A reflection on Prisoner’s Dilemma

“Supposing that you are playing the game of Prisoner’s Dilemma, what would be your strategy, would you cooperate or defect?”

This is what Axelrod asked the experts in order to find the conditions in which people would cooperate with each other. Thus, it will be more than appropriate to ask: why would people be in conflict in the first place? His positing of the dilemma entails that the conflict is a competition under given rules of a game, but his examples such as US-USSR belies his position, tending to solve a greater conflict, one that is over the right to determine the rules themselves.

Axelrod’s question seems to present a free choice. What it hides is the fact that an answerer to this question will have been already ‘cooperated’. This would be ‘cooperating’ not as a game move, but in the sense that he/she accepted to play this game with the present rules that will never change, thus recognizing himself/herself as the prisoner in the dilemma, cooperating not with another prisoner but with the dilemma itself.

Now, we can distinguish the choice to cooperate or defect inside the dilemma, as a pale reflection of the real question of whether or not to cooperate and play the game with its present rules. In this case, we have to ask another question: Suppose someone asked you the question above, in what conditions would you defect the game itself, leave it when the game has no such move?

Reference: Robert Axelrod, “The Evolution of Cooperation”

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