Models of cooperation based on the Prisoner's Dilemma and the Snowdrift game


  • Michael Doebeli,

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Zoology and Department of Mathematics, University of British Columbia, 6270 University Boulevard, Vancouver, BC, Canada
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  • Christoph Hauert

    1. Program for Evolutionary Dynamics, Harvard University, One Brattle Square, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA
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Understanding the mechanisms that can lead to the evolution of cooperation through natural selection is a core problem in biology. Among the various attempts at constructing a theory of cooperation, game theory has played a central role. Here, we review models of cooperation that are based on two simple games: the Prisoner's Dilemma, and the Snowdrift game. Both games are two-person games with two strategies, to cooperate and to defect, and both games are social dilemmas. In social dilemmas, cooperation is prone to exploitation by defectors, and the average payoff in populations at evolutionary equilibrium is lower than it would be in populations consisting of only cooperators. The difference between the games is that cooperation is not maintained in the Prisoner's Dilemma, but persists in the Snowdrift game at an intermediate frequency. As a consequence, insights gained from studying extensions of the two games differ substantially. We review the most salient results obtained from extensions such as iteration, spatial structure, continuously variable cooperative investments, and multi-person interactions. Bridging the gap between theoretical and empirical research is one of the main challenges for future studies of cooperation, and we conclude by pointing out a number of promising natural systems in which the theory can be tested experimentally.