Game Theory is an interesting subject. It has implications on all of our lives, and it’s not something that’s blatantly obvious all the time. It’s the science of strategy, and it’s pretty cool.
Game theory is the study of mathematical models of strategic interaction among rational decision-makers. It has applications in all fields of social science, as well as in logic, systems science and computer science. Wikipedia
The Prisoner’s Dilemma is the most well-known example of game theory. Consider the example of two criminals arrested for a crime. … If Prisoner 2 confesses, but Prisoner 1 does not, Prisoner 1 will get 10 years, and Prisoner 2 will get two years. If neither confesses, each will serve two years in prison.
John von Neumann In fact, game theory was originally developed by the Hungarian-born American mathematician John von Neumann and his Princeton University colleague Oskar Morgenstern, a German-born American economist, to solve problems in economics .
The simplest type of competitive situations are two–person, zero–sum games. These games involve only two players; they are called zero–sum games because one player wins whatever the other player loses.
Game theory in the form known to economists, social scientists, and biologists, was given its first general mathematical formulation by John von Neuman and Oskar Morgenstern (1944). For reasons to be discussed later, limitations in their formal framework initially made the theory applicable only under special and limited conditions. This situation has dramatically changed, in ways we will examine as we go along, over the past seven decades, as the framework has been deepened and generalized. Refinements are still being made, and we will review a few outstanding problems that lie along the advancing front edge of these developments towards the end of the article. However, since at least the late 1970s it has been possible to say with confidence that game theory is the most important and useful tool in the analyst’s kit whenever she confronts situations in which what counts as one agent’s best action (for her) depends on expectations about what one or more other agents will do, and what counts as their best actions (for them) similarly depend on expectations about her.
A Beautiful Mind (2001) Official Trailer – Russell Crowe Movie HD
Despite the fact that game theory has been rendered mathematically and logically systematic only since 1944, game-theoretic insights can be found among commentators going back to ancient times. For example, in two of Plato’s texts, the Laches and the Symposium, Socrates recalls an episode from the Battle of Delium that some commentators have interpreted (probably anachronistically) as involving the following situation. Consider a soldier at the front, waiting with his comrades to repulse an enemy attack. It may occur to him that if the defense is likely to be successful, then it isn’t very probable that his own personal contribution will be essential. But if he stays, he runs the risk of being killed or wounded—apparently for no point. On the other hand, if the enemy is going to win the battle, then his chances of death or injury are higher still, and now quite clearly to no point, since the line will be overwhelmed anyway. Based on this reasoning, it would appear that the soldier is better off running away regardless of who is going to win the battle. Of course, if all of the soldiers reason this way—as they all apparently should, since they’re all in identical situations—then this will certainly bring about the outcome in which the battle is lost. Of course, this point, since it has occurred to us as analysts, can occur to the soldiers too. Does this give them a reason for staying at their posts? Just the contrary: the greater the soldiers’ fear that the battle will be lost, the greater their incentive to get themselves out of harm’s way. And the greater the soldiers’ belief that the battle will be won, without the need of any particular individual’s contributions, the less reason they have to stay and fight. If each soldier anticipates this sort of reasoning on the part of the others, all will quickly reason themselves into a panic, and their horrified commander will have a rout on his hands before the enemy has even engaged.
John Nash (Nobel Prize)
Long before game theory had come along to show analysts how to think about this sort of problem systematically, it had occurred to some actual military leaders and influenced their strategies. Thus the Spanish conqueror Cortez, when landing in Mexico with a small force who had good reason to fear their capacity to repel attack from the far more numerous Aztecs, removed the risk that his troops might think their way into a retreat by burning the ships on which they had landed. With retreat having thus been rendered physically impossible, the Spanish soldiers had no better course of action than to stand and fight—and, furthermore, to fight with as much determination as they could muster. Better still, from Cortez’s point of view, his action had a discouraging effect on the motivation of the Aztecs. He took care to burn his ships very visibly, so that the Aztecs would be sure to see what he had done. They then reasoned as follows: Any commander who could be so confident as to willfully destroy his own option to be prudent if the battle went badly for him must have good reasons for such extreme optimism. It cannot be wise to attack an opponent who has a good reason (whatever, exactly, it might be) for being sure that he can’t lose. The Aztecs therefore retreated into the surrounding hills, and Cortez had the easiest possible victory.
These two situations, at Delium and as manipulated by Cortez, have a common and interesting underlying logic. Notice that the soldiers are not motivated to retreat just, or even mainly, by their rational assessment of the dangers of battle and by their self-interest. Rather, they discover a sound reason to run away by realizing that what it makes sense for them to do depends on what it will make sense for others to do, and that all of the others can notice this too. Even a quite brave soldier may prefer to run rather than heroically, but pointlessly, die trying to stem the oncoming tide all by himself. Thus we could imagine, without contradiction, a circumstance in which an army, all of whose members are brave, flees at top speed before the enemy makes a move. If the soldiers reallyare brave, then this surely isn’t the outcome any of them wanted; each would have preferred that all stand and fight. What we have here, then, is a case in which the interaction of many individually rational decision-making processes—one process per soldier—produces an outcome intended by no one. (Most armies try to avoid this problem just as Cortez did. Since they can’t usually make retreat physically impossible, they make it economically impossible: they shoot deserters. Then standing and fighting is each soldier’s individually rational course of action after all, because the cost of running is sure to be at least as high as the cost of staying.)
Another classic source that invites this sequence of reasoning is found in Shakespeare’s Henry V. During the Battle of Agincourt Henry decided to slaughter his French prisoners, in full view of the enemy and to the surprise of his subordinates, who describe the action as being out of moral character. The reasons Henry gives allude to non-strategic considerations: he is afraid that the prisoners may free themselves and threaten his position. However, a game theorist might have furnished him with supplementary strategic (and similarly prudential, though perhaps not moral) justification. His own troops observe that the prisoners have been killed, and observe that the enemy has observed this. Therefore, they know what fate will await them at the enemy’s hand if they don’t win. Metaphorically, but very effectively, their boats have been burnt. The slaughter of the prisoners plausibly sent a signal to the soldiers of both sides, thereby changing their incentives in ways that favoured English prospects for victory.
These examples might seem to be relevant only for those who find themselves in sordid situations of cut-throat competition. Perhaps, one might think, it is important for generals, politicians, mafiosi, sports coaches and others whose jobs involve strategic manipulation of others, but the philosopher should only deplore its amorality. Such a conclusion would be highly premature, however. The study of the logic that governs the interrelationships amongst incentives, strategic interactions and outcomes has been fundamental in modern political philosophy, since centuries before anyone had an explicit name for this sort of logic. Philosophers share with social scientists the need to be able to represent and systematically model not only what they think people normatively ought to do, but what they often actually do in interactive situations.
Hobbes’s Leviathan is often regarded as the founding work in modern political philosophy, the text that began the continuing round of analyses of the function and justification of the state and its restrictions on individual liberties. The core of Hobbes’s reasoning can be given straightforwardly as follows. The best situation for all people is one in which each is free to do as she pleases. (One may or may not agree with this as a matter of psychology or ideology, but it is Hobbes’s assumption.) Often, such free people will wish to cooperate with one another in order to carry out projects that would be impossible for an individual acting alone. But if there are any immoral or amoral agents around, they will notice that their interests might at least sometimes be best served by getting the benefits from cooperation and not returning them. Suppose, for example, that you agree to help me build my house in return for my promise to help you build yours. After my house is finished, I can make your labour free to me simply by reneging on my promise. I then realize, however, that if this leaves you with no house, you will have an incentive to take mine. This will put me in constant fear of you, and force me to spend valuable time and resources guarding myself against you. I can best minimize these costs by striking first and killing you at the first opportunity. Of course, you can anticipate all of this reasoning by me, and so have good reason to try to beat me to the punch. Since I can anticipate this reasoning by you, my original fear of you was not paranoid; nor was yours of me. In fact, neither of us actually needs to be immoral to get this chain of mutual reasoning going; we need only think that there is some possibility that the other might try to cheat on bargains. Once a small wedge of doubt enters any one mind, the incentive induced by fear of the consequences of being preempted—hit before hitting first—quickly becomes overwhelming on both sides. If either of us has any resources of our own that the other might want, this murderous logic can take hold long before we are so silly as to imagine that we could ever actually get as far as making deals to help one another build houses in the first place. Left to their own devices, agents who are at least sometimes narrowly self-interested can repeatedly fail to derive the benefits of cooperation, and instead be trapped in a state of ‘war of all against all’, in Hobbes’s words. In these circumstances, human life, as he vividly and famously put it, will be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
Hobbes’s proposed solution to this problem was tyranny. The people can hire an agent—a government—whose job is to punish anyone who breaks any promise. So long as the threatened punishment is sufficiently dire then the cost of reneging on promises will exceed the cost of keeping them. The logic here is identical to that used by an army when it threatens to shoot deserters. If all people know that these incentives hold for most others, then cooperation will not only be possible, but can be the expected norm, so that the war of all against all becomes a general peace.
Hobbes pushes the logic of this argument to a very strong conclusion, arguing that it implies not only a government with the right and the power to enforce cooperation, but an ‘undivided’ government in which the arbitrary will of a single ruler must impose absolute obligation on all. Few contemporary political theorists think that the particular steps by which Hobbes reasons his way to this conclusion are both sound and valid. Working through these issues here, however, would carry us away from our topic into details of contractarian political philosophy. What is important in the present context is that these details, as they are in fact pursued in contemporary debates, involve sophisticated interpretation of the issues using the resources of modern game theory. Furthermore, Hobbes’s most basic point, that the fundamental justification for the coercive authority and practices of governments is peoples’ own need to protect themselves from what game theorists call ‘social dilemmas’, is accepted by many, if not most, political theorists. Notice that Hobbes has not argued that tyranny is a desirable thing in itself. The structure of his argument is that the logic of strategic interaction leaves only two general political outcomes possible: tyranny and anarchy. Sensible agents then choose tyranny as the lesser of two evils.
The reasoning of the Athenian soldiers, of Cortez, and of Hobbes’s political agents has a common logic, one derived from their situations. In each case, the aspect of the environment that is most important to the agents’ achievement of their preferred outcomes is the set of expectations and possible reactions to their strategies by other agents. The distinction between acting parametricallyon a passive world and acting non-parametrically on a world that tries to act in anticipation of these actions is fundamental. If you wish to kick a rock down a hill, you need only concern yourself with the rock’s mass relative to the force of your blow, the extent to which it is bonded with its supporting surface, the slope of the ground on the other side of the rock, and the expected impact of the collision on your foot. The values of all of these variables are independent of your plans and intentions, since the rock has no interests of its own and takes no actions to attempt to assist or thwart you. By contrast, if you wish to kick a person down the hill, then unless that person is unconscious, bound or otherwise incapacitated, you will likely not succeed unless you can disguise your plans until it’s too late for him to take either evasive or forestalling action. Furthermore, his probable responses should be expected to visit costs upon you, which you would be wise to consider. Finally, the relative probabilities of his responses will depend on his expectations about your probable responses to his responses. (Consider the difference it will make to both of your reasoning if one or both of you are armed, or one of you is bigger than the other, or one of you is the other’s boss.) The logical issues associated with the second sort of situation (kicking the person as opposed to the rock) are typically much more complicated, as a simple hypothetical example will illustrate.
Suppose first that you wish to cross a river that is spanned by three bridges. (Assume that swimming, wading or boating across are impossible.) The first bridge is known to be safe and free of obstacles; if you try to cross there, you will succeed. The second bridge lies beneath a cliff from which large rocks sometimes fall. The third is inhabited by deadly cobras. Now suppose you wish to rank-order the three bridges with respect to their preferability as crossing-points. Unless you get positive enjoyment from risking your life—which, as a human being, you might, a complication we’ll take up later in this article—then your decision problem here is straightforward. The first bridge is obviously best, since it is safest. To rank-order the other two bridges, you require information about their relative levels of danger. If you can study the frequency of rock-falls and the movements of the cobras for awhile, you might be able to calculate that the probability of your being crushed by a rock at the second bridge is 10% and of being struck by a cobra at the third bridge is 20%. Your reasoning here is strictly parametric because neither the rocks nor the cobras are trying to influence your actions, by, for example, concealing their typical patterns of behaviour because they know you are studying them. It is obvious what you should do here: cross at the safe bridge. Now let us complicate the situation a bit. Suppose that the bridge with the rocks was immediately before you, while the safe bridge was a day’s difficult hike upstream. Your decision-making situation here is slightly more complicated, but it is still strictly parametric. You would have to decide whether the cost of the long hike was worth exchanging for the penalty of a 10% chance of being hit by a rock. However, this is all you must decide, and your probability of a successful crossing is entirely up to you; the environment is not interested in your plans.
However, if we now complicate the situation by adding a non-parametric element, it becomes more challenging. Suppose that you are a fugitive of some sort, and waiting on the other side of the river with a gun is your pursuer. She will catch and shoot you, let us suppose, only if she waits at the bridge you try to cross; otherwise, you will escape. As you reason through your choice of bridge, it occurs to you that she is over there trying to anticipate your reasoning. It will seem that, surely, choosing the safe bridge straight away would be a mistake, since that is just where she will expect you, and your chances of death rise to certainty. So perhaps you should risk the rocks, since these odds are much better. But wait … if you can reach this conclusion, your pursuer, who is just as rational and well-informed as you are, can anticipate that you will reach it, and will be waiting for you if you evade the rocks. So perhaps you must take your chances with the cobras; that is what she must least expect. But, then, no … if she expects that you will expect that she will least expect this, then she will most expect it. This dilemma, you realize with dread, is general: you must do what your pursuer least expects; but whatever you most expect her to least expect is automatically what she will most expect. You appear to be trapped in indecision. All that might console you a bit here is that, on the other side of the river, your pursuer is trapped in exactly the same quandary, unable to decide which bridge to wait at because as soon as she imagines committing to one, she will notice that if she can find a best reason to pick a bridge, you can anticipate that same reason and then avoid her.
We know from experience that, in situations such as this, people do not usually stand and dither in circles forever. As we’ll see later, there is a unique best solution available to each player. However, until the 1940s neither philosophers nor economists knew how to find it mathematically. As a result, economists were forced to treat non-parametric influences as if they were complications on parametric ones. This is likely to strike the reader as odd, since, as our example of the bridge-crossing problem was meant to show, non-parametric features are often fundamental features of decision-making problems. Part of the explanation for game theory’s relatively late entry into the field lies in the problems with which economists had historically been concerned. Classical economists, such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo, were mainly interested in the question of how agents in very large markets—whole nations—could interact so as to bring about maximum monetary wealth for themselves. Smith’s basic insight, that efficiency is best maximized by agents first differentiating their potential contributions and then freely seeking mutually advantageous bargains, was mathematically verified in the twentieth century. However, the demonstration of this fact applies only in conditions of ‘perfect competition,’ that is, when individuals or firms face no costs of entry or exit into markets, when there are no economies of scale, and when no agents’ actions have unintended side-effects on other agents’ well-being. Economists always recognized that this set of assumptions is purely an idealization for purposes of analysis, not a possible state of affairs anyone could try (or should want to try) to institutionally establish. But until the mathematics of game theory matured near the end of the 1970s, economists had to hope that the more closely a market approximates perfect competition, the more efficient it will be. No such hope, however, can be mathematically or logically justified in general; indeed, as a strict generalization the assumption was shown to be false as far back as the 1950s.
This article is not about the foundations of economics, but it is important for understanding the origins and scope of game theory to know that perfectly competitive markets have built into them a feature that renders them susceptible to parametric analysis. Because agents face no entry costs to markets, they will open shop in any given market until competition drives all profits to zero. This implies that if production costs are fixed and demand is exogenous, then agents have no options about how much to produce if they are trying to maximize the differences between their costs and their revenues. These production levels can be determined separately for each agent, so none need pay attention to what the others are doing; each agent treats her counterparts as passive features of the environment. The other kind of situation to which classical economic analysis can be applied without recourse to game theory is that of a monopoly facing many customers. Here, as long as no customer has a share of demand large enough to exert strategic leverage, non-parametric considerations drop out and the firm’s task is only to identify the combination of price and production quantity at which it maximizes profit. However, both perfect and monopolistic competition are very special and unusual market arrangements. Prior to the advent of game theory, therefore, economists were severely limited in the class of circumstances to which they could straightforwardly apply their models.
Philosophers share with economists a professional interest in the conditions and techniques for the maximization of welfare. In addition, philosophers have a special concern with the logical justification of actions, and often actions must be justified by reference to their expected outcomes. (One tradition in moral philosophy, utilitarianism, is based on the idea that all justifiable actions must be justified in this way.) Without game theory, both of these problems resist analysis wherever non-parametric aspects are relevant. We will demonstrate this shortly by reference to the most famous (though not the most typical) game, the so-called Prisoner’s Dilemma, and to other, more typical, games. In doing this, we will need to introduce, define and illustrate the basic elements and techniques of game theory.
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