Prisoner’s Dilemma is a popular team building game which demonstrates whether people display win-win (co-operative) or win-lose orientation (selfish competitive) in a semi-serious environment.
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Download free slides... enter your email address at the bottom to get this team building activity in your inbox
What is the Prisoner's Dilemma?
Why is it useful?
Often we’re more concerned with winning more than with achieving the optimum result. This activity:
- 1Setup the room as described on the ‘Resources Required’ section above.
- 2The Facilitator explains that the group is going to experience a simulation of an old technique used in interrogating prisoners (carefully avoiding discussing the objectives of the exercise) where the questioner separates prisoners suspected of working together and tells one that the other has confessed and that if they both confess they will get off easier.
- 3The Prisoner’s Dilemma is that they may confess when they should not and that they may fail to confess when they really should.
- 4Two teams are formed, named A and B, and seated separately. They’re instructed not to communicate with the other team in any way, verbally or non-verbally, except when told to do so by the Facilitator.
- 5The objective is simple: “Your group is to get the highest positive score (by the end of the game, which consists of 10 short rounds) and you're looking to beat the other team.”
Instructions for participants
Main Objective: To get the highest possible positive score for your team
The scoring system for the Prisoner's Dilemma
- 1There are two teams – A and B – who will play 10 rounds of competition.
- 2You will choose to play either Red or Blue.
- 3You will be scored as per the Score Table.
- 4The first 8 rounds are a maximum of 3 minutes each.
- 5You can have a conference, via representatives, with your opposing group after the fourth round (however, this can only take place at the request of both groups).
- 6You can have another conference (for a maximum of 3 minutes) after the eighth round, if both groups choose this.
- 7The ninth and tenth rounds score double and you will have 5 minutes in each round to make your decision.
- 1Four rounds are played independently without a direct interaction with the other side, just transmission of each other’s decisions. (The Facilitator instructs teams not to write down their decisions until told to do so, to make sure that the teams don’t make hasty decisions, and announces each group’s decision and scoring at the end of each round).
- 2A pause where there is the possibility of talking to the other side if both sides want this.
- 3Four more independent rounds.
- 4Another pause with the possibility of interaction.
- 5Two final rounds whose scores count double, i.e. Red/Red is +6/+6, Red/Blue is -12/+12,Blue/Red is +12/-12, Blue/Blue is -6/-6.
Alternative Process for 4 Teams
Thanks to Roger McCann for bringing this alternative to our attention. This is a 4-team version where the objective is described as a group task to win as much as you can. The 4 teams inevitably compete and therefore the group score is low.
This makes it useful to explore how different teams in an organization compete with each other rather than working for the common good.
The scoring works as follows:
You'd think teams would always make lay red in the hope that at least plays a blue and it does usually start with all losing, then occasionally all winning, but then competition takes over and tactics change.
How does this relate to prison?
Are you wondering how do the colors (red and blue) relate to either “confessing” or “denying” to the crime in the original Prisoners Dilemma? You can think of it like this:
Facilitator Score Card
You can download this scorecard for free at the bottom of the page
- 1The whole group meets to process the experience.
- 2The Facilitator announces the points total for each team, and the sum of the two outcomes is calculated and compared to the maximum possible outcome (72 points).
- 3The Facilitator leads a discussion on the effects of high and low trust on interpersonal relations, on win-lose situations, and on the relative merits of collaboration versus competition. Here are some effective questions for you to use:
what else do you have?
What else are you looking for John? Did you like this one?
I copied your link to my LinkedIn page but cannot access the PPT. Can you please assist me? I used this exercise at a previous company and was THRILLED to find it again! Thanks!
All you need to do is click the orange PPT icon in the Download Files section and a window should open up with instructions on what to do next. It is a fantastic exercise isn’t it! I’d love to hear if this version differs in any way to the one that you’re used to. Maybe it can be improved?
Hi Jena … you need to click the big orange PPT icon at the end of the article and follow the instructions in the pop-up … hope that helps 🙂
I just couldn’t download the powerpoint – spent a lot of time trying. Can you please email me it? Thanks and great work.
Works OK for me Jarlath … never trust technology though so can you tell me what happens when you click the PPT icon above?
I tried to download prisoner’s dilemma via linked in but couldn’t make it happen. I left a comment anyway, but have been unable to get the ppt. Can you email them to me?
thanks for your site!
What happens after you click the big PPT icon above John?
Great game. Exactly what I was looking for. Just wanted to Thank You for posting this.
Keep up the good work.
Thanks for saying thanks Chamara.
[…] we were taken in our groups to undertake activities. The first activity involved a variation on the ‘Prisoner’s dilemma’ (click the link to get a sense of the game). Crucially you are asked to achieve the […]
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Thanks so much for posting these tools- most appreciated. I crafting a Motivational Workshop to include elements on communication, collaboration and trust. I was compelled by Prisoner’s Dilemma. I have 20 people and less than an hour to devote to this activity. What are your thoughts? Is this still a viable option? Other ideas?
Absolutely Ronnie … this will work perfectly.
I have conducted a version of this exercise in many workshops (24 participants divided into four groups of six each) and it works beautifully. If you can spend more time on the debrief, getting participants to reflect on what prevented them from collaborating and why it is important to build trust and communicate when there is a breach of trust that would add a lot of value.
Spending more time on the debrief is always a wise idea. Thanks for your input Prashant.
Hmmmm. Delighted to find the exercise. It is very similar to Seeing Red, which I run regularly. for 3 teams.
BUT tried to download it twice, by linking to facebook, and no joy.
pay with a tweet seems a good idea, unfortunately it doesn’t work.
So a bad first impression I’m afraid. Your site is a great idea, but I will quickly disappear unless you can get the technology to work.
Could you email me the slides?
Hi Michael … everything seems to be working OK when I try it … what happens when you click on the PPT icon above?
Would love to use this exercise, but when I click on the download icon, nothing happens. Sounds like others have the same issue with it. You have great stuff IF we can get it to work. Thanks!
Hi dr j … can you email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know what’s happening for you? Sounds strange as there are plenty of people downloading successfully every day.
Thanks Nick — I came across your website while searching for the results formula for this game played with four teams (something I used pre-Internet eons ago). Do you know of it?
Hi GP … thanks for commenting … I don’t know it actually … how does it work?
Ditto on the download problem after posting to facebook. Please send. Thanks!
Hi Matt … you need to click the big orange PPT icon at the end of the article and follow the instructions in the popup … after that the document will automatically download to your PC
Brilliant resources, many thanks.
No worries Dave
I have been a participant on this exercise but I will now be using this for my team as it is perfect for demonstrating the power of communication and teamwork.
Glad you like it Pete and thanks for leaving a comment 🙂
I had the same problem trying to download your powerpt doc. I think it may be because I have an old version of Powerpt (2007). When I try clicking on the orange icon it wants me to buy a newer version of MS Office. Can you post your slides as pdf at least for those of us who are having trouble?
thx for sharing,
They’re on here as PDF now Lynn.
I just love the simple explanation. I’ve tried to download the PPT without success. It says pay with a tweet, I tried and twitter takes me to a creating a marketing campaign. I sure would love to use this game in my Values workshop. Can you share it me on mail
I’ve got rid of pay with a tweet now Padmavothi. You can simply download the tools now.
Hi, I have tried to dowload without success, and have given my email details in order to do that. Could you please send it onto me soonest. Thanks Liz
Hi Liz … good to speak to you over email and glad the download works now … let us know how it goes!
I am thinking to use this for one of my classroom activities. Pardon me if this is a daft question: What is the role of team representatives here? How do they communicate with their teams if they are acting as prisoners?
Hi Vishal … that’s a great question … the team reps are still ‘prisoners’ during the game but they also play spokesperson for their particular team … team reps are good because it keeps the conference rounds more under control (only 2 people speaking instead of everyone) but feel free to try without them and let the teams conference as one … does that help?
Looks a very promising exercise but I am still not able to understand exactly how will this exercise exactly be played out. We divide the people in two teams & after that I am really not sure. How do the Teams Select Red & Blue and when does the questioning happen & who questions all pretty unclear. Can you please elaborate or mail me as to how exactly this is to be played, will be a great help. Want to include in a Training Session of mine shortly…
Hi Usama … first you divide the group into two teams called Team A and Team B … each round consists of the teams discussing between themselves whether they’ll choose RED or BLUE. When their choices are made the colours are brought together and a score given to each team based on the scoring table. There is no questioning as such but there are a couple of conference rounds where the teams are allowed to talk to each other to try and agree a strategy. Does that help? Have you downloaded the Powerpoint or PDF as maybe it’s easier to understand on there.
Can I check with you… I find this very interesting. However I’m not able to download PDF or PPT. I got the link in the email but when I click the link, it pops up an error message saying unable to download prisoners-dilemma.pdf from workshopbank.leadpages.net.
Unable to open this Internet site. The requested site is either unavailable or cannot be found. Pls try again later.
Will you have an alternative way for downloading? Thanks
Did you work this out Anna? Try different browsers or your home internet network to see if that works.
If you have problems downloading its probably to do with your browser. Im using a secure work laptop with an old version of explorer which would not download it. When I changed to a new browser like firefox no problem – it does work.
I’m going to try and use this at a team event next week, do you think it will work with a larger group of 30 – could I pair them up ?
Thanks for the downloading tip Miche. I certainly think it could work with a group that size. Let me know how it goes.
While this comment may seem like an exercise is semantics, might I offer that you use the word ‘group’ instead of ‘team’ on the score sheet and in the instructions for participants? When I facilitate your game plan, I try to not use the word ‘team’ until the plenary session since the ‘team’ is really groups A and B together (e.g., the two prisoners working as a team). That realization is part of the “ah ha” moment. Cheers!
Nice point Steve. Language when working with groups / teams is so important.
Hi, thanks for this; it’s a much easier version than one I used to use which had three teams. We used coloured game counters and gave out the counters in unequal amounts, e.g. one team had half red/half blue and the other two teams had either more red or more blue – the exercise was called red and blue spot trading, although of course very few spotted that they could actually swap counters and most didn’t realise they were all part of the same company (team as Steve says above) and needed to work together to maximise returns in the double scoring rounds. Great fun and loads of interesting learning for the players!
That sounds like a fun game Rachel. If you’d like to share it with the community drop me an email using the Contact page and I’ll help you get it online.
I cant seem to download the dosc either, anychance you could email them to me ? . Many thanks
Hi Mark … the download problems you were experiencing should be fixed now … please try again and sorry for the inconvenience.
Hi Nick. I tried this with a group of colleagues and in round 1 they both played blue. Thereafter no-one would risk playing red. I guess it possible that I didn’t explain it correctly? But 10 rounds of blue-blue later and we have a record negative score!!
Also they didn’t go for the conference option either – in their words, after round one it was check-mate.
Have you had this happen before?
Any hints for next time?
Good to hear from you Alex. The secret to stopping this happen is done at the start. The two teams need to understand that their main opponent is the police (i.e. you the facilitator). But they also have a sub-opponent which is each other.
You need to be clear with them that their objective is this: “your group is to get the highest positive score”. The key word here is positive. Teams that end with a negative score have automatically lost irrespective of whether they are more or less negative than the other group. Anything negative means that the police has won.
This means they need to work together to beat the police first-and-foremost but that there’s also a way to ‘win big’ if they trick the other team. When both teams trick each other (like yours did in each round) then both teams lose and the police win.
May I have the ppt for the red-blue game
Just enter your email address above Winnie and I’ll send them over to you.
Could you send me a copy of the ppt? I would like to play this game with my college class.
Hi Sabina … you can just download it straight from the page
I completed all information but not received the tools? can you advise, thanks very useful
They should be with you now Lauren … enjoy 🙂
A great help, thank you!
Same download issue. I filled out your form with my e mail and didnt see anything in my inBox. Anyway you could send it over?
Hi Scott. Sorry this isn’t getting through to you. I’ve just resent them to you. If it still hasn’t arrived do you have another email address I could try?
I’ve tried clicking on all the potential links to download the slides, but nothing seems to work. Would you mind sending them to me?
I can’t retrieve the prisoners dilemma information and slides, can you please send them to me via email
Have they come through to you now Gwynn?
Hi Nick. Great website and good activities. I’ve been looking for a group activity to demonstrate the prisoner’s dilemma and I think this could be it. However I do have a couple of questions. Firstly- do you tell the groups before the game what the outcomes are for each scenario? And secondly, do you tell each group their score (and the other group’s score) after each round? I’ve seen one version where you just tell them to play blue or red and they have to gradually work out the payoff in each case but I can see that being tricky. Any advice appreciated and thanks for the great resources.
Not sure what you mean by ‘scenario’ but yes you are open with them about the scores after each round. They need to know their position as it will effect their strategy going into the next round (i.e. if they’re behind the other team then that might change their choice of red or blue).
Hello, the email sending me the slides has unfortunately not worked. Please could you email them to me direct?
Nick — I just used this in five of my college speech classes and it worked like a dream. I always want to end the class by emphasizing that what we learned in speech can help you become a better communicator in life. This worked perfectly. A real WoW moment. During the last group, around Round 3, I emphasized to your their communication skills to solve this real life problem. It was interesting to see how they processed as a result. I can’t wait to explore other products you have.
Hi, Nick. Two questions:
1. Could you please email the slides?
2. Is it possible to play this game where one group is the decision-maker (for example, a hospital board of trustees that is undecided whether to approve a proposal to buy surgical robots) and the other group is the petitioner (the Surgery department/surgeons asking to get these very costly but revolutionary surgical robots)?? In short, these two groups are not playing the same roles and not necessarily aiming for the same outcomes (as the board might be opposed to buying surgical robots and instead go for improving existing laparoscopic apparatus for surgery). If possible to play, how??
Many thanks and regards.
Any replies, Nick? Thanks.
Nick, this is interesting, your comment on the Win as Much as You Can Game.
“This makes it useful to explore how different teams in an organization compete with each other rather than working for the common good.”
I will bet that if you gave these groups names like: IT, Sales, Marketing and Operations, you would get even less collaboration than if you used neutral names.