Ian McEwan is one of my favorite novelists, and when I picked up a copy of his Enduring Love in Heathrow on a recent transatlantic flight, I thought at first it was a new book. It turns out that it was published in 1997, with a film version in 2004. It is a beautiful book. I don't know if McEwan knows much about or is into game theory, but the book's first chapter is as vivid and enthralling a description of multi-player positive-sum games as you will ever encounter.
The setting is a picnic which the author and his girlfriend are about to enjoy, when the two of them witness a freak accident. It is a windy day and a hot-air balloon has gone out of control. The pilot has lost his footing and is being dragged along by the moving balloon, which contains a 10-year old boy in its basket. The author and four other bystanders are nearby, and they all run towards the balloon to help stabilize the balloon and save the child. The trouble is that by this time the balloon has moved close to the edge of a slope. If they cannot bring the balloon to ground, it will be all that difficult to hold on to it.
Ian McEwan describes with great precision a sequence of two games. The first is a coordination game. When the five strangers reach the balloon, which is edging dangerously towards the slope, they need to quickly decide what to do. They can try to reach inside the balloon to get the child out. They can try to pull the balloon down and anchor it. They can push it away from the slope. But in the panic of the moment, there is no time to settle on any one of the strategies and confusion reigns. The pilot is screaming instructions, but no-one can make out what he is saying. "There may have been a vague commonality of purpose, but we were never a team... No one was in charge -- or everyone was... Any leader, any firm plan would have been preferable to none" McEwan's character recalls.
Before the group is able to bring the balloon firmly to ground and fetch the child out, (mother) nature makes its move. A sudden gust of wind lifts the balloon up in the air and knocks down one of the rescuers (the heaviest among them). Now there is four of them hanging on to the ropes of the balloon, which is a few feet up in the air and moving in the direction of the slope. If they all hold on, there is a good chance they will be able to bring the balloon down when the wind subsides. But each of the strangers realizes that the ground beneath them is receding the longer they hang on to the rope. "Every fraction of a second that passed increased the drop, and the point must come when to let go would be impossible of fatal.... I didn't know, nor have I ever discovered, who let go first. I'm not prepared to accept that it was me." It is a classic prisoner's dilemma. Except that one of the rescuers does hang on. Without the weight of the others, the balloon keeps rising, and the man eventually has to release his grip and falls to his death.
You have to read the book (or at least the first chapter) to fully appreciate McEwan's masterful portrayal of the strategic and ethical issues raised by these coordination and prisoner's dilemma games. The film version compresses the sequence of events, so does not do full justice to it (when did a movie ever do justice to a good book?). You can watch a clip of the balloon sequence at YouTube (unless that is you are in Turkey, where you cannot access YouTube (unless that is you have an iPhone and a wireless connection)). Search under "Amor perdurable."
PS. Gametheory.net has a description of the prisoner's dilemma scene, but not of the coordination game.