A Seat in the ‘Most Depressing Sports Bar in the World’

Despite never having read the book(s), I recently watched “The Hunger Games.” Over all, I liked the movie, though the premise is a little appalling and there is quite a bit of disturbing violence. “Games” does not approach the gleeful gore in, say, a Sylvester Stallone movie — “Rambo” limps to mind — but it makes up for it by having some of the principle victims be adorable children.

Cover of "The Hunger Games"

Cover of The Hunger Games

The movie has been (mostly) well-received, with many critics focusing on the stereotype-smashing character of Katniss, a pudgy-faced outdoorswoman who is in the movie’s leading role. Manohla Dargis of The Times, for instance, describes her as “Natty Bumppo reborn and resexed.” A. O. Scott takes it further, “I see the outlines of a future American Studies dissertation emerging in the mist.”

Keeping my head out of the clouds, I found the movie interesting/redeeming for two unrelated reasons. One was the pure economics of it, in terms of how or why competitors, apparently known as tributes, in the Games decided to cooperate with their rivals. This might seem like missing the forest for the trees, but there is actually a lot written on the Web that uses the relevant economic formalism (i.e. game theory) to analyze the story. Much of this, however, is focused on the climax of the movie, in which a competitor employs an unorthodox and apparently unprecedented strategy to “win” the contest. Far more interesting, if you ask me, is the overall Games model. There are obvious benefits to cooperation, of course. Resources can be pooled, and energy that might be expended defending oneself can be conserved. But these benefits only accrue for a limited time, and only if competitors know the right time to defect from cooperation. It is not at all the same dynamic as the reality program “Survivor,” mostly because the stakes are so much higher. Competitors won’t be able to write their coda with witty/bitchy/incomprehensible remarks at a reunion show; most likely, they will do it with a bemused look on their face shortly before a rival runs a shiv up their strap.

I found it compelling that there are numerous scenes in the film that depict camaraderie among competitors, albeit often in a macabre and disgusting form. Obviously, competitors understand the rules of the Games; just as obviously, not all of them are playing to win. Some seem not to know what to do. It is hard to criticize them, given how horrible the circumstances are. But it is worth saying that the only dominant strategy (i.e., the only strategy that always provides benefits) is to not cooperate, which, by the way, is the unambiguous advice of the “mentor” for the movie’s main character.

Of course, another theme of the movie is characters’ desire to remain true to themselves, even in the context of televised mayhem. Some forms of cooperation seen in the movie are obviously motivated by more tender human feelings, like a sense of compassion. These moments can never be truly touching, though, because the viewer knows that they will be quickly followed by an act of bone-splitting violence.

(Thinking in terms of economics also brings up a confusing, to me, plot point. The selection process for the Games is, of course, a kind of lottery, and residents can get extra food by adding chances for eligible family members in the lottery. This is portrayed as a cruel and frightening trade-off, but it seems to me that the cost of taking extra chances in the lottery is quite low — it is, after all, a lottery. I don’t know what the population is in the “Games” world, but I am not persuaded that a potential “tribute” significantly increases the probability of their being selected even by doubling the number of times they are entered in the lottery. It really makes you wonder why everyone is so hungry in the first place.)

Anyway. The second thing I found interesting was the depiction of the balance of humanity in what is, after all, a blockbuster, mainstream film. I wonder if fans of the book go to the movie and realize that they are, in reality, the ugly people wearing absurd, brightly colored clothes who thrill to the gruesome images flickering in the blue light of television. The echo of suicidal former pro football players and an absurdly violent hockey postseason is unmistakable. The capital city in “Games” is like the most depressing sports bar in the world.

Wall-E” was similar, I think: a popular movie with surprisingly dark themes that depicted the mass of society in a negative light. All you really ever heard about that movie was that the robot was so cute. Really, it was the filmmaker is telling people how fat, lazy and awful they are.

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If You Don’t Understand It, It’s Your Fault

I am, along with 60,000-some of my peers, enrolled in the Coursera Game Theory online class, which is taught by two exceedingly uncharismatic Stanford professors. Over all, this has been a rewarding endeavor; certainly it is worth the price.

This morning, as a Time Warner man muddled in my patio trying to fix someone else’s cable, I was struck by a low ebb in the edifying flows. The class is made up, in part, of video lectures, about two hours’ worth each week. At the end of most of these is a one-question quiz.

Now much of this has been over my head. “There would be a little calculus,” I had been warned. I thought this meant that a little bit of the class would involve calculus; in fact, there is a little bit of calculus in everything. And so, as the sounds of an aluminum ladder scraped through my apartment, and after a long, calculus-intensive lecture, entitled “Continuous First-Price Auctions,” I was confronted with a difficult (for me) multiple-choice question. I barely understood it, but the last choice was “none of the above.” And between my marginal grasp of the question and the other answers and the likelihood that “none of the above,” a choice that rarely appears in the these quizzes, was not included a red herring, I was able, ironically by applying actual game theory, to get it right.

The quiz then prompts you to read an explanation of the question. Usually this goes over the math and the concepts in a short paragraph, explaining why the right answer is what it is.

But for this question, I got this stuffy, academic middle finger, paraphrased thusly:

(e) is true. This is reviewing the logic from the lecture. If you don’t understand, rewind it and watch again.