Category Archives: Game Theory

Playing around: game theory in popular culture

Game theory in popular cultureThere 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

More examples of game theory in popular culture can be found at, 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.

Game Theory Tuesdays at Mind Your Decisions Blog

Game Theory Tuesdays at Mind Your DecisionsEconomics professor David K. Levine defines game theory this way:

What economists call game theory psychologists call the theory of social situations, which is an accurate description of what game theory is about. Although game theory is relevant to parlor games such as poker or bridge, most research in game theory focuses on how groups of people interact.

Of particular interest to conflict resolution professionals and scholars is the use of game theory to shed light on the way people behave when they negotiate or resolve disputes. (One of my favorite examples of this is the recent game theory analysis of the toilet seat problem.)

If you’re a game theory enthusiast, you’ll enjoy reading Game Theory Tuesdays, a weekly column by economics consultant and self-proclaimed math nerd Presh Talwalkar at Mind Your Decisions, a blog about personal finance, decision-making, negotiation, and, yes, game theory.

This week’s column has ideas on how to get someone to cooperate. Presh is an engaging writer with a great capacity for honest self-reflection and a talent for bringing game theory to life with real-world anecdotes. You definitely don’t have to be a math nerd to enjoy Game Theory Tuesdays.

The ups and downs of conflict: a game theory analysis of the toilet seat issue

The toilet conflict has its ups and downsAs a way to announce my return to blogging following a brief hiatus, I begin with a post that concerns one of the world’s most intractable conflicts (at least since the invention of indoor plumbing): the battle over the positioning of the toilet seat–up or down.

Now comes the study that all you gender-conscious game theorists have long been awaiting. From The Science Creative Quarterly is a paper addressing “The Social Norm of Leaving the Toilet Seat Down: A Game Theoretic Analysis“, which models the game as a non-cooperative one of conflict (which anyone in a multi-gender household can tell you is a fully accurate representation).

We can all hope that researchers may next examine another vexing problem: which way to hang the toilet paper–over or under.

(Thanks to Boing Boing.)


2 game theorists win Nobel prize in economics for their study of conflict and cooperation As numerous news sources reported today, two game theorists—one an economist, the other a mathematician, were awarded the Nobel Prize in economics yesterday. According to its press release, The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences “award[ed] the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, 2005, jointly to Robert J. Aumann, Center for Rationality, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel, and Thomas C. Schelling, Department of Economics and School of Public Policy, University of Maryland, College Park, MD, USA, ‘for having enhanced our understanding of conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis’.”

By the way, a great online resource on game theory for educators, students, professionals, and “geeks” (at least that’s what the web site says) can be found at

There’s plenty of interactive materials and games available for game theory enthusiasts, and even links to references to game theory in popular culture.

WINNER TAKE ALL: Games, game theory, and conflict resolution

Games and game theory in addressing conflictGames and game theory crop up frequently as topics in conflict resolution literature. Games, after all, are a great tool for teaching conflict resolution theories and skills, and game theory, which utilizes mathematical formulas to predict and understand complex human behaviors, can help shed light on conflict and collaboration.

I have several links to share with you for game and game theory enthusiasts. First games, then game theory.

Bill Warters, the author of Campus-ADR Tech Blog, has an enviable knack for discovering great web sites. Case in point: Bill recently blogged about the Distributive Justice Interactive Web Site, a fascinating project which examines notions of justice and fairness with respect to the distribution of goods and resources. It includes a game in which players can create their own distribution model. (Click on “enter” at the main page and place your cursor over the image of the gear.) You can also complete a survey, read about theories of distributive justice, or subscribe to the project’s newsletter.

There are some interesting insights into gaming in an essay by Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation, which challenges the commonly held belief that video games are vehicles for promoting violence, and describes ways in which games instead are used to teach empathy or build understanding of other cultures.

This essay includes a link to Water Cooler Games, a forum for video games designed for purposes other than entertainment, which in turn leads you down the rabbit’s hole of gaming sites and other articles. This led me to The Better Business Game, in which players wrestle with social and environmental issues in the context of running a business; and the United Nation’s World Food Programme’s Food Force, in which players participate in 6 missions to address hunger in troubled regions.

Let’s turn now to game theory. Although game theory has been used to analyze human behavior in activities that include conflict and cooperation, it has also been utilized to weigh issues of grave consequence in today’s world: terrorism and counterterrorism. Several articles are available online that examine the use of game theory in examining these issues. Among these are:

A recently published article by Ronald D. Fricker, Jr., of the Naval Postgraduate School, asks the question “Game Theory in an Age of Terrorism: How Can Statisticians Contribute?” (Click here for either HTML or PDF format.)

There is also an article by Todd Sandler, “Counterterrorism: A Game-Theoretic Analysis,” which appeared in the April 2005 issue of Journal of Conflict Resolution, which can be downloaded in PDF format by clicking here.

COOPERATION OR COMPETITION: The Prisoner's Dilemma and Game Theory

The Prisoner's DilemmaGame theory, which uses mathematical models to study human behavior and interactions in games, has applications in areas that range widely from politics and economics to warfare and international relations. It has even been used in the study of conflict and cooperation.

One of the best known examples of game theory in action is the Prisoner’s Dilemma, a non-zero sum game used to analyze cooperation.

The basic premise of the Prisoner’s Dilemma is this: the police have arrested two individuals suspected of being co-conspirators in a crime. The police keep these individuals in separate cells to prevent them from communicating with each other. The police lack enough evidence to convict either of them but offer each of them a deal in the hopes that either or both of them will confess. They tell each prisoner that if he betrays his accomplice, he will go free. If both prisoners refuse to talk, they will both receive only a very light prison sentence because of the lack of evidence. If one betrays the other, the one who betrays will go free, and the one who says nothing will be punished with a lengthy prison sentence. If, however, they both betray each other, they will receive prison sentences, but not as lengthy as if only one confesses.

The dilemma of course is that neither prisoner can speak with the other, so neither knows which course of action the other will choose—will they remain silent, thereby cooperating with each other, or will one or both of them betray the other? The biggest payoff for one prisoner occurs if one betrays while the other remains silent; the best outcome for both prisoners occurs if they both remain silent, thereby drawing only a light sentence.

The choice lies between cooperation and competition. Does the prisoner think only of himself or take his fellow prisoner into account?

(Interesting aside: according to Wikipedia, there is actually a television game show, “Friend or Foe“, which utilizes the Prisoner’s Dilemma in dividing up winnings among members of the team that scores the lowest on the show.)

Of course in real-life conflicts or negotiations, people are able to do what the prisoners in the Prisoner’s Dilemma are unable to: talk to each other. Communication removes the risk and unpredictability that silence produces: without communication, an individual can only anticipate or guess what the person across the bargaining table will do. Communication with the disclosure it brings reveals interests and builds trust. Through communication it is possible to address or minimize risk, discuss contingencies, design mutually beneficial outcomes, and optimize proposals already on the table to maximize benefit. This provides significant rewards for cooperative behavior.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma can be played online at several web sites. These include: