Review: Games Prisoners Play

Marek Kaminski’s Games Prisoners Play: The Tragicomic World of Polish Prison is a fascinating work of applied game theory. An underground publisher for Solidarity, Mr. Kaminski was arrested and jailed for five months in the mid-1980s. Turning lemons to lemonade, he used his term of “temporary imprisonment” to study the prisoners’ secret culture, including the elaborate and (to a rookie) bizarre secret codes and customs of the ruling inmate caste or society, the grypsmen.

I decided to make the best of my personal misfortune and use it as a unique opportunity to study this fascinating society-within-society. My goals were clear: I did not want to write nostalgic memoirs or point an accusing finger at the regime that had jailed me. I wanted to conduct an extensive and uncompromising research project, using all of my methodological skills. … Surprisingly, “researching prison” turned out to be an excellent survival strategy. … It helped me to socialize into my new role as an inmate and, at the same time, maintain a healthy distance from it. If you, my reader, are ever unfortunate enough to be jailed, I highly recommend the strategy of “researching prison.”

Mr. Kaminski found that even the most grotesque behavior of inmates was in fact the product of strictly calculated optimization. To explain the choices made by “hyperrational” prisoners (“ardent optimizers”), Mr. Kaminski turned to game theory, and the book includes many examples of interesting games with private information, hidden choices and moves, incorrectly estimated payoffs, and so on.

Games Prisoners Play may not be for the faint of heart – Mr. Kaminski treats every topic with a prisoner’s frankness. But the book is a gem for the economist and game theoretician, while remaining accessible – if not gripping – for the general reader.  Mr. Kaminiski’s dry humor is never far from the surface, as may be seen in this excerpt from the Acknowledgments:

Finally, this research would have been impossible without the collective hard work of thousands of anonymous policemen, prosecutors, and judges who tirelessly jailed and imprisoned thousands of Polish and other Eastern European dissidents during the reign of communism. Their efforts are unlikely ever to get the attention they deserve.

Here’s another review that relates Kaminski’s work to Gary Becker’s 1968 paper, “Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach.” Here is the book’s page at Princeton University Press.


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