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Game theory in the popular press.

Theory on stage

New Scientist
Letters Section
Stan Hayware
October 31, 1998
(vol 160 issue 2158, p. 62)
text is a cache of

I was very interested in the article by Robert Matthews on drama theory ("Don't get even, get mad", 10 October, p 26). It may well be new to mathematicians, but it certainly is not new to dramatists.

As someone who has taught I usually start my students with the "impossible conflict" that has to be resolved, typically where there is no happy ending. Making decisions when only a limited amount of information, time or resources are available is the very basis of drama.

All stories can be described in terms of mathematical models and include linear (sequential), zigzag (non-sequential), domino (one event sets off others in a line), ripple (one event spreads out in all directions), shunting (one event effecting others but indirectly) and bus stop (characters changing as the story moves along) models. All situations can be seen in these terms, so that the effect of any decision can be estimated in terms of its eventual impact. Story analysis consists of seeing how many lines are going on within a story and where they lead.

The problem with game theory is that it can offer options that require a intuitive response, and that in turn requires a decision. For many years I have asked students: "What is the most important decision you have ever made in your life?" As yet, I have never found anyone who can give me an immediate answer. I then ask them how they make decisions. Most do not know.

Drama theory is a very interesting development as it takes into account the way people play games at different levels at the same time (what they say, what they mean, and what they do). Such levels may not have much consistency, however.

The essence of game theory is that a game has objectives, rules and boundaries. Defining those in a life situation is obviously difficult, but dramatists deal with it by regarding a character's objective as being the "game". The players are divided into those that promote the objective and those that hinder it.

The mathematics of drama is a welcome development. I look forward to the analysis of humour as verbal topology.

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