Game analysis pt 1 – On the distinction between game and non-game

Ken Binmore, economist and game theorist, writes:

If you drive a car on a busy street, you are playing a game with the drivers of the other cars. When you make a bid at an auction, you are playing a game with the other bidders. When a supermarket manager decides the price at which she will try to sell cans of beans, she is playing a game with her customers and with the managers at rival supermarkets. When a firm and a union negotiate next year’s wage contract, they are playing a game. The prosecuting and defending attorneys are playing a game when each decides what arguments to put before a jury. Napoleon and Wellington were playing a game at the battle of Waterloo, and so were Khrushchev and Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis.

I do not find this description satisfying. I may agree with Binmore on what it essentially means to play a game, but I don’t like his assumption of who is actually playing the game. As I see it, these examples that he lists are all examples of what eventually can be playing of games, but in order for it to be games it requires certain commitment from the participants, and that commitment is optional, nothing to be taken for granted.

For example, the idea that the supermarket manager plays a game with the customers and “rival” supermarket managers, seems to rely on an assumption that she cares for earning as much money as possible and that she consciously calculates for this. On the contrary, she may decide the price for many different reason, i.e.
*because it was the suggested price in a paper she read;
*because they sold for that price before and it worked out well;
*because she thinks the price is fair and just; not greedily high, nor so low that she won’t be able to pay the workers wages
*because that would leave a fair margin to the purchase price;
*she decides the price 95 cents because 95 is her “lucky number”.

In neither of these cases she takes into active consideration the customers nor other managers, and thus I don’t think it’s fair to say she plays a game with them either. That would be a too wide and liberal definition of game and leave out the important distinction between game and non-game.

It may sound picky when I say this, but I find it important to point out that to play a game is to make an optional choice. We may treat ordinary human activities as if it is games, but then we are applying a somewhat simplified model. What really motivates people is a complex story. In the examples listed by Binmore we may assume they are playing games, but then we should also admit it’s just an assumption.

Further reading
Game analysis pt 2 – Analysing simple and complex games


About Dandre

Former student of philosophy, maths and literature. Now studying master program in sociology. Some thinkers of central interest include Ludwig Wittgenstein, C. G. Jung and Pierre Bourdieu.
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