Game Over

The Jargon of Game Theory

While suffering under the information barrage wrought by mass media, a question arises in one’s mind: exactly how many words are there in the media vocabulary? For, when it comes to treatment of serious subjects like the economy and politics, the words in use are reduced to surprisingly few, so that even purported media analysis or commentary comes to resemble a mantra or nursery rhyme. Furthermore, it is notable that this “linguistic drain” occurs precisely at the moment when “serious” matters come into focus, and in spite of all the loftiness of the talking heads – our designated hierophants and media oracles – we are bombarded with rather frivolous terminology. One can only be perplexed at why, for instance, economic and political agents are called players? Why does the philosophy professor speak about the strategy of Nietzsche’s arguments? What exactly does it mean to have a cultural strategy? On what grounds does the literally critic assume that James Joyce employed a narrative strategy?

Why are all those serious things spoken about as if they were some kind of game?

On the face of it, the answer is surprisingly easy to deduce. Game or game-play jargon originates in global epistemic dominance of thought models derived from mathematical game theory. Its various abstract and complex forms (so called ‘models’ or ‘modules’), as well as their global application to all aspects of life, build the spiritual framework of our time to a significant extent, although they are rarely discussed outside of academia. However, game theory is not merely a mathematician’s plaything. If we bear in mind that the world stage – with all those global players – is also the home to all sorts of people who are well aware that they are being played, but have no idea of true nature of those playing them, then it is clear that the fundamentals of game theory should be subjected to critical scrutiny. The task is all the more urgent – and all the easier – if we bear in mind that the peculiarity of game theory, in contrast to other mathematical models, lies in the fact that it is founded on all-encompassing and simultaneously incredibly simple – one could say simple as in ‘dim witted’ – explanation of man and the world in general.

Game theory is a metaphysical doctrine, i.e. its ambition is to encompass everything, both the nature of man and the nature of universe. And there is a one special rule to every game of metaphysics, namely this: when the abstract and esoteric professional language of science is put aside, the game is potentially understandable to all parties – both those who are playing and those who are being played. It is an unspoken rule, an ancient assumption of all world-view con-games: in order for half-truth to hold sway over everybody, it must be spoken in common language. So let us examine, aided by some elementary concepts, what game theory is exactly and what it means for someone who is not a player, only played.

At its core, though, game theory is an explanatory model of decision making. It defines its subject as rational activity whose purpose is an increase in well-being of the deliberating individual or collective. Any behavior seemingly pursuing different purpose is only a roundabout way to achieve this goal more rationally, or it is simply “irrational.” Tertium non datur. Obviously, we are dealing with, broadly speaking, a “liberal” definition of man, although it is in fact the legacy of Ancient Greek Sophists. Bearing in mind that an individual is always in the midst of other individuals and that in order to achieve its goals it must collaborate or come into conflict with them, society must be rationally modelled in order to minimize conflict. That old bogeyman of political philosophy, Thomas Hobbes, conceived such a thing as possible only through the absolute sovereignty of the State, for was convinced that all those self-centered atoms were more prone to play at some iteration of Total War than that of Sims.

Proponents of game theory try to evade this fairly consistent inference of universal war or use it to prove something else: atomized individuals do not strive toward all-out conflict but towards equilibrium. The term denotes a state of conflict turned latent, in the sense of permanent threat or warning, but having ceased to be destructive; it is, in a word, a rational conflict, a war that grew cold. Namely, rational behavior is primarily strategic, i.e. it endeavors to accomplish its objective despite possible resistance by anticipating the strategies of that resistance. The healthy society is the one in which unavoidable conflicts are being channeled into relative harmony, regulated by the rules of the game, because the players realized that relative equality is more expedient than playing an ‘all or nothing’ game. Hence, game theory has a notably militaristic nature, affirmed by its history: it flourished inside military think tanks during the first years of the Cold war, only to be later unleashed on civil societies throughout the West.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

At this level, some peculiarities are also notable. The term ‘game’ is made distinct but is not clearly defined, i.e. it is obviously artificially narrowed. For instance: since when does the game have to be competitive? Moreover, it is usually understood as a leisure activity, an escape from labor and conflict. Game by its nature doesn’t require winners and losers. It can be – and it usually is – a completely self-sufficient activity. In that sense, dances, visual and linguistic creative activities, fine or liberal arts, are all forms of playing a game. Those are all activities that, deprived of any calculated purpose outside themselves, remain autonomous and, therefore, free. However, game theory, without further clarification, presumes that games are always forms of competition implying conflict, binary division on winners and losers, elements of chance and power relations, domination and submission. So game theory is concerned with power plays. This is best illustrated in that most famous of game theory modules, the “Prisoner’s Dilemma.”

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is an imagined situation that game theoreticians apply to reality, and it has many variations with according levels of complexity. It can be described, using the so-called static model, in the following way:

Two criminals are brought to a police station for questioning. They committed the crime, but if the police fail to get the confession from one or either of them, they’ll walk. They are put in separate rooms and isolated from one another. A confession is demanded from each one. A situation develops in which the rules of the game provide them with a limited number of possible strategies: each one could or could not confess. If both confess, their pay-off is equally small, but if only one confesses, his pay-off is small, but bigger than the pay-off of his accomplice. If neither confesses, the pay-off is equally big for both of them, yet so is the risk of losing everything. Two key factors are in play: the prisoners are completely isolated from one another – they only know the game’s rules and the pay-offs by which they model their respective strategies, and each one only wants to maximize his own pay-off. The game-theory endeavor to use this module to explain real-life situations and foresee the decisions to be made by opponents (for instance, by Soviets in the Cold-War era) or to offer the best course of deliberation to its users. In the dynamic model of The Prisoner’s Dilemma, the main difference is in access to information, because players are allowed to confer before they are isolated.

A striking feature of such models must be noted. More often than not, the agents of decision-making in game theory modules are described as criminals. Sometimes they are jewel thieves, sometimes it’s a fugitive escaping the posse, and one encyclopedia’s game theory module is illustrated by the act of tossing the incapacitated opponent into precipice. It is interesting that the author uses the pronoun he for the victim while the criminal in the dilemma is denoted as she, in strict obeisance to the rules of political correctness. Bearing in mind that victimhood, imaginary or not, proves to gain a rather abundant pay-off, it seems that even the game theoretician is faced with a Prisoner’s Dilemma.

The Game Myth

This feature leads us to key weak point of game theory, i.e. its flimsy definition of rationality. Namely, the “big players”, of whose moving and shaking the media hierophants inform us unceasingly, are implicitly denounced as criminal organizations, and not by the frustrated and confused public – the notion appears incorporated into the very definition of their enterprises. Every player seeks exclusively his own maximal gain, and that which is considered to be “one’s own,” therefore rationally desirable, seemingly private, comes dangerously close to being privative. Bearing in mind that such exclusive economic players are prone to merge with their playmates in politics – which is, after all, the elementary definition of fascism – one must reach the conclusion that in the foundations of seemingly supra-private bodies, be it corporations or governments, not only private but also privative interests are embedded, and that the very process of democracy can be seen as a means of accomplishing this.

In that sense, it is no wonder that what is now called liberalism is a form of strange metaphysics. Namely, it appeals to ‘human nature’ and ‘natural rights’, but has in fact always been infected with an urge for escapism, clearly visible in so-called “state of nature” and “social contract” theories, mythical stories about a historical event that never happened in a historical age that never was, which man escaped by a decision he never made. Game theory metaphysics transforms this myth and enriches it, but it certainly doesn’t dispel it. The myth is sold, against all reason and the wealth of human imagination, as the veritable image of truth, i.e. a valid world-view, the prism through which the entire contemporary landscape is transmitted before our eyes. However, this picture, no matter how coherent and self-sufficient, is in fact rather fragile.

Don't want to get screwed over? Don't play.

Don’t want to get screwed over? Don’t play.

The persuasive power of the myth is proportional to the verity of its images of truth, while the persuasive power of the lie stems from its appellation to weaknesses of thought – to an inertia delighted with the ease of passing flippant judgment. The mythology of the rational playground falls precisely into this second category, because it assumes the pretense of a necessary and all-applicable system, thereby subverting the transcendental, robbing it of its very possibility while replacing it with a simulacrum. However, in moments of crisis – etymologically equal to moments of judgment – its frailty is all the more obvious, and its ability to maintain the illusion ever more inadequate to the task. The notion of man as a ‘selfish information processor’ is in fact a careless distortion of the classical understanding of elementary human solidarity, founded on love of one’s own transferred to another, best explained in Aristotle’s Book VIII of Nicomachean Ethics, where it is defined as ‘friendship’ (filia) in the broadest sense. The progressive concentration of power in the hands of players, at the expense of those who are played is more likely to push the losing side into the irrational decision of giving up on selfishness, of declaring: “I will not play anymore.”

Ghosts in the Machine 

We face the following eventuality: the choice of irrational decision sheds more light on a crucial system error in the definition of man and game that this pseudo-metaphysics imposes on us. The term ‘irrational’ is never really defined in the framework of game theory. And rationality fared only slightly better, though at least it can serve as a foothold for via negativa deduction of what is not irrationality. For the game theoretician, irrational behavior is not behavior at all; it is a pseudo-behavior deprived of deliberation. Bearing in mind that game theory yields a considerable pay-off in microbiology, where genes are conceived as rational players in the game of survival of the fittest, we can’t even say that irrational players are making monkeys of themselves. So how, using this sophisticated net, does one catch this elusive mutant who won’t play games, strategize, steal, or bow to political religion?

Let’s define him. This “ghost in the machine” could be someone whose moral sentiment forces him to irrationally decline profitable professions or profitable occasions, such as employing his talents in mass propaganda or advertising. Furthermore, in order to achieve his objective, perhaps writing a novel penetrating the depths of human condition, for example, he irrationally decides to always be close to death, because only then he can really reach the heart of his subject, while at the same time he knows that the pay-off will probably come after he is long gone. Is there any conceivable rational agent who can assume that he rationally planned all this? Or are all those “whistleblowers” really rational players; people who rationally decided to confront corruption, and now enjoy the pay-off by being unemployed or jailed, crucified between responsibility towards their conscience and their families?

After all, were the lines you now read calibrated for a payoff? “Irrationality” is what you were seeking the entire time.

War Games

Game theory views the irrational as its own confinement; the razor wire lining the playground fence or an unforeseen eventuality breaking the rules of game-play, its strict order. Bearing in mind that we are talking about world order – and world-encircling razor wire – the deprecation of the irrational is absolute inasmuch as the myth of the rational is absolute. Endemic, logically indescribable specimens are reduced to occasional noise in communication channels between players. Yet those endemic specimens are in fact the majority of our respectably populated planet, and so the noise grows to permeate our societies. It even begins to obstruct the tranquility of academic think tanks, and we know that devising complex and abstract logical, not to mention mathematical, models demands focus, a certain withdrawal from the world in the isolation of one’s paneled office – that parody of the monk’s cloister. Could it be that the hum of the irrational is evolving into an unpredictable, unbearable roar of chaos whose source is too powerful for even the valiant forces of campus security to subdue?

Is it only rational to predict that a creature of grand scale is much too big for nets weaved from a flimsy conceptual framework, unfit for catching even butterflies? What happens when the net breaks? Because the enemy is irrational, and therefore unthinkable. It is the great Unknown, something equal to an extraterrestrial invasion. Can the controllers’ sorcery of half-truth, half-philosophy, half-culture, and half-living keep our eyes wide shut for much longer? Among the faceless and unprepossessing shall awaken the beast of the irrational, its inner abyss suspending man between the angelic and the infernal. Game over.

See all of Branko Malic’s writings on philosophy, culture, and deep politics at Kali Tribune.