You have obviously heard of the "Game Theory" , a branch of Applied Mathematics, applied in numerous streams like economics, biology, engineering, political science, computer science..endless....Game Theory tries to, mathematically, discuss dynamics of strategic situations where " an individual's success in making choices depends on the choices of others." In this article we would deal with a classic example of this theory observed in human behavior in the unforgettable ferry scene from The Dark Knight.
If you have seen the movie (which we are assuming every human being has) then you are probably aware of the ferry situation. Let us recollect-
The scene formally starts with Joker's second TV appearance where he forces kidnapped GCN reporter Mike Engle to read out his plans. He announces that Gotham City is owned by Joker starting that evening itself. Anyone who was not going to be a part of it should leave. Later two ferries are leaving Gotham; one that was filled with dreadful criminals which Dent and Gordon arrested and the other was filled with the innocent people of the city. The social experiment that Joker has employed upon them is that he has informed the people on the ferries that both ferries are filled with explosives and both have a detonator on them. The detonator in Boat A would detonate the bomb in Boat B and vice versa. And if either boat fails to play by the Joker’s rules, by midnight the Joker would do it himself.
Believing it to be one of the classiest examples of Game Theory to come up in a screenplay (another would be the opening scene of this movie; the bank scene and the incentive of least number of divisions and maximum shares, aah don't get us started, Nolan rocks!), it reminds us of a problem called the Prisoner's dilemma . In the words of Wikipedia it is as follows-
Two suspects are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated the prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal. If one testifies for the prosecution against the other (defects) and the other remains silent (cooperates), the defector goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation. How should the prisoners act?
The "Ferry Fix" as we call it, is a variation of Prisoner’s Dilemma (PD). In the PD, for an external observer, aware of the entire scenario, the most viable solution would be a Pareto-suboptimal solution, i.e. both prisoners should chose cooperate so as to reach an equilibrium such that both get a viable output (six months in), but may not be the best individual output. Statistically it has been shown that even though cooperating would be the best option, in maximum cases a 'defect' is chosen. That is what the police exploit!
The situation in the ferry is slightly more complex. Apart from the basic elements of the PD, there also exists one small yet highly relevant difference between the two boats. In the PD, both are "prisoners" and a moral equilibrium is easier to decide as both are considered to be equally con in an ideal case. But in the Ferry Fix, one boat is filled with dreadful prisoners and the other with innocent people. Here, the prisoners would be mentally more prepared to "kill" than the innocent people and also the innocent people would feel they are more deserving than criminals to live and that might trigger them to push the detonator first. So you will appreciate that this is a much more complex adaptation of the Game Theory. Some people have chosen to believe the detonator on the boat will make the bomb in the same boat to go off! This would be the Joker’s punishment for the ‘defection’. But it can never be ascertained!
We also believe that Nolan has much more to say in this scene rather than just adapting a fantastic mathematical idea for creating fantastic cinematic suspense. That "much more" we think is the concept of terrorism and the ideal reply to it.
Terrorism is a delicate issue and a complex concept too. Though a terrorist may become so, due to some personal or communal motive, terrorism as a whole is a motiveless practice. Think about it. Nolan has captured this immaculately in the character of Heath Ledger's Joker. As Nolan puts it, "To me, the Joker is an absolute. There are no shades of gray to him – maybe shades of purple. He's unbelievably dark." Joker's unbelievable darkness, is the darkness of terrorism. This darkness is is a different shade of darkness from a masked vigilante called Batman (The Dark Knight). But through the "dark" attribute in both the characters, Nolan has smartly touched the issue of vigilante terrorism. This he has also incorporated in Harvey Dent's unforgettable quote, "You either die hero, or live long enough to see yourself turn the villain"
And that is why Nolan has given so much importance to Harvey Dent's character and that Joker's partial triumph lay in corrupting Dent, Gotham's White Knight. Terrorism's true victory comes when it corrupts someone incorruptible and uses the otherwise public and unmasked heroes (non-vigilantes) to serve their purpose of spreading terror.
Like Rizwan Khan from MNIK, Nolan's Joker is not a terrorist :P...but..in fact he is the face of terrorism itself!!
The social experiment Joker did on the ferry is probably the same as the one we in our society face. By infusing a gradient or a difference between the two ferries, Nolan has opened this up for an analogy to the communal aspect of the society.
The Bombay Blasts of 1993 were unfortunate, but more unfortunate were its consequences. The blasts(and the felling down of the Babri masjid) induced a gradient in the society, giving birth to hatred amongst two major communities of India. They were pushed into a situation where they started hating and destroying each other. They served the purpose of the terrorists themselves. Both communities chose to "defect" and not "cooperate". The situation was as if both the ferries chose to blow each other up.
Joker's defeat lies in the fact that the ferries did not blow each other. They chose morality over survival. They chose humanity above anything else. They had the strongest incentive to defect, but they chose to cooperate and they defeated the purpose of Joker's social experiment. Through this, Nolan tells us that hatred pampers terrorism and love, unity, morality and most importantly humanity in the time of crisis, kills and defeats terrorism. To any act of terrorism, let us not raise fingers (and swords) at each other and fight amongst ourselves, let us fight the terror itself. Non conformity will come with a punishment. And yes you need a savior to reward you. But people of Gotham chose the guiltless path knowing not that Batman will save them. This thing called humanity is bigger than the most basic of the human instincts that of survival.