The original stag hunt dilemma is as follows: a group of hunters have tracked a large stag, and found it to follow a certain path. If all the hunters work together, they can kill the stag and all eat. If they are discovered, or do not cooperate, the stag will flee, and all will go hungry.
The hunters hide and wait along a path. An hour goes by, with no sign of the stag. Two, three, four hours pass, with no trace. A day passes. The stag may not pass every day, but the hunters are reasonably certain that it will come. However, a hare is seen by all hunters moving along the path.
If a hunter leaps out and kills the hare, he will eat. However, it results in the trap laid for the stag to be wasted, and the others will starve. There is no certainty that the stag will arrive; the hare is present. The dilemma is that if one hunter waits, he risks one of his fellows killing the hare for himself, sacrificing everyone else. This makes the risk twofold; risk the stag never coming, or risk another man taking the kill.
In addition to the example suggested by Rousseau, David Hume provides a series of examples that are stag hunts. One example addresses two individuals who must row a boat. If both choose to row they can successfully move the boat. However if one doesn’t, the other wastes his effort. Hume’s second example involves two neighbors wishing to drain a meadow. If they both work to drain it they will be successful, but if either fails to do his part the meadow will not be drained.
Several animal behaviors have been described as stag hunts. One is the coordination of slime molds. In times of stress, individual unicellular protists will aggregate to form one large body. Here if they all act together they can successfully reproduce, but success depends on the cooperation of many individual protozoa. Another example is the hunting practices of orcas (known as carousel feeding). Orcas cooperatively corral large schools of fish to the surface and stun them by hitting them with their tails. Since this requires that the fish have no way to escape, it requires the cooperation of many orcas.
Author James Cambias describes a solution to the game as the basis for an extraterrestrial civilization in his 2014 science fiction book A Darkling Sea.