[Spoiler alerts for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Go see it already.]
The post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is, for the most part, a meditation on ethics and morality. A good one, too. But that’s not what we’re here to talk about. Let others debate whether Caesar should have spared Koba. I’m here to analyze the human/ape conflict through the cold, rational lens of game theory.
[Disclaimer: Everything I know about game theory I learned from Wikipedia and hanging out with the writers of Overthinking It. Corrections and “well actually’s” are more than welcome in the comments.]
The human/ape conflict seems to lend itself quite well to the Prisoner’s Dilemma model, in which two opposing parties can choose whether or not to cooperate with each other. Here’s the classic scenario grid in case you need a refresher:
All of this boils down to what amounts to a cynical worldview: even though cooperation would yield the most positive outcome, each party nevertheless tends to act in their own self interest at the expense of the opposing party’s. When both parties choose to do so, neither achieves a positive outcome.
This model has been used to explain all sorts of conflicts between nations, so it’s no surprise that the human/ape conflict fits as well:
Sure enough, by the end of the movie, both parties find themselves in the least optimal bottom-right quadrant: lots of humans and apes die, with more fighting to come in the sequel.
This model works when you consider the conflict at a high level, but when you consider the events of the movie a little more carefully, the Prisoner’s Dilemma becomes less helpful at understanding the decisions that the human and ape leaders make. See, the key thing about the Prisoner’s Dilemma is that both sides make choices simultaneously and with no knowledge of what the other side is choosing (the ferry boat scene from The Dark Knight works well in this regard). That’s not the case in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Each side makes choices sequentially, in response to choices made by the other side or circumstances at hand.
Fortunately, Game Theory gives us another method to model this sort of scenario: decision trees.
Decision Tree: Humans
Dreyfus, the leader of the human colony in San Francisco, needs electric power from the hydroelectric dam located in ape-controlled territory. In order to get it, he has a choice to make: he can either take control by force, or he can send a team to the dam and hope that the apes give them access.
What to do? Dreyfus needs to consider the costs and benefits of the possible scenarios and the likelihood of these scenarios occurring. In the decision tree graphic below, the green diamond represents a choice that Dreyfus actively makes. The blue diamonds represent circumstances out of Dreyfus’ control that influence the outcomes. Each outcome has a simple positive/negative indicator for two outcomes: loss of life and electric power.
Note that this graphic does not illustrate the probability of each scenario occurring. Dreyfus, with limited information on what the apes are capable of, probably doesn’t have ability to accurately assess the probability anyway.
So what does he do? He makes the only decision that could possibly lead to the most optimal outcome in terms of loss of life and electric power: he sends the team to repair the dam, in hopes that the apes cooperate. Granted, he keeps a contingency plan for war in his back pocket which arguably provokes Koba, but let’s be honest: Koba was looking for an excuse to start a fight, and it’s not like the humans were going to dispose of the arsenal for fear of provoking the apes. For all intents and purposes, Dreyfus acts in good faith. And it would have worked, if it weren’t for one damned dirty ape.
Decision Tree: Apes
Caesar, leader of the ape society, needs to choose how to deal with the humans who show up asking for access to the dam. Does he cooperate with them, or does he send them away?
Just like Dreyfus, Caesar also makes the only decision that could possibly lead to the most optimal outcome in terms of loss of life and peaceful coexistence with humans. Caesar unambiguously acts in good faith–he has no contingency plan–and it would have worked, if it weren’t for Koba’s coup d’ape-tat.
Koba, now in charge, reverses Caesar’s initial decision to cooperate with the humans. He decides to preemptively attack them, but he does so with a fatal flaw in his plan: he doesn’t take into account the possibility that more humans aside from those in the colony might be provoked by the ape attack and prolong the conflict. Had Koba considered all of the possibilities, he would have seen that a suboptimal outcome would likely result from his attack. Unfortunately, Koba was blinded by his hatred, and he made the wrong choice.
And that’s what this movie is really about, right? Rational decision making. Acting based on careful consideration of costs and benefits, not hunches and grudges.
At the end of the movie, Caesar sends Koba to his death after passing judgment on him:
“KOBA NOT APE.”
That may or may not be true, but perhaps a more fitting epithet might have been:
“KOBA NOT EFFECTIVE MANAGER.”