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At the Y

Gaming the System

Illustration depicting games from dice to dominoes to tic-tac-toe
Illustration by Scott Roberts

“I challenge you to a battle of wits.”

“For the princess? To the death? I accept!”

Eight Economics and Game Theory students sit at a conference-room table, grins plastered on their faces. Economics professor Val E. Lambson (BA ’79) is showing them the classic scene from The Princess Bride to demonstrate just how often the subject of his class is employed in both fictional and real-world scenarios.

Game theory, Lambson explains, is the science of understanding the cross effects of peoples’ actions and calculating strategies accordingly. Students spend class time discussing why people do what they do within games and how players can craft and calculate personal advantages.

“When I decide what to do in a game, I take into account how it will affect your options and how you will react to it,” Lambson explains. “I look at the payoff for any move and figure out how to walk away with as much gained as possible.”

In games with limited options, experience with game theory can be particularly beneficial. In tic-tac-toe, for example, the rules are simple and the choices are few. Many people can win against novices or force a draw against experienced players. “Game theory in its current state is really good at predicting behavior in simple situations with experienced, ultra-rational players,” Lambson says.

The course has opened student Alan E. Hanson’s (’17) eyes to the way game theory also plays out in real-world situations. “Buying a car, for example,” he says. “You need to understand what you want and what the salesman wants and make a decision based off of that.”

But as students learned on the first day of class, the theory has far more impactful applications than parlor games and financial negotiations. “Nuclear deterrents: now that’s a game,” Lambson says, smiling wryly. “During the Cold War, the fear of initiating nuclear war kept both sides in line.”

The greatest takeaway Lambson hopes to give his students, though, is insight into what it means to treat others as they would like to be treated, especially in “games” like marriage.

He demonstrates this idea with the “Battle of the Sexes” game, in which a theoretical couple has to choose an activity: either going to the opera or attending a football game. The game demonstrates that even though a participant may not get the first choice, cooperation can lead to greater overall gain and happiness. The students collaborate to calculate the various options. “Ultimately, each person would rather be with the other, no matter what they do,” one observes.

And so it goes for a lifetime of partnership. “If you are committed to a long future of interaction with a spouse, then it really limits the kinds of things that it makes sense to do,” Lambson says. “Commitment changes the whole dynamic of the relationship.”