A course in Game Theory teaches students the science of strategic interaction and changes their perspectives on the world.
Did you know that if you and a partner are caught robbing a bank and the police take you in for questioning, you’re both better off saying nothing, even though the advertised penalty for not ratting on your partner is quite larger than for turning them in? This situation is known as the prisoner’s dilemma; it’s a central case study in the academic discipline called game theory.
Game theory began in economics but has since spread in application to a wide range of other academic disciplines. If you’ve ever read or watched “A Beautiful Mind,” you know the story of John Nash, game theory’s pioneer and first superstar. He won a Nobel Prize in the 1990s for his contributions to economics.
Everybody’s taken at least one class at TU that really annoyed them. You might have wondered, “Why am I forced to sit through this to graduate?” or alternatively, “How will this knowledge ever help me?” Let me tell you, a class on game theory will never leave you asking either question.
I took game theory with Dr. Settle last semester. The only prerequisite is passing a microeconomics course. It completely changed the way I thought about simple, everyday situations. Game theory is the science of strategic conflict. We applied it to the Cold War, tennis matches, dating scenarios, game shows, political conflicts, armed conflicts and even movies. Hint: “The Dark Knight” features more game theory than any blockbuster ever made.
Game theory is applicable to virtually every academic discipline and every scenario in your daily life because it’s the science of strategic interaction. Any time two or more people are making independent decisions with interdependent consequences, game theory comes into play.
It’s a cliché to say that the reason we go to college is to learn how to think. As David Foster Wallace famously told Kenyon College’s graduating class in 2005, it’s such a cliché because, after all, if students were already smart enough to get into Kenyon (or TU), they probably didn’t need a whole lot of help in the thinking department. However, game theory is a science and course that will teach you how to think … at least in a different way.
For example, there’s one portion of the course that focuses on signaling games. Signals are what one player sends to the other to provide information, either real or fake. This was the basis behind brinkmanship in the Cold War: each side signaled that it could blow the other apart with massive amounts of nukes, but neither side wanted to actually do that because it was mutually beneficial to not destroy the planet. So, each side used proxies. The Soviets armed Cubans while the Americans put missiles in Turkey. The Americans created and expanded NATO while the Soviets backed communist forces in Southeast Asia.
Signals play a role in tennis too. Tennis has what’s called a mixed equilibrium, which means each player wants to perfectly mix their shots in order to make the next shot seem random. If I hit Federer six shots in a row down the line, chances are he’ll start to expect that. Should I keep doing that, he’ll wipe the floor with me easily. Thus, each player wants to perfectly mix shot selection to keep the other one guessing.
You can use signals in your daily life too. Your clothes? Those are a signal. What kind of watch or jewelry you wear on a date? Those are signals. Are they real signals, or do you use plastic and run up debts dressing a certain way in hopes of making others think you’re wealthy and chic?
Dating, seen from a game theory perspective, is just one big game where each player slowly reveals bits and pieces of information about themselves. Go too fast on the first date by telling her about your recurring Shrek-themed nightmares? Probably not the best strategy. Deciding where to meet up for the date could be a game too. What if each of you forgot your phones (the horror!)? Do you know enough about her to think she’d prefer Starbucks or the local coffee shop? Do you go back home to get your phone, or do you take the chance? This game has an equilibrium, or combination of best options for each player too.
A darker example of game theory is the Kitty Genovese murder. It took place in the early 1960s in NYC. A man killed Genovese, as the story goes, within earshot/eyesight of potentially 30 other New Yorkers. So why did not a single one pick up the phone to call the police? You can model this scenario with game theory; you find that as the number of spectators to an event increases, the likelihood of any single one of them independently making a move plummets. This is why bystander intervention training is such a big deal on college campuses these days. Thoughts like “It’s not my problem,” “Somebody else will take care of it” or “I don’t want to have to talk to the police, so I won’t say anything” are a few of the examples we tell ourselves. Intervention training instructs you otherwise.
Game theory is a class everybody should take. It’s taught only in the fall semester, so prepare accordingly. If not the class, at least pick up a few books on it and acquaint yourself with some of its tenants. You’ll be grateful you did.