republic, a computer trying to determine if the Player Character is authorized to access it proposes a Prisoner's Dilemma scenario and asks the PC what they would do. In this case, betraying their companion is the "right" choice because it works out better for you no matter what the companion does, but the PC can reject the computer's moral vision and still gain access.
  • A variant of the game appears in The Talos Principle's expansion Road to Gehenna on the message board that you explore within the game world. This version is meant as a combination game and social experiment, and has somewhat unconventional rules: if both participants "betray", each earns two points. If both "co-operate", neither person earns any points. If one betrays and the other co-operates, the former receives one point and the latter three points. Whoever has the most points at the end of the round loses. In contrast to the original dilemma, the participants are able to communicate beforehand, making the game more about bluffing than principles. Because of the way the points are awarded, the only way to win is to convince the opponent to co-operate while you betray (after which point, both parties will sensibly betray until the game ends).
  • This is present as a Mini-Game in Universal Paperclips where your Paperclip maximizer AI runs a simulation of it, among other decision theory games. The player doesn't pick one of the choices — instead, it chooses one of a variety of different strategies (such as a Greedy algorithm which tries to take the choice with the potential most points), pits all the strategies against each other in the dilemma scenario, and receives a resource depending on how well said strategy scored. You unlock new strategies in a pretty much perfectly ascending order of average effectiveness.

    Visual Novels 
  • In Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, Celestia Ludenberg references the concept and uses the example of two countries building their military strength under fear of betrayal from the other to explain the School Life of Mutual Killing that the 15 students have been forced into (in which uniting together against The Mastermind would be ideal, but none can escape the possibility of someone cracking under the pressure of wanting to escape the school by choosing to kill someone else).
  • This is the basis behind the Nonary Game: Ambidex Edition in Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward, and Phi spends about 3 minutes explaining the concept to Sigma. The object is to escape the facility, and the exit door will only open once somebody with 9 Bracelet Points pulls the lever. Everyone starts with 3 BP, and the only way to get more is to vote at the end of each round to either Ally with or Betray the person or people you cleared the round with (the players are split into teams of three consisting of one solo player and one pair). If both sides vote Ally, then both gain 2 BP; if one side votes Ally and the other votes Betray, then the betraying side gains 3 BP and the betrayed loses 2. If both sides Betray, then no BP is gained or lost on either side. The exit door can also only open once, and will shut permanently after that, so if someone who played smarter than you got 9 BP before you did and escaped, then you're out of luck. Forever. If you drop to 0 BP or below, you get punished with death via lethal injection. The same thing happens if you attempt to escape with less than 9 BP after somebody else opens the exit. If you do not vote at the end of the round, then your vote defaults to Ally, which presents the obvious solution of nobody voting so that nobody betrays anyone else and they all reach 9 BP at the same time. However, if neither side votes, then both sides get the injection, so at least one person or pair from each three-man team must vote every round. And if you know for sure that the other side isn't voting and will default to Ally...


    Web Original 
  • This website lets people run a simulation of this game against a computer opponent that follows a pre-selected strategy. The most common strategy is called "Tit for Tat"; i.e. repeating the action your opponent did last round.
  • The Evolution of Trust is an interactive version of this puzzle, with different 'AIs' and the potential for miscommunication added to the mix.
  • This video has it as the main theme. A man, Luc, commits a murder and asks his friends to help him cover it up. Between the three, who can he trust? Mathieu the "Fuckboy", who would dump him for the nearest girl, Thomas the "Skinflint" who keeps track of every penny owed to him, or William the "Cheater", who cheats and manipulates at every game due to being obsessed with victory? The answer is: all of them. Of course, William is aware of the Dilemma and that they will likely face it, and decides to cheat — after all, if nobody rats anyone out, they'll be free men. So they pass off Mathieu, their strongest-willed member for their weakest in the face of the assistant detective, Pierre. He tells them to NOT get their lawyer, and instead ask if the alleged rat called his lawyer before confessing, calling the lead detective's bluff. And in the event that Luc would denounce himself out of loyalty to the others, William gave him false coordinates and location for the location where they buried the corpse, which would render any confession false, null and void. At the end, William admits that the Prisoner's Dilemma is infallible due to the very premise of lack of communication between the suspects, which eventually leads them to betray each other. But what if there was a fifth person, Pierre the "Loyal" one, who joined the police and rose to assistant detective at William's behest, putting in place a system to communicate the fact that nobody talked — such as, say, smacking a prison door in anger?
  • The Adventure Zone has Trust or Forsake in The Suffering Game arc, which is this trope. But even when the heroes get the best outcome, they end up forsaking friendly people they had met earlier.
  • Uno: The Movie features five men playing a game of Uno that, thanks to a ridiculous set of house rules, lasts for over two and a half hours. After around the forty minutes or so, each of the guys just wants the game to end, and talk about cooperating with each other to do so. The problem is, they can't help but continue to screw each other over in the vain hope of winning.
    Gavin: We all want to go home, but nobody wants to lose!
  • Jubilee Media's video series Human Theory presents a version of this, in which two groups of people agree to choose a colour (red or blue), revealing their choices simultaneously. Each group receives a small cash prize if both choose blue, and nothing if both choose red, but should only one group choose red, that group receives a large cash prize and the other group nothing at all. This series tends to zigzag between Hobbes Was Right and Rousseau Was Right in the outcomes, although the latter less frequently, as it often only takes one selfish/distrustful participant to thwart a mutually beneficial result.

    Western Animation 
  • Bob's Burgers: Season 5 finale, "The Oeder Games" has Mr. Fischoeder doing this to his tenants. When they join together against him to have a strike because he is unreasonably raising their rent, he offers them a game: a water balloon fight in which the last man standing gets 50% off their rent permanently, while all the others will get their rents raised. Bob can see right through the ruse by which there's only one winner and many losers, but the other tenants, including his own family are quick to join the game and turn against each other, which is worse than Bob's plan which could result in nobody getting their rents raised.
  • Played for Laughs when the titular Dilbert is accused of a crime and offered a chance to confess for a lighter sentence. He cites The Prisoner's Dilemma by name and taunts the interrogator, pointing out that since he and all his co-workers are aware of it none of them will talk and they'll all go free. The interrogator just shrugs and opens the curtains, showing every single one of his co-workers all gleefully ratting on Dilbert. For bonus points, none of them actually committed a crime and they all know it; they just ratted out Dilbert because it's just that kind of show.

  • Some cases of Sibling Rivalry could be considered a variant of this: while, logically, if two or more people are stuck with each other all the time, it would make the most sense for everyone to be nice to each other, as that makes it the most pleasant for everyone involved. That said, you can't really expect a 5-year-old to figure this out.


Video Example(s):


The Joker's Social Experiment

The Joker creates this dilemma for a boat full of civilians another full of (literal) prisoners.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (7 votes)

Example of:

Main / PrisonersDilemma

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