Game Theory and Drag Queens

→ and how to become Drag Superstar of the World


This is basically a story about how I heard about game theory and then started seeing it everywhere, most notably while watching RuPaul’s drag race.

RuPaul’s Drag Race is the most popular reality show involving drag queens and offers a way for the queens to share their art, but also win a lot of money. To do both of this, the queens have to play smart. This is where game theory enters the stage.

There is probably a name for this effect when you read about something and start seeing it everywhere. This happened to me while watching the second season of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars. Game theory only caught my attention marginally during my first year of studying economics, but it made me instantly excited. It analyzes strategic interaction between human beings; how we should act considering what others do. This is not only an important question for economists but everyone engaging with other people, and as it turns out an eminent question for drag queens on All-Stars 2. For those who have not (yet) been amazed by the show, let me lay out the general concept.

RuPaul’s Drag Race is a reality show in the US, where RuPaul Charles (a VERY famous drag queen) hosts a competition between drag queens, and the winner takes home - apart from the title of “Drag Superstar of the World” - the sum of $100.000. Every episode the queens have to master a challenge as well as a runway, and at the end of each episode, the bottom two queens of the week have to “Lip Sync for their life” against each other and RuPaul himself decides which one has to “sashay away” (=go home). All-Stars is a spin-off of the main show, where the audience’s favorite, funniest or most controversial queens who didn’t win their original season compete for the title of All-Star (and again, money).

Now all this sounds like a pretty basic competition, so why not choose Topmodel or The Voice but drag queens? The answer is that drag queens are not only more fabulous and funnier to watch, but All-Stars 2 added a little twist. Every episode, not the bottom, but the best two queens of the week “Lip Sync for their Legacy” and the weeks’ winner receives $10,000 plus the power to eliminate one of the bottom queens. So, in this case, the candidates eliminate each other. This happens every week, and since all the contestants are pretty awesome, it is quite the challenge to not end up in the bottom two. So, what is the best strategy for a queen to maximize her payoff?

First, we have to determine what that payoff actually is. There are two sides to the story. The monetary side which includes the weekly payoffs of $10,000 plus the big prize of $100,000 for the winner of All-Stars. But there is more to the story than that. The show offers a platform for the queens to not only showcase their talents but to gain new fans for their private shows - their source of income after the TV show has ended. So, a second payoff includes potential future income, which can be secured through means of general likeability. The maximum monetary payoff during the show would be $70,000 for the weekly challenge plus $100,000 for winning the show, which would require the player to win every episode - a highly unlikely outcome. For the queens, it is very important to balance these payoffs; of course, they want to win some money, but probably not at the cost of their fanbase. There isn’t necessarily a trade-off between winning money and being liked, they are probably even related (because winning queens win for a reason). But winning money at all cost - like manipulating the competition and not playing fairly - will lead to disrespect from the fans and fellow queens, which can be the final destination in this game.

In Game Theory we try to look for a dominant strategy. That is - in this case - the best way to compete in the show no matter how the other queens behave. It is difficult to find a dominant strategy for our drag race contestants because the queens might have different preferred outcomes. The most obvious goal is winning the show, but considering the many twists, it’s a bit more complicated. A queen might want to maximize her monetary payoff, which would mean wanting to win as many challenges and possibly also win the show. But what about a queen who - given the fierce competition - doesn’t think she can win the show?

When queens join the show, they observe their competitors and estimate their chances of beating them. Although not all of them do this consciously, they still might have a feeling about their general position amongst the queens; those who placed 2nd or 3rd in their season might figure they will be more successful than others who placed 7th or 8th. The queens who think they have good chances at winning will have different preferences and incentives than those who can only try to get as far as possible. The latter will try to receive recognition and maximize likeability to increase their chances of fame once the TV show has ended, which is somewhat their dominant strategy. Once a queen has recognized she has little to no chances at winning she should try to promote herself rather than eliminate competition. She should follow this strategy no matter what the other queens do.

For example, assume Queen 1 has been in the bottom twice now and hasn’t won any challenges, making her likely to be eliminated soon. This queen should follow the outlined strategy despite what the others might do. If Queen 2 starts playing dirty and manipulating the competition, Queen 1 could do the same - which the fans will see and potentially dislike - or be unbothered and continue to compete fair. This “dominant strategy” is more a strategy of adaptability because different situations will require different actions for a queen to increase their fanbase.

Now, what about our queens with chances of winning? They will do everything to be in the top two of the week as often as possible and avoid being in the bottom at all cost. The latter is of higher importance because in that case, her fate would be in the hands of someone else since the winner of the week gets to decide who goes home. But no one can completely eliminate their chances of being in the bottom two, especially as the competition proceeds and those unlikely to be winning in the first place are already gone. There are two questions to consider:

How should a queen play to avoid being kicked off in case of a bad week (bottom 2)?

How should a queen decide to send someone home in case of a good week (week’s winner)?

These are very difficult questions to answer. First, it is important to recognize that the players (the queens) play multiple rounds in this game (drag race), which might change their behavior if they are smart and look ahead. A one-shot game of drag race would be a single episode, which wouldn’t air (as to not change the audience's opinions about the queens) after which the winner takes home a price. But our game - the lip sync and following elimination - is repeated weekly with the same (minus the one eliminated queen) players but increasing stakes so the actions in the first game will influence later games and once we get closer to the finale a queen might even want to change her behavior.

So, let’s assume a Queen A wins the first episode and gets to decide whether to send home Queen B or Queen C. A considers B to be a somewhat strong competition who just had a bad week and C to deservingly be in the bottom two. Two scenarios might happen:

A eliminates B
→ A will have kicked one fierce competitor off the show, that’s great for her. But if A considered B to be strong competition, other will have made the same calculation and now see directly through A’s strategy. Other strong players might feel at risk of being eliminated if their fate was ever in A’s hands. Now if A finds herself in the bottom two of the week she can be sure to be sent home, and possibly at no repercussions for the queen eliminating her, calling out A on her vicious and unfair elimination of Queen B in the first week. (This actually happened on All-Stars 3, one of the queens bragged the entire first episode about how she will always eliminate the strongest competition. She found herself in the bottom two that week and got eliminated with the explanation of wanting a fair competition in which the weakest of the week gets eliminated.)

2. A eliminates C
→ Now if A has judged C to deservingly be in the bottom two of the week (based on the judges' critiques for example) others will have made the same calculations, considering A’s decision of the week as fair and continuing with this approach.

In the second scenario, the queen is appealing to a sense of fairness, which can be tacit (just assumed but never actually agreed upon) or explicit (outspokenly agreed upon). If there was an explicit definition of fairness - which would probably be some guidelines or rulebook defined by the competing queens -  there’d be no fun in watching the show, because every week we’d know what would happen. Luckily enough for us viewers, even if there was an agreed upon concept of fairness, there’d be no real way of enforcing it. If a queen broke the agreement the only way to punish her would be by eliminating her the next time she’s in the bottom, but by then the system will most likely have already been fallen apart.

In the early stages of the competition, where there is a somewhat clear loser of the week we have two different strategies.
Always eliminating the strongest competition.
→ What I have described in the first scenario above might end up in a vicious circle of continuous elimination of the best queens because no one feels safe (I have only watched the first episode of All-Star 3 so I don’t know if this is what happens after).
2. Appealing to a sense of fairness
→ Eliminating the queen who received the worst reviews of the week and “deserves” to go home (very few queens actually “deserve” to go home because they are all fabulous).

I am not too sure about the first one, but the second is what we call a “Nash equilibrium” - a situation in which none of the players have an incentive to unilaterally change their behavior. Or in drag race terms: as long as all the other queens seem to eliminate the least best candidate of the week you should follow this same strategy. It’s like driving a car; when everybody drives on the left, I should drive on the left as well (although this makes no sense, what’s wrong with you England?).

This beautiful equilibrium (the economists' favorite word) will only hold as long as it’s clear who deserves to go home. But as the competition proceeds, this gets increasingly difficult to determine, because as I have mentioned before, presumably there is no explicit rule book for deciding who should go home. While the tacit assumption of fairness during the first weeks might be to send home the queen who has been in the bottom the most or got the harshest criticisms, opinions will diverge later in the show. Should we send home the queen that got very harsh comments from the judges this week but has been great throughout the competition, or the one who got an only mild objection, but has already been in the bottom before?

At that point, a queen might consider secretly switching to eliminating her personal fiercest competition but hiding her intentions as not to be considered unfair or be disliked by the fans. Close to the goal of winning, all the queens will have already achieved recognition and build a solid fanbase, making the final queens wanting to win even more. The stakes will be higher and competition fiercer, so that behavior and outcome will become even less predictable, leaving queens less room to act and more to react to what happens each week.

During the competition on All-Stars, 2 queens with a fair chance of winning should follow a strategy of fair play as long as one can observe the weakest link of the show. As the competition proceeds, this process gets increasingly harder demanding adaptability to a new situation each week.
I regard it very unlikely that the queens (or anyone else for that matter) overthink this as much as I do, but it’s fun to see how economic theories can be adapted to a world as different as that of drag queens.

To conclude, drag race is awesome and so is game theory.
The end

Side note: The whole concept of All-Stars also offers an incentive for new contestants on the main show to distinguish themselves as a character desirable to come back for another season of All-Stars. That way even if the queen doesn’t end up winning her own show she might get a second chance.



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