Sure games are fun.Yet the play that's built into them does not make them
false;it makes them psychologically truer than everyday
life.Games can solve major crises,train
war heroes,and civilize us all.What the world needs is not less time
for playing games but more.
ONE MORNING in the late 1980s, Richard Duke received a phone
call he would later characterize as "somewhat amazing." The call came from
the office of the Secretary of Defense, at the behest of the man who had
just been appointed Secretary General Colin Powell was apparently finding
himself stymied in his efforts to reorganize his new and notoriously complex
department, in particular the coordination of the three service branch
bureaucracies. Being an "old war-simulation guy
himself" he'd directed his staff to contact Duke, professor of urban
and regional planning at the University of Michigan, to help solve the problem.
Duke knew exactly what the crisis
At about the same time, coincidentally I was spending my Wednesday nights
sitting on a couch in a psychiatrist's office, trying, not to exorcise my
demons, but to devise a board game based on the universe of therapy itself.
I ended up on the couch because I was the only non- shrink in the room. At
the time, our thinking was fairly linear: how to take certain hallmarks of
the therapeutic process and reduce them to a game that would be entertaining
What we encountered, though, once our game-called Therapy as it
happens-was finished, were two remarkable things, both of which Colin Powell
and Richard Duke might have told us. First, of all the professions, psychiatrists
and psychologists tended to do worst at the game; secondly the synthetic
process worked even better in reverse. Playing the game expanded people's
grasp of human nature in general and their particular group's dynamics. But
even more, watching people play revealed a depth of information about them,
and about the world at large, that you would ordinarily expect only from
months of official therapy The more we became immersed in the world of games,
the more we realized that games weren't simply revealing and therapeutic
by nature; they were terrific tools for informing people about themselves,
for getting them back in touch with the world of pure play and even for
civilizing them. The idea was remarkable: 25 bucks and a Monopoly
game might tell people as much about their own emotional truths as 25 hours
on the couch, or 25 volumes of Shakespeare.
The Nice Guys Finish How?
So accurate and prevalent a research tool has the
Prisoner's Dilemma become, that Robert Axelrod,
Ph.D., calls the game the "E. coli of social psychology. It has been used
to study everything from the effects of Westernization in Central Africa
to the levels of aggression in career women.
Played as originally conceived in 1950 as a one-shot affair, the Prisoner's
Dilemma's optimal strategy seems cynically simple: rat your buddy out. Defecting,
that is, appears to provide the highest percentage in oneshot play, regardless
of what the other player does.
The only problem is, the other player's no fool and will logically come up
with the same strategy: to defect as well. The result: a three year sentence
for both, instead of the one year you'd both receive if you'd cooperated.
But what happens if you had to play the game over again? Axelrod, professor
of political science and public policy at the University of Michigan and
author of The Evolution of Cooperation, invited professional game
theorists to submit strategies to a Prisoner's
Dilemma computer tournament. Each entry played every other entry, itself,
and RANDOM, a program that randomly cooperated
and defected with equal probability."
The winning entry was submitted by Professor Anatol Rapoport, Ph.D., of the
University of Toronto. It was one of the simplest and most famous: tit for
tat. A player cooperates on his first move and, on all subsequent moves,
simply mirrors his partner's previous move.
Cooperation by the partner ends up being rewarded and defection punished,
while redemption (a change of heart on the next move) is always possible.
In addition to tit for tat's victory, nice strategies in general- never being
the first to defect- took the top eight spots in Axelrod's tournament.
Maybe Leo Durocher (who declared that "nice guys finish last") was wrong
'JUST' A GAME
In fact, the phrase "just a game" is a masterpiece of cognitive dissonance.
Games are anything but "just" anything. They cover the gamut of human endeavor
and come in every package and medium you can imagine. Last year in the United
States alone, 126 million board-style games were sold for $1.14 billion;
video and computer games accounted for another $5 billion. It is impossible
to calculate how much people benefit from games:
Games are primers on turn-taking, the basis of all relationships.
They can solve major crises in industry and teach people not
to pilfer pencils from the company storeroom; in fact, companies spend hundreds
of millions of dollars a year on them for that.
They can be training grounds for legendary generals and make
the difference between winning and losing wars.
Finally and most important, games can reopen doors into the
world of pretending and childhood, reminding us of unadulterated fun, sparking
We realized that games aren't simply revealing and therapeutic
by nature; they're terrific for informing people about themselves.
Psychologically speaking, games have a knack for setting us
People have been playing games at least since recorded history The earliest
form of games involved a combination of entertainment via gambling (the words
"game" and "gambling" share the same Anglo-Saxon root) and practical divination;
primitive games were the ancient equivalent of the TV phone-in psychic show.
In Assyria in the 12th century B.C., the knuckle bones of animals were the
forerunners of dice used for wagering money as well
as allocating inheritances and-a possible pointer for modern times-the election
of public officials. An Etruscan vase from the same period shows Ajax and
Achilles playing a board game during the Trojan War, both for recreation
and to divine the whims of the gods. Even the precursor of
chess, a Mesopotamian game called "shah" (meaning
"king"), was employed to forecast how the reigning monarch would do in
THE GOOD STRESS
From the beginning, games were indispensable for revealing secrets. What
separates early games from the modern pantheon of games we love to play (and
lose the pieces to) is the direction of revelation. Ancient games tried to
plumb the secrets of the world outside; modern games can be eerie at disclosing
the mysteries within.
If there's a deep template for language in our brains, there seems to be
one for games, too. Where does this come from? And why do we show parts of
ourselves playing. Sorry we'd be sorry for revealing in any other activity?
Every game is a social world unto itself. What every great game does is take
the bad stress of socializing out of the social situation, while leaving
the good stress, the frisson of competition, in. Games do this by providing
stress-reduced settings for socializing-we usually play with friendly people,
at a time of day when there's less outside pressure that might be inhibiting-and
by imposing a structure or protocol on the interaction to take place, a structure
that removes the often-paralyzing onus of social improvisation from the
According to Bob Moog, owner and president of
University Games in California, the value of protocol can't be overemphasized.
"No matter how ritualized they are," he says, "most other social situations
we get into -dates, job interviews -lack a specific structure and are much
more anxiety-ridden than a properly designed game. Games have rules and
structure, which make things safe." Moog believes that the lack of eye contact
during play with attention focused on the board instead, lets players say
things they ordinarily wouldn't.
These are critical concepts. Imagine you're sitting down to play
Monopoly. What you have in front of you is a circumscribed universe,
Atlantic City and a set of rules, simplified real-estate capitalism,
that will govern your behavior for the next few hours. You've just rolled
a 6 from Community Chest and landed on Boardwalk, which no one owns. Boardwalk
costs $400; you have $500. You have only two options. to buy or not to buy
Your action will be determined by strategy and personality.
Now imagine that you're on a first date. If you were at dinner and trying
to interact - either trying to give your date an idea of who you are or
disguising who you are-your social option list (what to say how to gesture)
would be virtually infinite. You'd have to come up with the choice
Games are potentially dangerous; they're touched
by the mysterious power of that which is usually the province of childhood.
They're about pretending.
WHO ARE YOU?
But sitting at the game board, with $500 and Boardwalk (as opposed to your
date) staring you in the face, you can decide to buy or abstain without social
anxiety and coincidentally demonstrate how
risk-taking you are without saying so directly,
a revelation (wanted or not) that might take 10 dinner dates. The game forces
you to make a choice, but the choice, as psychologists say is"stigma- negative"
and "insight-positive." "Games are incredibly projective," says David Gamer,
Ph.D., an Ohio psychologist and game inventor. "They allow people to present
elements of personality that reveal who they really are."
Stress-balancing is an important component of game play and the Games make
competitiveness socially acceptable; people become aggressive even before
play starts. balance is nothing if not delicate. A game that's anxiety-free
will present no challenge; one that's too stressful won't be played a second
time. Thus the short life of A Question of Scruples in Britain.
A smash hit in North America, Scruples was an ethical-judgment game
in which players evaluate each other's moral qualities. Riding its American
success and an ad campaign, Scruples sold half a million copies in
Britain its first season. Soon, complaints started rolling in about the
discomfort, even domestic discord, it was causing. What had been titillating
on one side of the Atlantic was offensive on the other.
Within two years, the game retreated to the other side of the Atlantic, where
we were learning similar lessons developing Therapy. In comparing
reactions to ethical questions like "Which player would be most likely to
sneak into a movie theater without paying," and off-beat lifestyle queries
like "Which player would most likely enjoy spending the night in a coffin?"
we found a marked preference for the latter. Even in a game, revealing you're
perverse is one thing; admitting you're crooked is another.
PLAYING A ROLE
"All the world's a game," Jaques might have noted in Shakespeare's As
You Like It, if there had been a Toys 'R' Us in the Forest of
Arden, "and all the people merely players in it." The only caveat would be
the "merely": role- playing in games does not reduce the psychological reality
or "truth" of the game-play-it enhances it. The key is a game's ability to
find the perfect balance between the fanciful and the real. In everyday
interaction, we spend a large part of our time either trying to fill a role
other people expect or want us to fill, or avoiding that role. But a game
removes this type-casting stress by telling us exactly what our role is.
It gives us an arbitrary alter-ego into which we can escape for an hour and
a half. We're not John or Jane Doe trying to balance career-family-mortgage,
we're Colonel Mustard in the drawing room with a revolver. And we can act
accordingly -which means, paradoxically that we can act more like
For many players, this means they can give themselves license to be unabashedly
competitive. It's hard to believe that Western society might not provide
ample outlets for the release of aggressive impulses, but watching a group
of adults play Trivial Pursuit after office hours is enough to quell
In the evolutionary sense, it's not a stretch to regard games as collections
of dramatic roles meant to safely channel potentially deadly primitive instincts.
In other words, if we hadn't invented games, natural
selection might have. Studies have shown that people become visibly
competitive in game situations even before play starts. Who doesn't remember
squabbles for the milk bottle in Monopoly? And who hasn't seen a timid
acquaintance turn into Attila the Hun at the gameboard? Which is the real
person? In one survey following testing of Therapy 90% of the players
said the way they played the game was closer to their "inner person" than
the persona they presented in everyday life.
Of course, a yen to rule the world isn't the only tendency people satisfy
by role-playing in games. In the early '90s, a new wave of games appeared,
with a mirror-image dynamic to the winner-takes-all
model. These were cooperative games, usually team- oriented, with built-in
win-win paradigms but without politically correct sterility. In
Familyarity one of the most ingenious, one family member takes on
the role of another during each turn. The other players then have to figure
out who the first player is pretending to be. An eight- year-old boy might
end up, secretly 'with his mother's identity and the following situation-card,
which he reads aloud: The family decides to have a silent meal during which
we can use only sign language. I last:
a. 5 seconds
b. 5 minutes
c. 5 hours (I don't want it to end)
The eight-year-old then chooses the option he thinks his mother would choose,
and the others have to figure out who he "is." Critically the idea isn't
to deceive but to reveal; other players are rewarded for correct guesses,
as is the role-player; it's the player who cooperates most insightfully who
displays the most empathy who wins. Role-playing in co- operative games is
doubly revealing: players find out how others see them, and everyone finds
out who knows everyone best. (Trials show kids know best; parents, especially
fathers, worst). Maybe the most intriguing and revealing role-playing game
ever devised, though, one that incorporates both competition and cooperation
as well as razor-edge strategy harks not from your local mall but from the
annals of classical
It is the brainchild of Hungarian mathematician
John Von Neumann, who in 1944 wrote
a seminal book, The Theory of Games and Economic Behavior.
Because they are played on a vertical screen, the sightlines
of video games make them onanistic. By contrast, board games function much
as tribal fires did in prehistoric times.
GAMES PLAY YOU
For Von Neumann, behavior was the key Game theorists believe they can predict
the behavior of people in any "rationally constructed game-situation" provided
the situation has a set of "rules" and a "payoff." One outcome: the Prisoner's
As anyone who's taken Philosophy 101 may remember,
Prisoner's Dilemma is played by two people taking the roles of two prisoners
who have been put in separate interrogation rooms and asked to confess to
a crime they've committed together. Their fates depend not just on what they
say in private but what their accomplice says. If both prisoners hold out
(cooperate with their accomplice), both get a light jail term, say a year;
if both confess (defect or fail to cooperate), they both get three years,
if one holds out and one confesses, the holdout (or co-operator) gets "the
sucker's payoff (five years) and the defector goes free.
The strategy behind the Prisoner's Dilemma can
be fascinating ; the instant character studies it provides are even more
so. As much as your decisions 'will be governed by logic, they'll be determined
by how much you like other people, how much you trust others, and how much
you know others, particularly the person in the next "interrogation room."
For its ratio of time to revelation, the Prisoner's Dilemma might be the
most powerful psychological probe ever invented.
Try this little
experiment yourself. Select the person you think you know better than
anyone in the world and play Prisoner's Dilemma together. Use a three-minute
time limit. See how much you know them after all.
In early 1979, a widely anticipated new product was unveiled at the New York
Toy Fair: the Atari 2600, the first video game system. Intellivision and
Colecovision followed, then Nintendo and Sega. The deluge was on.
But it didn't quite work out as predicted. Just as it was assumed that TV
would spell the end of radio, so it was suspected that video games would
kill off board games. But board games have proved even more resilient than
radio; 20 years after video, an equal number of traditional and electronic
games (125 million each) are sold yearly in the U.S.
How did traditional games survive? One factor is the same piece of human
psychology that figured in the survival of radio-imagination. Both board
games and radio are creative by nature; they show less rather than more and
require that listeners and players build the scene themselves.
| It's billed
as the only game for women. But it's fun too,when guys join in . So choose
your steed and survey the landscape of life as Cowgirls Ride the Trail of
Its gorgeous board is a map of the old Soutwest dotted with such landmarks
as the Pregnancy Pass,Career Move Hill,Emotion Ocean, Menopause Mountain.
Players gather at the roundup to begin their journey to Paradise Ranch.
Along the way,they pick up some history, learn about themselves and each
other,and share their stories as they meet real cowgirls who settled
the West, pictured on the cards drawn with each roll of the die.
"I chose to make the theme cowgirls, because I wanted a game about
all the ways women are strong,independent and
adventurous,"says Prasuti Kirk, the game's inventor. And conversation
is at its heart, as players answer questions about feelings and memories,hopes
and ambition - and ,yes, sex.
|SAMPLE CATEGORIES AND
SEX AND BODY : What is the most unusual place where I've
Would I want my friend to tell me if my partner had made a pass at
HISTORY AND EXPERIENCE : If I were to receive and award,who
would I thank?
FAMILY AND FRIENDS : Can I share both my positive and negative
feelings with my partner?
SPIRIT: If I woke one morning and found myself a man,what are the
first three things I would do?
SHADOW : The biggest mistake I ever made was...?
TASTE : Do I throw away old photos of myself if they're not
"It's rollicking good fun," adds Kirk. "It's verbal. It's enlightening,and
it's competitive in a friendly way. You can win without beating your
opponents. Show me a man who can do that.
More important even than imagination in distinguishing traditional from video
games and in accounting for their superior social and psychological depth
is interaction. Because they're played on a vertical screen easily seen from
only one direction, video games are best played alone. Their sightlines make
them onanistic; playing Mario Brothers, you might interact with Mario but
not anyone real.
By contrast, traditional games, played over a horizontal board that acts
as the hub of attention the way tribal fires did in prehistoric times, don't
simply promote interaction, they require it. "I have a possibly unique view
of games," says Richard Duke, who, also heads the graduate program in gaming
and simulation at Michigan. "I believe they're primarily extremely powerful
tools for communication. In many situations in the world we live in,
communication tends to be disconnected. If I'm talking to you, you're generally
waiting for a chance to talk, usually about something else; actual listening
is a bonus. This is not exactly productive communication. But a well-designed
game not only facilitates listening but demands it."
For Ron Weingartner, head of development at Hasbro games, the imposition
of "civilized communication behavior" in games is exemplified by the idea
of taking turns. "Probably nothing a child learns in life is more important
than the need, and the skill, of waiting for your turn. Games are perfect
teachers of the skill, because if people don't take turns, games don't work."
Neither do relationships. Nor democracy.
Listening and waiting not only make games pleasant, Richard Duke points out,
they grant us access to a game's "schematic," its inner map (sometimes the
board itself), which always provides us with a context larger than ourselves.
Four people traveling by car from New York to L.A. might be able to get there
without a map, but the map focuses options and reduces informational static.
"I've had clients working on a $300,000 gaming project," Duke says, "who
tell me that just presenting the schematic is worth the price of the project."
FOR CEOs ONLY
"Client" is the operative word. Besides his academic duties, Duke is an editor
of the journal Simulation & Gaming, a founder of the International Simulation
and Gaming Association (ISAGA), and author of Gaming, a Future
Language. For the past 25 years, he and others have been designing a
brand of game you won't find in any store but that nevertheless has become
a huge industry: policy games, tailor-made training or problem-solving
simulations commissioned by corporations or governments. They are usually
aimed at resolving problems that have stymied CEOs or cabinet ministers.
Simulation gaming is hot. Nine nations have groups like ISAGA with at least
200 consultants doing what Richard Duke does. Last fall Duke ran a game called
Slogan for 1600 employees of an international consulting firm underneath
the Louvre in Paris, for a fee of $32,000. Of the $20 billion spent yearly
by European industry on training, $200 million is probably spent on games.
An exercise like the one Colin Powell requested usually takes three months
to design; Duke devised his in three weeks and administered it over four
days. The first three days, the three military branches were kept to their
separate universes. On Day One, 25 to 30 top-ranking Army officers filed
into a large hall and sat in groups of three at separate tables. Each table
was then assigned a single composite identity: General Jones, say in charge
A sound and light show introduced a critical, extreme event drawn from the
day's geopolitics. Today Richard Duke explains, such an event might be, "war
has broken out in the Middle East. Saddam Hussein has just tossed a nuclear
bomb at the Israelis, and you have to respond cooperatively with the other
military services within seconds."
"General Jones" had to first integrate his three-part personality then refragment
it to tour the room, gathering data from other Army personnel, and come up
with a course of action. Similar scenarios were repeated on successive days
for the Navy and the Air Force. On the fourth day, Duke convened all the
services and had them switch roles: the Army people who had been General
Jones were now Admiral Smith, attempting to coordinate a Navy air attack
with the Air Force.
One of Duke's main functions at this point was to keep everyone's eye on
the aim of the exercise: reorganization (being military and human, most players
just wanted to win). Meanwhile, the real general, Powell, sat in a corner,
GAMES GENERALS PLAY
No discussion of the policy-game -galaxy would be complete without a nod
to the most venerable and at times wackiest of all simulation scenarios,
the games Colin Powell cut his teeth on: war games. No other games resonate
so clearly with childhood (what else is Cowboys and Indians?) or reverberate
so powerfully through history.
Take a game played at the Naval War College at Newport, R.I., in the 1920s.
In certain military simulations, it's permissible to invent weapons that
don't yet exist, and at one point in this particular game one of the players
realized that if he owned a large boat that could launch a fleet of airplanes
from its deck,he'd have an offensive weapon that could help him win the game,
which it did. Enter the aircraft carrier.
Then there was the game the Japanese military played in 1944, before the
Battle of Midway During the simulation, the planners predicted correctly
that they would lose some aircraft carriers during the battle; but later,
when they extended the game to include the invasion of Borneo and Samoa,
one of the players decided it would be nice to have the carriers back; so
he simply resurrected them. Says Air Force Lt. Greg Wilmouth of the Pentagon's
history department, this was "sort of against the rules. It also tuned out
to be not such a good idea."
But who hasn't had the impulse to put that lost bishop back on the board
when no one's looking? The difference is, all you can lose when you break
the rules in a chess game is your lift home. All the Japanese lost was World
War II. If games are such subtle and accurate yardsticks of human behavior;
why hasn't the therapeutic world embraced them as diagnostic or therapeutic
GAMES TO HEAL BY
Toronto psychiatrist Edward Brown, M.D., points out that although therapy
is itself not a game, it can be seen as a vehicle to "discover what everyone's
game is." The vocabulary of game -how we "score" life, what we consider winning
and losing-is fundamental to who and how healthy we are.
In the few instances where they've been utilized, therapeutic games have
been highly successful. In 1976, at a conference on the family, Ron McManus,
Ph.D., professor of religion and psychology at Texas Wesleyan University
developed Family Reunion, a game intended to promote family communication
by having members re-create past situations, such as singing a song from
childhood or telling a family joke. "For certain populations," McManus says,
"it was more effective than usual therapies."
In the Fort Worth area, the game has become a staple as a court referral
aid. Our own game, Therapy, designed strictly as entertainment, has
been cited by therapists as beneficial to their group practice (especially
Generally though, the professional attitude toward psychological games is
to dismiss them as innocuous or brand them as dangerous. This may reflect
a discomfort in the institutional world with the dissonant gestalt
behind any true game-which is passionately trivial, profoundly antic, compared
with the highly orchestrated exercises adults engage in or impose on their
Nietzsche once said that the aim of all adults
should be to rediscover in their work the seriousness of children at play
"It's significant," says psychiatrist Brown "that for the first decade and
a half of our lives, games are our lives; they only become devalued with
adulthood." Instead of "What are you playing, a game?" we hear, "Oh, they're
just playing games."
Games are potentially dangerous; they're touched by the mysterious
power that is usually the province of childhood. They're about entering the
simulative universe of play and the subversive freedom of that universe.
They're about following rules so we can free our spirits. They're about
The sky is the box, the earth the table. Monopoly is Atlantic City
and the stock exchange, Clue is a
courtroom, Trivial Pursuit is an era, Prisoner's Dilemma is two cells
on Rikers Island.
Whether we're reading about Ulysses or playing chess, the conceit that we're
deciding the fate of the universe comes from the same suspension of disbelief:
a willingness to forget ourselves and so, paradoxically find ourselves in
a world that is more real and rich than the one we just left.
Whether it's a three-day epic simulation for 1600 people in a hotel conference
hall or three couples playing charades, games hold an uncanny spell over
us, telling us much about ourselves. Maybe this is no coincidence, either.
What entertains us as a species tends also to be our destiny. As Edwin Arlington
Robinson pointed out, "Life is the game that must be played."
Therapy is available at The Gamekeeper stores. For Cowgirls, call
The Politics of Private Desires
- Michael Laver
FIG. 2: PAYOFFS FOR THE PRISONERS' DILEMMA The payoff
in the top right-hand corner of each box goes to Jones, and that in the bottom
left to Smith.
| The Prisoner's Dilemma and Public Goods
The Prisoner's Dilemma is a traditional preoccupation of rational choice
theorists.The original allegory concerns two known criminals who are caught
red-handed while committing some minor offence, such as stealing a car. The
police know, but cannot prove, that they were involved in a much more serious
crime, an armed bank robbery. The criminals are separated, and each is offered
the following deal: 'If you give evidence against your accomplice, and he
is convicted of the armed robbery, you will walk out of here a free man.
If you don't, then you will go to jail for stealing the car anyway, and quite
possibly take the whole blame for the bank job.' Both captives are old lags,
and know the score.
|They know that, if neither gives evidence, they
will both get one year for car theft. They know that, if one keeps quiet
and the other gives evidence, the one carrying the whole blame for the bank
job gets ten years. Finally, each knows that, if both give evidence, both
will be convicted of armed robbery, getting maybe a two-year reduction in
sentence for helping the police. These pay-offs, denominated in years in
jail and therefore negative, are summarized in Figure 2.
There are four possible outcomes. These are mutual silence, mutual squealing
and either Smith or Jones squealing while the other stays silent. We can
quickly see that, if they play this game only once, both Smith and Jones
must squeal. This is because, whatever the other does, each does best by
squealing. If Scarface stays silent, then Wildman does best by squealing,
getting no years in jail rather than one. If Scarface squeals, then Wildman
does best by squealing, getting eight years in jail, rather than ten. Both
squeal, since both face exactly the same 'dilemma'. The consequence is that
both do time for the robbery, despite the fact that both would be better
off staying silent and simply doing their time for the car theft. The pursuit
of individual rationality inevitably leads to an outcome which is deplored
by both criminals.
In general terms, the Prisoners' Dilemma is any game in which the pay-offs
for each player are arranged in the order of those in Figure 2. General
discussions of the game usually describe the two strategies available to
each player as defection (rather than squealing) and cooperation (rather
than staying silent). It is always the case in a one-off game that individually
rational self interest produces an outcome (mutual defection) which is regarded
by all as inferior to an alternative outcome (mutual cooperation), which
could be achieved if each behaved differently. All choose to defect, however,
because defection is the dominant strategy for each. Each is better off defecting
if the others cooperate, and better off defecting if the others defect.
This is not at all modified by allowing the players to talk to each other,
as long as agreements between them cannot be enforced. if they agree to mutual
cooperation, each nevertheless has both the willingness and the ability to
defect from this agreement. Each will expect the other to do likewise, and
is therefore left with no alternative but to defect. The two players in the
Prisoners' Dilemma face a collective action problem. Both would prefer the
outcome to be mutual cooperation rather than mutual damaging. They can combine
in a joint effort to bring this about. Yet, each individually cannot make
the situation worse by defecting, although individual and collective welfare
deteriorates considerably if they both think like this. Mutual cooperation,
as opposed to mutual damaging, is a public good which can be produced only
if both sides cooperate. Although both sides would prefer to cooperate, even
sophisticated rational behaviour can only result in failure. The players
can get around this problem, and produce public goods, if some means can
be found of leading them to expect that any agreement that they might make
will be adhered to. If someone 'outside' the game punishes players every
time that they fail to keep their word, for example, a binding agreement
between them is made possible. Cooperation therefore becomes far more probable.
The 'outside' authority in this case fulfils a role closely analogous to
that of the Hobbesian sovereign, or, for example, an organized crime syndicate
in the original example. The syndicate, by arranging concrete overcoats for
those who break deals made with its members, would make these deals much
more binding and, therefore, much more likely to materialize. If the players
are forced into this situation, they may derive some benefits from it, but
we have just seen that they would never voluntarily submit themselves to
such a system. The power vested in the outside authority could be used to
exploit them, unless that authority is assumed to be entirely benevolent.
If the Prisoners' Dilemma is repeated over and over again by the same players,
and if, at any point in the sequence, all previous moves are known to each
player, then they are playing what is known as a supergame. Taylor shows
that Prisoners' Dilemma supergames can, in certain circumstances, result
in mutually cooperative outcomes without recourse to an outside agency which
enforces agreements. If this is the case, then the collective action problems
which these games represent can be similarly 'solved'.
How to win at game theory
Get your strategic thinking right and you could win big in your pay
negotiation, get that car for a steal or even win a game of
IN THE film A Beautiful Mind, John Nash and his buddies, all of them
graduate students in mathematics at Princeton University, are sitting in
a smoky bar when a group of women walk in. As the men tease each other about
their chances, Nash is struck with inspiration. Is there a logical, mathematical
way of working out the best strategy for each man getting a date? Next thing
you know hes shambling out of the bar, and spends the night furiously
scribbling unfathomable-looking equations.
It sounds a little crass, and the episode probably never happened
in reality. But in a ham-fisted, Hollywood sort of way, it does hint at how
game theory, the branch of mathematics Nash helped to make famous, can apply
to our everyday lives.
In fact, we use it all the time without even realising. Every
time you think about what you should do in terms of what someone else will
do in response, youre doing rudimentary game theory, says Kevin
Zollman of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
The trouble is, we are novices. When we need to think through situations
several steps ahead or when they involve more than just a few people, we
start to make mistakes. But delve into the theory just a little
theres no need to be a maths whizz and you can harness some
of the insights to make smarter moves in your own life.
Lesson one is that there are different sorts of games. Broadly speaking,
there are zero-sum games, in which one player gains what the other loses,
and variable-sum games ...