The Games Scientists Play

I bet that more scientists than the average person enjoys games. Games can range from those which involve just chance (snakes and ladders), to those that require strategy and choice (poker), with many examples in-between (Monopoly, Cluedo and my personal favourite, Hungry Hippos).

Games are even dealt with by their own branch of mathematics – game theory. In game theory games are typically played between two players who each have a single choice between two alternative options. Sometimes they know the outcome of choosing each option, sometimes not, and they then have to deduce the relationships between choices and outcomes by playing repeatedly. Classic examples of game theoretic games with relevance to biology include the Hawk-Dove game, which has been used as a model of dominant vs subordinate behaviours, and the re-iterated prisoner’s dilemma, which has been used to investigate theories governing the evolution of cooperativity.

Why do scientists like games? A game represents a small world, which is governed by rules and may also be affected by probability. Within that world different strategies have varying chances of success, and the player’s goal is to find the optimal strategy that maximises the probability of winning. Sometimes there are even meta-games to be played. Your strategy develops as play progresses, because you become familiar with your opponent’s strategy and modify your own to best counter theirs.

As an abstract formalism, games embody what a lot of scientists are striving to do in their work, defining the rules that operate within the world, so that we can choose options rationally and in doing so influence the outcomes.

By Dave Whitworth