I don’t believe in synchronicity, but game theory keeps popping up in my regular reading, in seemingly unrelated sources.
First, Amanda posted a link to a blog about game theory in the Quickies. Then, Michael Shermer wrote an interesting article about game theory in sports in Scientific American. And then NPR ran an article about how game theory just may decide the democratic nomination, however indirectly.
I started to think I should look into this.
Game theory is the process of strategically maximizing your own personal gain in a situation, based on the possible actions of the others involved. Shermer uses the classic “prisoner’s dilemma” as an example:
You and an accomplice have been arrested for a crime. The police take you both downtown for questioning and you are held in separate rooms, unable to communicate. You are both offered the same options:
- If you both confess, you both will go to prison for 4 years
- If neither of you confess, you both will go to prison for 2 years
- If one of you confesses, and the other does not, the confessor goes free and the other goes to prison for 5 years
(The specific prison terms vary in different versions. I used the Princeton version; link below.)
The “game” then becomes guessing your accomplice’s strategy, and choosing a response that you think will minimize your prison time. You can test your skills at said game by playing against a computer here.
Now, as fun as theoretical examples are, real life is even more intriguing, if not messy.
Shermer writes about game theory in reference to cycling, however, cycling becomes a metaphor to sociology and human nature. He describes how the choices of a few cyclists to “dope” in order to gain competitive advantage, force the other cyclists to comply in order to stay competitive. For them, cycling is a career, and many have no academic background to fall back on like Shermer did. They have to stay competitive.
The sad thing, of course, is that if everyone is doping, no one is better off than when no one was doping, and everyone is less healthy. Doping only works when it gives you an advantage over those who are not.
Shermer offers specific suggestions for changing the game to eliminate the payoffs for doping, including no punishment and/or title revoking for prior use, regular testing going forward, public announcement of positive results, and a swift no-tolerance policy.
Changing the payoffs changes the game. Any game.
The NPR article points out that it is likely that neither Clinton or Obama will have the necessary delegates to win the democratic nomination, which will leave the decision in the hands of the superdelegates. Jim Miller, author of Game Theory At Work: How To Use Game Theory Outthink And Outmaneuver Your Competition offers a potential winning strategy using the concept of game theory.
Miller shows shameless cynicism for the concept that the superdelegates will “do what’s right for the party”. He points out that they are individuals with families and careers, many of which may be at stake with regard to the election. The superdelegates may have the power now, but once the election is over, the new President will have the power. “It’s a delicate dance”, as Miller puts it.
The game of the candidates is to act strategically based on what’s truly important to the superdelegates – their interests and futures – by convincing them that s/he will win the nomination (or even better, the election). The game of the superdelegates is to secure their futures by showing support and favor to the candidate they think will win, or at least not piss him or her off.
The factors in this case, as Miller outlines them are:
- Clinton is perceived as tougher and more vindictive than Obama, and may receive more superdelegate votes out of fear
- Clinton has stated that Obama would make an excellent vice-president, which Miller perceives as an attempt to undermine him
- Obama will likely have the regular delegate lead
Miller suggests that Obama take a hard approach by stating that he will not accept the vice-presidential spot and that the nomination will not be legitimate if the superdelegate votes overturn the results of all the primaries. After all, the regular delegate count is indicative of the will of the states (not to mention their likelihood to support the nominated candidate, which is of most interest to the superdelegates). Miller even suggests that Obama might go so far as to threaten to run as a third party candidate. As if this year’s election could get any more interesting.
He also suggests that Clinton’s best bet to compete with this strategy would be to engineer a plan to re-run the Florida and Michigan primaries, awarding all votes to the winner. That would, of course, combat Obama’s illegitimacy claim.
Detractors of Miller’s theory point out that this sort of cut-throat political strategy goes against the heart of Obama’s message and appeal, and in fact, would put him on par with Clinton. So, sometimes even playing the game well changes things in ways you might not anticipate.
The whole thing makes me wonder how government reform could change the payoffs to create a more honest election process.
What I got most out of these articles is that game theory is fascinating because it applies to all of us in so many areas of our lives. Crime, politics, sports, ambition, relationships, etc…whatever is important to us. It’s interesting to predict strategies and analyze outcomes, whether of our own games or those of others. And it would be such useful information if we were able to figure out what works, and what doesn’t.
Ah, game theory…