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Chapter 16 Games and Strategic Behavior
Competitive theory studies price-taking consumers and firms—that is, people who can’t individually affect the transaction prices. The assumption that market participants take prices as given is justified only when there are many competing participants. We have also examined monopoly, precisely because a monopoly, by definition, doesn’t have to worry about competitors. Strategic behavior involves the examination of the intermediate case, where there are few enough participants that they take each other into account—and their actions individually matter—so that the behavior of any one participant influences choices of the other participants. That is, participants are strategic in their choices of action, recognizing that their choices will affect choices made by others.
The right tool for the job of examining strategic behavior in economic circumstances is game theory, the study of how people play games. Game theory was pioneered by the mathematical genius John von Neumann (1903–1957). Game theory has also been very influential in the study of military strategy; and, indeed, the strategy of the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union was guided by game-theoretic analyses.An important reference for game theory is John von Neumann (1903–1957) and Oskar Morgenstern (1902–1977), Theory of Games and Economic Behavior (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1944). Important extensions were introduced by John Nash (1928–), the mathematician made famous by Sylvia Nasar’s delightful book, A Beautiful Mind (Simon & Schuster, 1998). Finally, applications in the military arena were pioneered by Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling (1921–), The Strategy of Conflict (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960).
The theory provides a description that fits common games like poker or the board game Monopoly, but will cover many other situations as well. In any game, there is a list of players. Games generally unfold over time; at each moment in time, players have information—possibly incomplete—about the current state of play and a set of actions they can take. Both information and actions may depend on the history of the game prior to that moment. Finally, players have payoffs and are assumed to play in such a way as to maximize their anticipated payoff, taking into account their expectations for the play of others. When the players, their information and available actions, and payoffs have been specified, we have a game.