Pop Culture

Game theory in film, music, and fiction.


Rebel without a Cause (and Footloose)

Two players (read, teenage boys) decide to settle a dispute (read, teenage girl) by way of near-death experiences. Each speeds an automobile towards a cliff (or at each other, in later adaptations). A simple rule governs the challenge: the first to jump out of his automobile is the chicken and, by universally accepted social convention, concedes the object in dispute. The second to jump is victorious, and, depending on context, becomes gang leader, prom king, etc.

Of course, if both jump simultaneously, a stalemate results, and if neither jumps, a fiery death is assured since all cars (in movies) explode upon impact. Whether the dead are celbrated by their peers is inconsequential, since game theorists are apt to assume that the payoffs from this outcome are quite negative.

Two (pure strategy) equilibria exist in this game, each with one person jumping early. If the other person plans on jumping out, 'd rather stay and win, and if he plans on staying the course, I'd rather chicken out and live.

The game of chicken has been featured in many films, though the first, Rebel without a Cause, still sets the standard.

Rebel 1

Jimmie (James Dean), to settle a dispute with Buzz, the leader of a local gang, agrees to a "Chickie Run." Both race stolen cars towards the edge of a cliff. The first to eject out of his car is branded a "chickie."

Rebel 2

Seconds into the race, Buzz discovers that his jacket is stuck on the door handle, making jumping out of the car somewhat difficult.

Rebel 3

Jimmie jumps out an instant before the cars reach the edge of the cliff.

Rebel 5

Buzz, still unable to free his jacket from the door handle, fails to escape. While he won't be branded a "chickie," he suffers a worse fate.

Many other movies feature young males settling disputes in games of chicken, including Stand By Me and Cry-Baby. One of the strangest adaptations was in Footloose, starring Kevin Bacon, with a game of chicken played on tractors. This time, the dramatic device was a shoelace stuck to the pedal.

Footloose 1 Footloose 2