There is something irresistible about game theory. A branch of mathematics devoted to understanding social interaction and decision making, it holds relevance – and fascination – for students and practitioners of negotiation and dispute resolution. Economist Kenneth Boulding once described game theory as
…an intellectual X ray. It reveals the skeletal structure of those social systems where decisions interact, and it reveals, therefore, the essential structure of both conflict and collaboration.
I particularly enjoy examples of game theory drawn from ordinary daily life, and have collected its depictions in popular culture. Some favorites of mine include
- Charlie Brown, Lucy, and the football considered in a post from Minding Your Decisions, a blog about game theory and personal finance
- Various sites for playing the famous Prisoners’ Dilemma
- Game theory analysis of the toilet seat problem: up or down?: a scholarly article
- Nash equilibrium, the all-American pastime and base-stealing
- Numerous instances of “Rock, Paper, Scissors”, a game often used as a decision-making tool, including a Simpsons episode involving Bart and Lisa (Lisa: “Poor predictable Bart. Always takes ‘rock’. Bart: “Good ol’ ‘rock’. Nothin’ beats that!”); and the decision of a federal judge ordering two feuding lawyers to play the game to settle their dispute over the location of a deposition. (Speaking of the Simpsons and game theory, here’s a find: “Simpsons Decision-Making“, a PowerPoint presentation by a Georgia Tech professor of industrial and systems engineering.)
More examples of game theory in popular culture can be found at GameTheory.net, which offers interactive materials and games for game theory enthusiasts. There’s also a terrific collection of game theory video clips on YouTube (with thanks to the blog Grey Matters).
If you’d like to learn more about game theory from an expert who knows how to demystify it even for the mathematically challenged, get yourself a copy of Rock, Paper, Scissors: Game Theory in Everyday Life, by Len Fisher (who, incidentally, received the Ig Nobel Prize for his studies on the proper way to dunk a biscuit in a cup of tea). It’s an entertaining and highly informative read with plenty of real-life examples of game theory in action.