Game theory

To model a human interaction as a game means understanding it as a set of discrete choices made by independent parties that yield results for all (cf. Johnson 2020).

A game model does not presume that the players choose privately or secretly. They may communicate and negotiate, but the game is ultimately decided by their individual choices.

The game model also does not assume that the players are selfish. They may have any given goals, including altruistic ones. For instance, imagine a pair of friends, each of whom only wants go to the restaurant that the other one prefers. They may have a great deal of difficulty deciding and may even withhold or distort information about their own tastes to increase the odds of satisfying the other person’s preference.

Game theory can help reveal problems that we may be able to fix. It is can also be a way to be more fair. Often, we analyze situations in terms of the choices that confront us and the results that will befall us if we make any choice. We see other people as doing the right or the wrong thing, from our perspective. It is important to step away from that first-person view and assess the choices–and the costs and benefits–that confront everyone. Then their behavior may seem more reasonable, and the root of the problem may lie in the situation, not in the other people’s values.

When used as models of real life, games simplify and abstract. That is both a limitation and a huge advantage: a model can clarify important problems and patterns that may be hidden in the real world’s complexity.

Games model situations in which people or other entities (e.g., animals, companies, nations) make separate choices, and the outcome results from the interaction of their decisions. Games are not very helpful for modeling other kinds of situations. One important form of civic action that they do not model well is a discussion about what is right (and why). Exchanging opinions and reasons isn’t well illuminated by a game.


  • Commons game (in person version)
    Lesson plans can be found all over the Internet for games that model the “Tragedy of the Commons” using goldfish crackers. This is a version used in the Introduction to Civic Studies course at Tufts. Materials: goldfish crackers (“fish”); plastic bowls (“lakes”); and forks (as tools for fishing). Rules: Each group of four people should sit in … Continue reading
  • Commons game (online version)
    This is a game that will play well for a large virtual group, and it is free. An in-person game is available elsewhere on this site. A useful list of other games, with reviews, is here. This game simulates: A pandemic at a university. (How much does each student comply with social distancing?) Carbon policy. (How … Continue reading
  • Grade Inflation and Teaching: The Private School Marketplace
    “Grade Inflation and Teaching: What Should Teachers do in a World of Entitlement?” by Meira Levinson and Ilana Finefter from Justice in Schools is a case that poses classic questions about a problem of collective action and values. From the summary: In a world of increasingly competitive college admissions, more and more one grade may … Continue reading
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