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Game Theory

As always, a day late and a dollar short.

Yesterday --

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, 2005 [i.e., 'The Nobel Prize in Economics'. These things are sponsored now? Like American sports stadiums? - ed.], jointly to Robert J. Aumann Center for Rationality, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel and Thomas C. Schelling Department of Economics and School of Public Policy, University of Maryland, College Park, MD, USA, "for having enhanced our understanding of conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis".

I should've written all this up before -- my own "game theory", I mean -- so I could have been in competition for this year's Prize, but (1) I didn't think another gamer could win it after Russell Crowe won his "game theory" prize in 1994, and (2) I didn't come up with my theory until this morning.

So, I guess I'll get it all down now, in the hope lightning will eventually strike thrice.

The Game

Most little American boys of a certain age, and some little American girls probably, especially if they had brothers, are familiar with a contraption that began appearing under Christmas Trees all over this country sometime in the late 1940s, early 1950s. The wrapped package would have been maybe three feet long, maybe two feet wide, and a few inches high. Once you and your brother finished shredding the wrapping paper, tearing it away from the box and flinging the handfuls of paper over your shoulder, you would find yourself gaping in awe at your new treasure:

(To my astonishment, this thing is still going strong. Do a Google search on "electric football".)

The idea is this: you and your "opponent" set up your 11 "players", one side on "offense", the other side plays "defense". You cram a little football-shaped piece of felt under the arm of one of the men in the offensive backfield. You throw a switch and the room is filled with this incredibly aggravating droning buzz, the "field" begins vibrating, the little men slide around in some incomprehensible pattern until one of the defensive "players" bumps into the "ball carrier", or he goes out of bounds, or crosses the goal line (either yours or the other guy's). Once one of those outcomes has occurred, you turn the switch off and reset the "player's" on your "team" for the next "play".

That's it. That's the whole god-damned game. You can't believe how lame this thing is. And yet, at the same time, you can't believe how popular this thing was (and, I guess, still is).

I don't recall ever really caring all that much about the game. Well, I wanted to win and everything, and I would set my men up with the intention of "gaining ground" and eventually scoring a touchdown. But, I mean, come on. Once you flipped the switch, it was chaos. The fun was in how stupid and pointless the entire exercise was. I remember myself and various of my opponents rolling on the carpet in my bedroom, laughing our asses off. Talk about easily entertained.

Electric Democracy

But only this morning did it occur to me how much of the Republic's decline can be explained by the appeal of this "game".

At election time, we set up the players on our side, and the other side sets up its players. We flip the switch. An incredibly loud, irritating noise fills the room. The players wander around the "field". In the end, more or less accidentally, one of a number of chaotic outcomes occurs. (Note: as in the real Electric Football, sometimes you can get away with influencing outcomes by surreptitiously tilting the "field".) Then we reset the field and throw the switch again.

To be sure, there are many who still care about issues, who make it a practice to get their news and who care about getting it from reliable sources -- people who take their civics lessons seriously and who know a genuine democracy relies on the people keeping themselves informed and thinking.

And yet what we have is Electric Democracy.

I can't account for it, really, anymore than I can account for the popularity of this incredibly pointless "game" of Electric Football. As I say, the only thing I can think of by way of an explanation is that it's good for laughing your ass off at the stupidity of it all. On your bedroom floor, when you are 11 years old, that sort of thing is not just harmless, it's more or less your job to be hopelessly entertained by incredibly stupid things. So, you know, cool.

But ever since its introduction just after the war, this "game" has apparently turned into some sort of respectable civics lesson for young Americans. This is how you run a democracy. Set up your men and flip the switch. I don't think it was ever anyone's intention to have things turn out that way, but it's certainly the way they have.

OK, fine, but come on. You're not 11 anymore. Turn that god-damned thing off and go outside and play in the sunshine for a while, will ya? Jesus. You're driving me nuts.


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Quick note about "sponsored" Nobel Prize: The original 5 categories were set out in Alfred's will: Physiology or Medicine (Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi! Oi! Oi!) <ahem>; Physics; Chemistry; Literature; Peace.
Back in the rather convulsive year of 1968, the Sveriges Riksbank (www.riksbank.com) was celebrating its tercentenary (from 1668) as the oldest central bank in the world, and decided to start and fund in perpetuity a new section of the Nobel Prizes. Hence the name. The award is given by the same Academy using the same principles and procedures as for the original prizes.

Thank you very much for that. And congratulations on your Aussie winners. I've always loved that story about ulcers and stress and bugs. "Bugs? What're you, nuts?" I especially like the part where the guy drinks a whole beakerful of his bugs. I love science and I love it even more when people are humbled by somebody who comes along with a new piece of information.

Kind of like me not knowing why the prize in economics is "sponsored". :)

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