What Is a Chicken Game in Game Theory?


Vincent White

Game theory is a fascinating subject that deals with the study of strategic decision-making in situations where two or more individuals are involved. One of the most famous examples of game theory is the “chicken game,” which involves two drivers driving towards each other on a collision course. In this article, we will explore what exactly a chicken game is and how it applies to game theory.

What Is a Chicken Game?

A chicken game is a situation in which two individuals engage in a risky behavior with the aim of proving their bravery or commitment to a particular course of action. The term “chicken” comes from the idea that both parties are trying to avoid being seen as weak or cowardly, much like two roosters fighting over dominance.

In the classic version of the chicken game, two drivers race towards each other at high speed. The first driver to swerve or otherwise avoid the collision is seen as “chickening out” and loses face. However, if neither driver swerves and they collide head-on, both drivers suffer serious injury or even death.

How Does It Apply to Game Theory?

The chicken game is a classic example of what game theorists call a “non-zero-sum” game. In other words, both players have something to gain by playing aggressively and something to lose by backing down. In contrast, in a zero-sum game, one player’s gain comes at the expense of another player’s loss.

Game theorists use mathematical models to study these types of games and determine how rational actors will behave in different scenarios. They consider factors such as each player’s goals, assumptions about their opponent’s goals and strategies, and information available to each player about their opponent’s actions.

The Nash Equilibrium

One key concept in game theory is the Nash equilibrium, named after Nobel Prize-winning economist John Nash. This refers to a situation in which each player’s strategy is optimal given the other player’s strategy. In other words, neither player can improve their outcome by changing their strategy unilaterally.

In the case of the chicken game, there are two Nash equilibria: both players swerve, or both players continue driving towards each other. However, the latter results in a much worse outcome for both players than the former. This is known as a “dominant strategy,” meaning that it is always optimal regardless of what the other player does.

Real-World Applications

While the classic version of the chicken game involves two drivers racing towards each other, there are many real-world examples of this type of situation. For example, countries engaged in an arms race may be seen as playing a chicken game, with each side trying to show their military strength without actually engaging in warfare.

Similarly, negotiations between two companies or political leaders may involve elements of a chicken game. Each party wants to gain concessions from the other without appearing weak or giving up too much ground.


The chicken game is a classic example of how game theory can be used to analyze strategic decision-making in real-world situations. By considering factors such as each player’s goals and information available to them, game theorists can predict how rational actors will behave and identify potential outcomes.

Whether you’re interested in economics, politics, or simply enjoy thinking about strategic decision-making, understanding the chicken game and its applications can provide valuable insights into human behavior and decision-making processes.