Game Theory and Design

Go Board

“Go” by Flickr user Bauke Karel

This semester we decided to do something a bit differently. First, we decided to experiment with team teaching; it’s difficult to team teach in a university because labor requirements are usually expressed in terms of teaching load, and so there’s no good way to give credit for teaching half a class. Plus, my co-instructor, Daniel Levine, doesn’t even teach at the same institution. So we decided to team teach two classes, with him taking the lead in our course on Violence, and me taking the lead in our course in our second departure from standard coursework: a class on Games.

The idea for the Games course, (officially Game Theory and Design) was to meld traditional games and decision theory work with actual games, and to build up to the point where the students designed their own games or created a module for games that allow that. So we started with the standard decision theories, discussed payoff matrices and various simple games, following the standard line that goes from one-off games like the prisoner’s dilemma and chicken game (we used nuclear disarmament examples) to iterated games. We also threw in a smattering of probability theory, because we wanted them to be thinking about mixed games of chance and skill fairly quickly.

The games we played at the start were interesting but difficult: we mapped the strategies for tic-tac-toe and then introduced the game Go. The big challenges were that not everyone was getting a chance to play the games outside of class; various limitations on students access to the school (holidays, snow days, etc.) kept getting in the way. We even introduced them to Diplomacy, a fascinating semi-cooperative game that becomes quite cut-throat in the final rounds.

In developing this course, I have a couple of ulterior motives: I wanted to make sure we worked through Eleanor Ostrom’s institutional analysis and design account of rules, norms, and strategies. I find this work (and Christina Bicchieri’s “grammar of society”) quite useful for giving nuanced game theoretic accounts of thing we don’t think of as games, including things like nuclear arms races and disarmament where we seem not to be wholly motivated by competitive impulses. Forbidden Island gave the students a taste of how one might design a game that is both challenging and wholly cooperative; and this, in turn, suggests that the rules themselves might have a lot to do with the competitive element in our lives and society.

Another of the big departures from a standard game theory course as it might be taught in an economics department was our desire to play lots of games, and a transition we are beginning to make into non-standard games that focus on storytelling and role-playing. The stereotypical example of such games is Dungeons and Dragons (and we last week we introduced a free clone of the original D&D called Labyrinth Lord.) But our goal is to transcend the standard fare pretty quickly and move into games that are less about dice and probabilities and more about storytelling. A great example of this is the game Fiasco; a story-telling game that gives each player an opportunity to create and act out a role in a Cohen brothers film, “ordinary people with powerful ambition and poor impulse control.” This is a game almost wholly divorced from victory and defeat. Defeat is guaranteed, really: the goal is to tell a great story along the way. Designing “playsets” or scenarios for Fiasco is one of my dream goals for the students: these merely set the stage for others to imagine their own tragicomic stories.

One big impediment is that while the prison allows prisoners to own Xboxes and playing cards, they do not allow dice. The fear is that the dice might be used for gambling, I believe. So we have to constantly develop techniques for introducing the unexpected and random into our games. This has already led to some interesting experiments and techniques. (Why don’t people gamble on Rock-Paper-Scissors, anyway?)

Anyway, thanks for the support! I’ll have more to say about the course next month as we see how new games strike the fancies of our students!

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