Playing with Game Theory: Altruism or Evil?

When I think of games, I think of children gaming their parents, politicians gaming their opponents, businesses gaming their customers. I think of economists and marketing experts, fundraisers and military strategists, stockbrokers and business owners. I think of zero-sum games, cooperative games, collective-action games.

I think of highly analytical minds winning and minds with less analytical ability losing. I think of financial experts capable of derivative thinking, thus able to win millions that ordinary investors have no clue how to win. I think of professional athletes capable of analyzing the mathematics of their opponents’ performances, thus able to win more matches than expected. I think of nonprofit experts capable of leveraging game theory knowledge to grow their membership rolls.

Playing Games

I am not alone. The number of people interested in game theory has continued to grow since Princeton University mathematician John Von Neumann, a game theory pioneer, published Theory of Games and Economic Behavior with Oskar Morgenstern in 1944. The movie A Beautiful Mind (2001) similarly sparked interest in game theory by its portrayal of Nobel laureate John Nash’s work on the Nash Equilibrium.

Academic fields as diverse as economics, biology, marketing, athletics, neurobiology, political science, and military science all claim a stake in game theory. Peter Nonacs, a Professor in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department at UCLA describes the application of games to life:

“Much of evolution and natural selection can be summarized in three short words: “Life is games. In any game, the object is to win—be that defined as leaving the most genes in the next generation, getting the best grade on a midterm, or successfully inculcating critical thinking into your students. An entire field of study, Game Theory, is devoted to mathematically describing the games that nature plays.” Nonacs, Peter. “Cheating to Learn: How a UCLA professor gamed a game theory midterm.” April 22, 2013.

Game theory extends even into the fields of psychology and human relations. “What economists call game theory psychologists call the theory of social situations, which is an accurate description of what game theory is about.” Levine, David K. “What is Game Theory.”

Evil or Altruism?

When I first encountered game theory, I immediately understood how knowledge of game theory gives people power. Whether people use game theory power for the common good or for selfish aims depends on individuals, their sense of ethics, and their belief systems.

Peter Nonacs acknowledges the evil possibilities of game theory knowledge when he writes, “Morally, of course, games can be tricky. Theory predicts that outcomes are often not to the betterment of the group or society.” Nonacs, Peter. “Cheating to Learn: How a UCLA professor gamed a game theory midterm.” April 22, 2013.

Game Theory for Children

Despite game theory’s evil possibilities, I advocate teaching game theory to inquisitive children. Game theory opens children’s minds to the power of high level thinking and the power of mathematical reasoning. Introducing children to game theory classics such as chicken, centipede, ultimatum, and prisoners’ dilemma helps children understand the pitfalls and promises of human interactions. The more children learn about human relations, the better children understand themselves and their abilities to influence others. The more children learn about the mathematics underpinning game theory, the more children are willing to spend time building their math skills.

Salisbury CathedralAlthough game theory itself is neither altruistic nor evil, game theory can be used for a variety of purposes, some good and some bad. For this reason, children should not learn game theory in isolation. Adults have a responsibility to make sure that children learning game theory also learn about ethics, philosophy, and religion. Children need to learn that people are not pawns to be played in life; people are human beings worthy of respect and dignity.

A Big, Fat Textbook

Ever fall in love with a textbook? During my Ph.D. studies, I fell in love with the first edition of Avinash K. Dixit and Susan Skeath’s Games of Strategy. Although I have never seen the 2nd or 3rd editions of the Games of Strategybook, I still recommend the original edition. In fact, I’ve bought quite a few copies and given them to inquisitive children as young as twelve years old. I love the book’s easy-to-understand language, and I love how the book tells students exactly how game theory is useful in real life situations, including negotiations with parents, teachers, and classmates.

A child’s first reaction to a college-level textbook might be, “Yikes, I can’t read that!” If that happens, throw the textbook on the floor, have the child stand on the textbook, and then give the child a passionate sermon about (1) how human beings, including said child, are far superior to the pages of any book, and (2) how any book can be conquered by a child’s willpower and determination. Works like a charm!

Game Theory Courses – Free!

Yale University offers a free online video course on game theory. Here’s a description of the course:

This course is an introduction to game theory and strategic thinking. Ideas such as dominance, backward induction, Nash equilibrium, evolutionary stability, commitment, credibility, asymmetric information, adverse selection, and signaling are discussed and applied to games played in class and to examples drawn from economics, politics, the movies, and elsewhere. – Open Yale Course Econ 159: Game Theory

What a great idea to let students play and analyze games in class. Children who don’t want to watch the entire course can cherry pick interesting topics from the video list.

Stanford University offers a free game theory course taught by Yoav Shoham and Matthew O. Jackson from Stanford and Kevin Leyton-Brown from the University of British Columbia. Their detailed list of videos gives viewers many choices of interesting topics. The three professors also offer one video, titled “An Introductory Taste,” that gives viewers an overview of game theory.

For Serious Game Theorists

The Game Theory Society‘s website lists game theory conferences schedule in this fall in Los Angeles, Lisbon, Oxford, and Beijing. Although most attendees will likely be adults, if money is available for an expensive in-real-life adventure, why not try to register a super-interested youngest for a game theory conference?

DSC02895Alternatively, why not offer the child an inexpensive afternoon in a university library to peruse game theory articles in journals from a variety of disciplines? Spending a leisurely afternoon in a major university library, with freedom to roam from article to article, is one of my favorite activities–your child might similarly view a well-stocked library as an intellectual playground.

If you want a conference geared towards children and have oodles of money for traveling, why not see if you can visit the World Scholar’s Cup competition in Singapore this June? One of the six themes of the 2014 competition is devoted to game theory, or, as the competition phrases it, “The Science of Decision-Making.” Even if you can’t travel to Singapore on the spur of the moment, the World Scholar’s Cup study guide for the game theory theme is perfect summer fun for analysis-loving children.


Game theory introduces children to a whole new way of looking at games, of looking at strategies behind games, and of understanding the games that people play with one another. Adults who introduce children to game theory have a responsibility to make sure those children learn to appreciate ethics, philosophy, and religion. Life should not be a cut-throat game of the best analytical minds controlling the majority of planet; instead, life should be an adventure that affirms the worth and dignity of all people.

Notes and credits:

Money photo from
Book cover photo from
Other photos taken within the last year by Wenda Sheard–a honey locust tree in Ohio, and Salisbury Cathedral and the Natural History Museum in England.
Gifted at Play Blog HopI thank my friends at Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page, Gifted Homeschoolers Forum, and elsewhere for their inspiration, support, and suggestions. Please click on the graphic above (created by Pamela S Ryan–thanks!) to see to the titles, blog names, and links of other Hoagies Blog Hop participants. Please click on the graphic below (created by Tara Hernandez–thanks!) to see the titles, blog names, and links of Gifted Homeschoolers Forum Blog Hop participants.



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