Games, Strategy, and the Conflict-Cooperation Spectrum


David is Lecturer in International Security and Strategy at the University of Exeter’s Strategy and Security Institute. This post is intended to summarise and promote themes from his just-published book (co-edited with Mark de Rond), Games: Conflict, Competition, and Cooperation (Cambridge University Press, 2019). You can follow him on Twitter here.

Why plug a book about games on a blog called “Defence-in-Depth”? After all, the subject matter of military operations is about as far from the trivial as it is possible to be; the stakes of defence are survival for individuals, communities, and nations, whereas games often involve nothing more serious than an argument between siblings at the kitchen table. However, successful defence rests on effective strategy– and strategy is very much a domain of games and gaming. For this reason, my co-editor Mark de Rond and I hope that our new volume on Games: Conflict, Competition, and Cooperation – launched this month with Cambridge University Press – will be a valuable read for a wide range of students of strategy, defence and general readers alike. Bringing together eminent scholars and practitioners from Britain and beyond, the volume’s chapters each explore the role of competitive incentives in social life to provide a rich interdisciplinary smorgasbord of perspectives for anyone interested in understanding conflict, cooperation, and the space in between.

Social Interaction in the Face of Competitive Incentive Structures

Games are ubiquitous. They shape our leisure and our work, our governments and our global relations. Games consume resources, but also generate them; they foster friendships, deepen enmities, and shed light on both.

The etymology of “game” in contemporary usage originates from gamen – Old English for “joy, fun, amusement” – a term itself derived from Norse and Saxon forebears. Yet many games are not fun at all: they are played in deadly earnest, and for high stakes. Even the original Olympiads, the progenitor of today’s organised interstate sporting contests, were valuable means for rival Greek city-states to assuage political pressure for competition and supremacy while preserving mutually-useful military and economic cooperation. Viewers of the cult US television drama The Wirewidely hailed for it’s Dickensian depiction of crime and poverty in post-industrial America, will be familiar with the refrain “it’s all in the game”. This wry quip, on the part of both drug-dealers and the police officers who chase them, reflects a shared understanding that both are hostage to forces larger than themselves: to the perverse incentives created by capricious institutions, be they narcotics gangs or law-enforcement bureaucracies, which are themselves responding self-interestedly to far-reaching socio-economic and political failure. During the Cold War, the language of “games” – usually prefixed by that most horror-invoking term of all, “war” – entered the lexicon of diplomacy and military strategy. Yet the exercises and simulations that one side might perceive as merely necessary to preserve defence and deterrence, the other side could easily interpret as signals of hostility and aggression – a dynamic that scholars dub the “security dilemma” – bringing East and West perilously close to catastrophic conflict.

The study of games, then, is the study of interaction in the face of incentive structures. Whether it be children chasing a ball around a playground or a firm contemplating how to respond to a newly-established rival, two chess grand-masters facing each other across a table or Chinese naval officers modelling what to do in some future confrontation with the United States, all are responding interactively to certain incentives under certain conditions. Sometimes those incentives engender cooperation, as when a detective and an informant – who may otherwise despise each other – come together to convict some individual of mutual concern. Sometimes they produce bounded competition, as when Formula 1 teams pour resources into beating each other while also agreeing on the desirability of petrol-driven motor racing in the face of rival electric-powered series’ rise. And sometimes such incentives produce open conflict, as when stags’ rutting inflicts grievous injuries or even death on others of the same species – deer that, given local proximity, could well be brothers – for the sake of passing on their genes to a herd of hinds.

The utility and importance of investigating incentive structures gave rise, in turn, to one of the great innovations of twentieth-century social science: the incorporation of mathematically-derived “game theory” into the explanation of human behaviour. With its systematic unpacking of decision-makers’ options under various conditions – uncertainty over available payoffs, imperfect information over others’ intentions, ambiguity over the number of future interactions, and so forth – game theory has shed remarkable light on the drivers of conflict, competition, and cooperation. We know more today about the causes of war, the behaviour of firms, the bargaining of legislators, and indeed, any number of daily individual human choices because of game theory’s insights. Yet we also now recognize that certain assumptions underpinning many of game theory’s most seminal contributions, such as the assumption of human “rationality”– where rationality is equated with forward-looking profit-maximization – do not accurately reflect human behaviour, particularly the many social and cognitive sources of (dis)utility that people “play games” around. As such, while “game” can be a useful analytical tool and heuristic metaphor, its deployment merits caution.

Varied Perspectives, Similar Themes

The chapters in our volume, derived from a lecture series on the same topic convened over the first three months of 2016 at Darwin College, Cambridge, reflect an array of perspectives on the spectrum of conflict, competition, and cooperation – as well as a wealth of expertise on what games look like, how they operate, and how social animals behave inside them. First, former UK Cabinet minister Sayeeda Warsi considers the “game” of politics – a trait that voters lament, even while placing ever-greater demands on their governmental representatives – and its potential to conflict with the personal principles that draw individuals to the calling of political representation in the first place. She concludes that there comes a point where an individual must withdraw from the political game, even if that means forfeiting the governmental power to advance causes that one values, if one is to retain the personal principles and moral code that led oneself to politics in the first place. Second, Nicky Padfield – a scholar who combines legal and criminological expertise with professional knowledge of Britain’s judicial and penal systems – scrutinizes the “game-playing” that afflicts the pursuit of criminal justice. She contends that, despite the well-meaning pursuit of reform, the system still too often resembles a game of “Snakes and Ladders” for both the victims and culprits of crime – achieving justice and rehabilitation requires laborious ascent through the system, while it is all-too-easy to slide into injustice and relapse. Third, A. C. Grayling – a leading philosopher of language, logic, and the history of both – unpacks the thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein, specifically the multiple explicit and implicit games that the great Cambridge logician was playing. While known for his introduction of the “language-game” concept, whereby language derives meaning not from objective referents but from its usage, Grayling shows that Wittgenstein was also playing with the discipline of philosophy itself, seeking to protect the things he regarded as important – ethics and religion – from the encroachments of reductive scientific attitudes.

Fourth, Dave Brailsford – the principal coach/manager behind unprecedented Olympic success for British Cycling and subsequent Grand Tour success for Team Sky – turns his eye on the games that exist within elite sport. He concludes that athletes, helped by their coaches and medics, make their biggest strides in performance through playing around with mind-set – marginal gains can be found in fitness, equipment, diet, physiological support, and so forth, but the “inner chimp” has to first be willing to undergo privations for the sake of a belief system. Fifth, Frank Ledwidge – barrister and participant-turned-critic in Britain’s recent expeditionary wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – eviscerates the UK’s post-9/11 return to what was once dubbed “the Great Game”: external powers’ direct military involvement in the pursuit of strategic interests in Central Asia. He finds that not only were political decision-makers at fault, as is now ensconced in the popular memory, but also that the British Army’s senior officers failed to understand – and therefore failed to appropriately strategize for – the sorts of campaigns they were entering, attributing this failure to a lack of military intellectual culture that he hopes is now shifting. Sixth, eminent neuro-psychologist Barbara Sahakian considers ways in which the brain itself can play games with our mental health, an area where human understanding still lags behind our knowledge of physical health. Yet games may also offer a way forward: just as we can train our bodies via exercise to sustain longevity and wellbeing, so too the gaming innovations that Sahakian discusses hold the promise of maintaining and improving brain function, even into later life. Seventh, distinguished zoological ecologist Nick Davies surveys some of the games that non-human animals play, both within generations and across evolutionary time, driven – as humans are too, of course – by the hope of reproductive success. He reveals complex mixtures of cooperation and competition, arms races and innovations, survival stratagems and sexual trickery, to paint a fascinating picture of life on Charles Darwin’s “entangled bank”: individuals, societies, and species locked in conflict for the privilege of replicating themselves.

An Epic Afterword…

In the end, we come to our final contributor. Thomas Schelling did not invent game theory, but he applied its insights widely to many of the most pressing political, economic, and social challenges of the post-1945 world. Already aged 94 by the time of his lecture, Professor Schelling agreed to provide us with a short reflection on outstanding questions arising from that most famous and invoked of game-theoretical heuristics, “the Prisoners’ Dilemma”. That reflection – presented in the book as our afterword – represents his final published work: he passed away in December 2016, some nine months after his lecture, at the age of 95. The material is therefore used by kind permission of his widow, Alice, who was an equally vibrant, generous, and insightful participant in debates with students and staff alike during their stay in Cambridge – a city that Tom first visited, incredibly, on the European staff of the US Marshall Plan in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. While Professor Schelling published widely, on issues from the public health implications of smoking to the bargaining problems associated with countering climate change, it is for his work on identifying the conditions necessary for peace to hold in the face of conflictual incentive structures against the backdrop of Cold War nuclear confrontation that he will be most remembered. He was accordingly awarded the 2005 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences (shared with Robert Aumann) for “having enhanced our understanding of conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis”.

With major-power relations now once again souring and the associated spectre of military escalation towards nuclear use returning, a generation of students and policymakers who had hoped that Schelling’s insights in that domain could be put away forever are now poring once again over his works. It is only fitting, therefore, that the last word in our volume should go to Tom. And it is only fitting, similarly, that the volume itself should be dedicated to his memory. We hope that you enjoy reading it as much as we enjoyed piecing together the contributions of such wonderful contributors.

Image: Exercise Alalgam Eagle 16, a big data driven war game run by the US DOD, via the Army University Press.

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