Prisoner’s Dilemma (aka Reds & Blues)

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.

You can download a FREE Powerpoint or PDF of this tool at the bottom of this page

Objectives

  • To achieve more co-operative behaviour between team members who are pursuing shared goals.

What is it?

  • Prisoner’s Dilemma is a game which demonstrates whether people display win-win (co-operative) or win-lose orientation (selfish competitive) in a situation which offers the possibility of both.
  • It contrasts their actual behavior with their expressed intentions, i.e. do people who say they support a win-win approach actually carry it out when the chips are down?
  • If they do, the implication is that they will be equally concerned that the other party’s needs are also met in any agreement.

Why is it useful?

Often we’re more concerned with winning more than with achieving the optimum result. This activity:

  • Explores the issues of risk and trust between team members and the effects of trust betrayal.
  • Demonstrates the effects of competition between teams.
  • Demonstrates the potential advantages of a collaborative approach to solving problems.
  • Demonstrates the necessity of establishing the purpose of any activity.

Resources Required

  • Approximately 1 hour is required.
  • Maximum of 16 willing people (8 on each team).
  • If you have more than 16 in the room consider breaking them into four groups and running two rounds where two groups are playing and two are observing in each.
  • Enough open space for the two teams to meet separately without interrupting or disrupting each other.
  • In the center of the room place two chairs facing each other for team representatives.

Game Setup

  1. Setup the room as described on the ‘Resources Required’ section above.
  2. The 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.
  3. The Prisoner’s Dilemma is that they may confess when they should not and that they may fail to confess when they really should.
  4. Two 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.
  5. The 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

Objective: To get the highest possible score for your team

  1. There are two teams – A and B – who will play 10 rounds of competition
  2. You will choose to play either Red or Blue
  3. You will be scored as per the Score Table
  4. The first 8 rounds are a maximum of 3 minutes each
  5. You 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).
  6. You can have another conference (for a maximum of 3 minutes) after the eighth round, if both groups choose this.
  7. The ninth and tenth rounds score double and you will have 5 minutes in each round to make your decision.
    • If both groups play Blue, each scores ‘-6’
    • If one group plays Blue, the other Red then Red = -12 and Blue = +12
    • If both play Red, each scores ‘+6’
Team Building Ideas - Prisoners Dilemma Scoring System

Process

There are five stages:

  1. Four 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).
  2. A pause where there is the possibility of talking to the other side if both sides want this.
  3. Four more independent rounds.
  4. Another pause with the possibility of interaction.
  5. Two 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.

How does this relate to prison (from the original dilemma)?

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:

  • If both deny then the police don’t have anything to go on to send either team to prison. That means they get off and benefit so get +3 each (so both red).
  • If both confess (blue) then the police have got them but they get lesser sentences for being honest (-3 each).
  • If one confesses (blue) but the other denies (red) then the confessor gets rewarded for their presumed testimony against the other team in court (+6) and the denier goes to prison for a long time for not owning up (-6).

Facilitator Score Card

Team Building Ideas - Prisoners Dilemma Facilitation Score Card

You can download either a PDF or and Powerpoint of this scorecard for free at the bottom of the page.

Plenary Review

  1. The whole group meets to process the experience. 
  2. The 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). 
  3. The 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:
    • Did your attitude to the game change between wanting to win and wanting to collaborate at any point? If yes, when and why?
    • Was there a difference in your approach between the first 4 rounds, second 4 rounds and the final 2 (when there were double points on offer)?
    • How did the conferences play out?
    • What did you learn about yourself, your team members and the opposing team?
    • When is having total focusing on winning OK and when is it not? What problems does wanting to win cause?
    • How did it feel to win (to the team who won)?
    • How did it feel to lose (to the team who lost)?
    • If you did the activity again right now what would you do differently?

Secret Sauce

  • It’s essential you highlight that for a team to have a chance of winning they need to end on a positive score. Anything negative loses by default. This stops both teams playing Blues in each round.
  • If the teams start playing Reds each round then remind them their objective is to beat the other team and by playing Reds each time means they will only draw. That should get a Blue thrown in fairly quickly.
  • Carefully avoid discussing the plenary questions until the end.
  • The procedure is somewhat complicated so it helps to tell Participants that it’s the Facilitator’s expectation that Participants will not fully understand the process until they’ve played a couple of rounds.
  • Money can be collected from teams and used as a prize to heighten competitiveness, in which case the following addendum is made to the announcement of the objective: “The group with the higher positive score gets the money”.
  • It’s very important to do the Plenary Review to ensure the group profits on the learnings.
  • The conferences produce some incredibly interesting learning points so try and push the teams towards having them.

Free Download Files

About the Author

Nick Martin has more than 15 years experience as a change manager and is the founder and CEO of WorkshopBank.

Leave a Reply 56 comments

john mills Reply

what else do you have?

Jena Perkins Reply

Nick,

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!

    Nick Martin Reply

    Hiya Jena

    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?

    Nick Martin Reply

    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 🙂

Jarlath Duffy Reply

Hi Nick

I just couldn’t download the powerpoint – spent a lot of time trying. Can you please email me it? Thanks and great work.

Jarlath

    Nick Martin Reply

    Works OK for me Jarlath … never trust technology though so can you tell me what happens when you click the PPT icon above?

john Reply

Hi Nick,
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!
John

Chamara Reply

Hi Nick,

Great game. Exactly what I was looking for. Just wanted to Thank You for posting this.
Keep up the good work.

Cheers,
Chamara

Julie Reply

Thanks NicK!

Great exercise!

James Shelford | Pareto Law Assessment Day Guide Reply

[…] 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 […]

Boosta teamet med övningar från WorkshopBank.com | Agil HR Reply

[…] Min favorit? Prisoner’s Dilemma (som du kan läsa mer om och ladda ner Powerpoint-material till här). […]

Rodanthe Lengle Reply

Hi Nick,
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?
In Gratitude,
Ronnie

    Nick Martin Reply

    Absolutely Ronnie … this will work perfectly.

    Prashant Reply

    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.

Michael Reply

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?

Thanks

Michael

    Nick Martin Reply

    Hi Michael … everything seems to be working OK when I try it … what happens when you click on the PPT icon above?

dr j Reply

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!

GP Reply

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?

Matt Weis Reply

Ditto on the download problem after posting to facebook. Please send. Thanks!

    Nick Martin Reply

    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

Dave Harper Reply

Brilliant resources, many thanks.

Pete Reply

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.
Thank you.

Lynn Reply

Hi,
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,
Lynn

padmavothi Reply

Hi Nick

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

Thanks
Padma

liz Reply

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

    Nick Martin Reply

    Hi Liz … good to speak to you over email and glad the download works now … let us know how it goes!

Vishal Reply

Hi Nick,

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?

    Nick Martin Reply

    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?

Usama Reply

Hi Nick,
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…

    Nick Martin Reply

    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.

anna Reply

HI Nick,
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

    Nick Martin Reply

    Did you work this out Anna? Try different browsers or your home internet network to see if that works.

Miche Reply

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 ?
M

    Nick Martin Reply

    Thanks for the downloading tip Miche. I certainly think it could work with a group that size. Let me know how it goes.

Steve Reply

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!

Rachel Reply

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!

    Nick Martin Reply

    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.

Mark Carey Reply

Hi there,
I cant seem to download the dosc either, anychance you could email them to me ? . Many thanks

    Nick Martin Reply

    Hi Mark … the download problems you were experiencing should be fixed now … please try again and sorry for the inconvenience.

Alex Reply

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?

Cheers Alex

    Nick Martin Reply

    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.

    Make sense?

winnie Reply

May I have the ppt for the red-blue game

Sabina Reply

Could you send me a copy of the ppt? I would like to play this game with my college class.
Thanks!

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