Editor’s Note: This article was written by former ADV author and editor-in-chief Iva Kopraleva.
Prisoner’s dilemma, predator and prey, battle of the sexes, matching pennies – these are just a few examples of the many ways one could model an interactions between players through Game Theory. In fact, we only need several elements in order to construct a game – players, pay-offs resulting from each action the players undertake, and finally, the strategies that the players employ. The result is a very elegant albeit rather abstract decision-making model which rarely reflects reality in its complexity. Nevertheless, the real value of Game Theory stems precisely from its abstraction as it allows political scientists to move beyond the context of the individual cases and to discover the general underlying decision-making mechanisms. In other words, the use of Game Theory requires a certain way of thinking.
In all fairness, every theory is abstract to a certain extent by definition. The role of the theory is to simplify reality in a way which allows us to conduct analyses, draw conclusions and even make predictions. So then, what separates game theory from all the other political science theories out there? And why is it indispensable for political scientists to be familiar with it?
Game Theory can be used as a tool to construct an infinite number of distinct games, all of which can be attached to different narratives. In this sense, there are very few restrictions to the story a game can tell which makes Game Theory applicable to political science but also economics and even biology. In this sense, the scope of Game Theory is rather large in comparison to mid-range political science theories. Consider for example Wallerstein’s World Systems Theory,Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, Fukuyama’s End of History and even Waltz’s Structural Realism. All of these refer to more or less concrete phenomena and can hardly be used across academic disciplines.
On the other hand, however, Game Theory is much more concrete than general grand theoretical notions. In fact, the theory is firmly embedded in the positivist end of the ontological spectrum and explicitly relies on the rationality of the players. Therefore what separates Game Theory from other political science theories and analytical frameworks is that the former is abstract enough to be employed in a variety of contexts but, at the same time, concrete enough to be used for answering clearly formulated research questions.
Nevertheless, game-theoretical reasoning is very unappealing and often neglected by some who consider it too simplistic. In fact, assuming that players are always rational or that they have perfect information when it comes to the pay-offs of their actions can be rather problematic. In turn, defining what is rational and calculating the pay-offs of individual players can posit a challenge on its own. This criticism is well-founded. Human interactions are too complex to be captured by simple (or even not so simple) mathematical models. The most important value of Game Theory lies elsewhere.
Learning how to think in game-theoretical terms means to a large extent mastering deduction. In this sense, even if one disagrees with the assumption of rationality, it is still useful to acquire the ability to reason abstractly. There are, of course, other ways to achieve this goal apart from learning what is the dilemma of the prisoner or how a couple decided whether to attend a football match or go to the opera. Nevertheless, in the context of political science, none of these will be as interesting as modelling interactions in the form of games.
Image Source: Thinking in Practice