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Game Theory: A Criminal Mind for a Mindful Crime


12036523_10153725279532287_4578663768194735472_nBranko Malić
21st Century Wire

While he’s suffering under the mass media information barrage, a question tends to pop up in one’s mind: exactly how many words are there in the media vocabulary?

For, when it comes to treatment of serious subjects like economy and politics, the words in use are being reduced to a surprisingly few, even so that 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 loftiness of speakers – our designated hierophants of media oracles – we are bombarded with rather frivolous terminology; namely, one is perplexed why, for instance, the economical and political agents are called players playing zero-sum games?

Why the philosophy professor speaks about strategy of Nietzsche’s arguments? What exactly does it mean to have cultural strategy? On what grounds the literally critic assumes that James Joyce employed 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. The game or game-play jargon originates in global epistemic dominance of thought models derived from mathematical game theory. It’s various abstract and complex forms (so called ‘models’ or ‘modules’), as well as their global appliance on all aspects of life, to a significant extent build the spiritual framework of our time, although they are rarely discussed outside of academia.

However, game theory is not merely a mathematician’s plaything. If we bear in mind that global world stage – with all those global players – is at the same time the home of myriads 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 fundamentals of game theory should be put to critical scrutiny.

The task is all the more urgent – and all the more easier – if we bear in mind that peculiarity of game theory, in contrast to other mathematical models, lies in the fact that it is founded on all-encompassing and at the same time incredibly simple – one could say simple as in ‘dim witted’ – explanation of man and world in general. This means that game theory is a metaphysical teaching, i.e. it’s ambition is to encompass everything, both nature of man and nature of universe.

And there is a one special rule to every game of metaphysics, namely this: when abstract and esoteric professional language of science is put aside, the game is potentially understandable to all parties, 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 speak in common language.

So let us take a look, aided by some elementary concepts, what exactly is game theory and what it means for someone who is not a player, neither big nor small.

Game theory is an explanatory model of decision making. It defines it’s subject as rational activity whose purpose is an increase in well-being of the deliberating individual or collective. Any behaviour seemingly pursuing different purpose is only a roundabout way to achieve it more rationally, or it is simply “irrational”. Tertium non datur. Obviously, we are dealing with, broadly speaking, “liberal” definition of human being, although it is in fact the legacy of Ancient Greek Sophists.

Bearing in mind that individual is always in the midst of other individuals and that in order to achieve it’s goals it must collaborate or come into conflict with them, the society has to be rationally modeled in order to minimize the conflict. Old bogeyman of political philosophy, Thomas Hobbes, thought that such a thing is possible only by absolute sovereignty of the State, because he was convinced that all those self-centred atoms are more prone to play some iteration of Total War series than that of Sims.

Proponents of game theory try to evade this fairly consistent inference or use it to prove something else: atomized individuals do not strive towards all-out conflict but towards equilibrium. The term denotes the state of conflict turned latent, in the sense of permanent threat or warning, but 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 endeavours to accomplish it’s end despite possible resistance by anticipating the strategies of that resistance. The healthy society is the one in which unavoidable conflicts are being canalized in relative harmony, regulated by the rules of the game, because the players realized that relative equality is more expedient than playing ‘all or nothing’ game. Hence, the game theory has a notable militaristic nature, affirmed by it’s history: it flourished inside the military think tanks during the first years of the Cold War, only to be later unleashed on civil societies throughout the West.

Listen to Alex Abella discuss the history of RAND Corporation, one of the hotbeds of game theory

Prisoner’s dilemma

At this level, some peculiarities are notable. The term ‘game’ is made distinct but is not clearly defined, i.e. it is obviously artificially narrowed.

For instance: since when the game has to be competitive? Moreover, it is usually understood as repose from labors and conflicts. Game by it’s nature doesn’t require winners and losers. It can be – and it usually is – completely self-sufficient activity. In that sense, dances, visual and linguistic creative activities, in a word: fine or liberal arts, are forms of playing the 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, element of chance and relations of power, i.e. of domination and submission. So game theory is concerned with power play. This is best illustrated in most famous of game theory modules, so called “prisoner’s dilemma”.

The prisoner’s dilemma is an imagined situation which game theoreticians apply to reality and it has many, more or less complex, variations. It can be described, using the so called static model, in the following way:

Two criminals are brought to police station for questioning. They committed the crime, but if the police fails to get the confession from one or either of them, they’ll walk. They are put in separate rooms and isolated from one another. The confession is demanded from each one. Situation in which they are put by rules of the game provides them with 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, but so is the risk of losing everything. Two key factors are in play: they are completely isolated from one another, i.e. they only know the game rules and pay-offs on which they model their respective strategies, and each one only wants to maximize his own pay-off.

The game theory endeavours to use this module to explain the real life situations and foresee the decisions to be made by opponents (for instance, by Soviets in Cold War era) or to offer the best course of deliberation to it’s users. In the dynamic model of prisoner’s dilemma, the main difference is in accessibility of information, because players are allowed to confer before they are isolated.

One thing is of note here. It is a seemingly insignificant, but in reality, key feature of prisoner’s dilemma module and game theory in general. Namely, 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 in one encyclopedia example, game theory module is illustrated by act of tossing the incapacitated opponent into precipice. It is interesting that the author uses the pronoun ‘he’ for victim while the criminal in dilemma is denoted as ‘she’, in strict accordance to 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 prisoners dilemma.

The game myth

This feature leads us to key weak point of game theory, i.e. it’s flimsy definition of rationality. Namely, “big players”, of whose moving and shaking the media hierophants inform us unceasingly, are brought into situation not only to be denounced as criminal organizations, by the angry public, but the notion appears to be incorporated into 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 economical players are prone to merge with their playmates in politics – which is notably the elementary definition of fascism – one comes to 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 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 is in fact from it’s inception being infected with an urge for escapism, clearly visible in so called “state of nature” and “social contract” theories, mythical stories about the historical event that never happened in the historical age that never was, which man escaped by the decision he never made.

Game theory metaphysics transforms this myth, enriches it, but it certainly doesn’t dispel it. The myth is sold, against all reason and wealth of human imagination, as veritable image of truth, i.e. a valid world-view, the prism through which the contemporary world-picture is transmitted before our eyes. However, this picture, no matter how coherent and self sufficient, is in fact rather fragile.

Persuasive power of myth is proportional to verity of it’s images to truth in itself, while persuasive power of lie stems from it’s appellation to weakness of thought – to inertia delighted with ease of passing flimsy judgments; with all those things that make keyboard pushing informational machines, still, but – if posthumanist have they way – not yet for long, called ‘humans’, go LOL! and OMG! as on command. The mythology of rational playground falls precisely into this second category, because it takes itself seriously, as a necessary and all-applicable system, therefore it subverts the transcendental, robbing it of it’s very possibility while replacing it with it’s own cuckoo’s egg.

However, in moments of crisis – and etymologically they equal the moments of judgment – of all aspects of life, such as the one unfolding right now, it’s lameness is ever more obvious, and it’s ability to keep alive the illusion ever more inadequate to the task.

Notion of man as ‘selfish informational apparatus’ is in fact a careless distortion of classical understanding of elementary human solidarity, founded on love of one’s own being transferred to another’s, best explained in Aristoteles’ book VIII of Nicomahean Ethics, where it is defined as ‘friendship’ (filia) in the broadest sense. And if one thing is certain these days, it is the fact that progressive concentration of power in the hands of players, at the expense of those who are being played, is more likely to push the losing side into irrational decision of giving up selfishness; of saying: “I will not play anymore.”

Ghosts in the machine

Such eventuality, namely: the choice of irrational decision, sheds more light on crucial system error in the definition of man and the game this pseudo-metaphysics imposes upon us. The term ‘irrational’ is never really defined in the framework of game theory. Truth be told, the rationality fared only little better, but at least it can serve as a foothold for via negativa deduction of what is not irrationality.

For game theoretician, irrational behaviour is not behaviour at all, it is a pseudo-behaviour deprived of deliberation. Bearing in mind that game theory yields considerable pay-off in microbiology, where genes are conceived as rational players in the game of survival of the fittest, we even can’t say that irrational players are making monkeys of themselves. So how to, by using this sophisticated net, catch the elusive mutant which doesn’t play games, strategize, steal and adjust to political moment?

Let’s define who or what he is, see whether it helps a bit. This “ghost in the machine” could be someone whose moral sentiment forces him to irrationally decline profitable professions or profitable occasions such as to employ his talents in mass propaganda or advertising; furthermore, in order to achieve his end, for instance write the novel penetrating the depths of human condition, 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 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 in the form of being unemployed and crucified between responsibility towards their conscience and their families?

After all, do you think these lines you are just reading are written with pay-off in mind?

Isn’t it all so irrational? Therefore, isn’t it just what we are looking for?

The game theory glimpses the irrational as it’s own confinement; the barbwire circumscribing the playground or unforeseen eventuality breaking the rules of gameplay, it’s strict order. Bearing in mind that we are talking about world order – and globe circumscribing barbwire – the shrinking of the irrational is absolute inasmuch the rule of mythical rational is absolute.

Endemic, logically indescribable specimens are reduced to occasional noise in communication channels between players. Only, the problem is: those endemic specimens are in fact the majority of our respectably populated planet, so the noise does tend to become pretty loud. It even begins to obstruct the tranquility of academic think tanks, and we know that devising complex and abstract logical, not to mention mathematical, model demands focus, a certain withdrawing from the world in the isolation of cabinet – that parody of monk’s cell. Could it be that irritating hum is developing into unpredictable, unbearable noise whose source is too powerful for campus security to subdue? Is it only rational to predict that global fish is much too big for thin net made of loosely knit conceptual framework, unfit even to catch a butterfly? What if it breaks? Because the enemy is irrational, therefore: unthinkable. It is the great Unknown, something equal to alien invasion. Can the sorcery of half-truth, half-philosophy, half-culture and half-living keep it’s eyes wide shut for much longer?

Isn’t it horrifying? That beast of thousand faces, called ‘Average Joe’? What to do if he gets out of control?

For god sakes, he could laugh the players out of the playground!

And, consequently, out of existence.

Author Branko Malić is a Croatian author and owner of Kali Tribune, with the background in classical philosophy. He’s focused on philosophy, media, culture and deep politics analysis.

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