realize that decades of difficult work may be needed for a theory to reach maturity. But even six decades after the von Neumann– Morgenstern book appeared, you could find some rather negative assessments of game theory’s relevance to real life.

In an afterword to the 60-year-anniversary edition of Theory of Games, Ariel Rubenstein acknowledged that game theory had successfully entrenched itself in economic science. “Game theory has moved from the fringe of economics into its mainstream,” he wrote. “The distinction between economic theorist and game theorist has virtually disappeared.”24 But he was not impressed with claims that game theory was really good for much else, not even games. “Game theory is not a box of magic tricks that can help us play games more successfully. There are very few insights from game theory that would improve one’s game of chess or poker,” Rubenstein wrote.25

He scoffed at theorists who believed game theory could actually predict behavior, or even improve performance in real-life strategic interactions. “I have never been persuaded that there is a solid foundation for this belief,” he wrote. “The fact that the academics have a vested interest in it makes it even less credible.” Game theory in Rubenstein’s view is much like logic—form without substance, a guide for comparing contingencies but not a handbook for action. “Game theory does not tell us which action is preferable or predict what other people will do…. The challenges facing the world today are far too complex to be captured by any matrix game.”26

OK—maybe this book should end here. But no. I think Rubenstein has a point, but also that he is taking a very narrow view. In fact, I think his attitude neglects an important fact about the nature of science.

Scientists make models. Models capture the essence of some aspect of something, hopefully the aspect of interest for some particular use or another. Game theory is all about making models of human interactions. Of course game theory does not capture all the nuances of human behavior—no model does. No map of Los Angeles shows every building, every crack in every sidewalk, or

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement