The Beautiful Game Theory – using math to resolve human conflict


The mathematics of game theory is used to predict outcomes in conflict situations. Now it is adapted thanks to big data to solve very controversial problems between people and the environment.

Game theory is a mathematical concept that aims to predict outcomes and solutions to a problem in which parties with conflicting, overlapping or interacting interests.

In ‘theory’, the ‘game’ will lead everyone to an optimal solution or ‘balance’. It promises a scientific approach to understanding how people make decisions and reach compromises in real-life situations.

Game theory was born in the 1940s in the field of economics. The Oscar-winning film A Beautiful Mind (2001) chronicles the life of mathematician John Nash (played by Russell Crowe), who received the 1994 Nobel Prize in Economics for his work in this area.

Although the concept has been around for many decades, the difference now lies in the ability to integrate it into algorithms, games and computer applications to apply it more widely, said Professor Nils Bunnefeld, social scientist and studies at the University of Stirling, UK. This is especially true in the age of big data.

“Game theory as a theoretical idea has been around for a long time to show solutions to problems of conflict,” he said. “We really see the potential of moving this to a computer to make the most of the data that can be collected, but also to reach a lot more people.”

Custody conflicts

Professor Bunnefeld led the EU-supported group ConFooBio project, which applied game theory to scenarios where people were in conflict over resources and the environment. His team wanted to develop a model to predict solutions to conflicts between food security and biodiversity.

“The starting point was that when we have two or more parties in disagreement, what should we do, for example, with land or natural resources? Should we produce more food? Or should we protect a certain area for biodiversity? he said.

The team focused on seven case studies, ranging from conflicts involving farmers and the conservation of geese in Scotland to those involving elephants and crop raiding in Gabon.

ConFooBio has organized more than 300 games workshops with more than 900 people in many places, including Gabon, Kenya, Madagascar, Tanzania and Scotland.

Ecological challenges

Professor Bunnefeld realized that it was becoming necessary to take a step back from pure game theory and instead build more complex games to incorporate the ecological challenges the world is currently facing, such as climate change. climatic. It also became necessary to adopt a more human approach than initially planned, to better target the games.

“Participants included people directly involved in these disputes, and in many cases who were very unhappy,” Professor Bunnefeld said.

“Through the games, we have achieved strong engagement from communities, even those where conflict is high and people may be reluctant to engage in research. We have shown that people are able to resolve conflict when they trust each other and have a say, and when they receive adequate payment for conservation efforts.

The team developed a modeling framework to predict the outcomes of wildlife management during times of conflict. Available for free, it has been downloaded thousands of times from the ConFooBio website.

conservation game

The researchers also created an accessible conservation game called Cultures vs Creaturesin which players decide between a range of options from shooting creatures to allocating habitat for conservation.

Professor Bunnefeld hopes these types of games will become more available on a consumer basis via app stores – such as the one on Biodiversity Conflict and Energy Justice in a separate initiative he is working on called Beacon Project. “If you tell people you have an exciting game or you have a complex model, which one are they going to engage with?” I think the answer is quite simple,” he said.

‘In the ConFooBio project, we were able to show that our new models and algorithms can adapt to new situations and respond to environmental and social changes,’ Prof Bunnefeld added. “Our models are useful for suggesting ways to manage conflicts between stakeholders with competing goals.”

Social Media Dynamics

Another project, Ulysseshave exploited elements of game theory to study what social media can tell us about social dynamics and potentially aid in the early detection of emerging social conflicts.

They analyzed the language, content and opinions of social media discussions using data tools.

Such tools are needed to analyze the vast amount of information in public discourse, explained Eckehard Olbrich, Odycceus project coordinator and physicist at the Max Planck Institute for Mathematics in Science in Leipzig, Germany.

His work is partly motivated by trying to understand the reasons for the polarization of opinions and the growth of populist movements like the far-right organization Pegida, which was founded in his hometown of Dresden in 2014.

The team has created a variety of tools accessible to researchers through an open platform called Penelope. These included people like the Twitter Explorerwhich allows researchers to visualize the links between Twitter users and current topics to better understand the evolution of societal debates.

Others included two participatory apps known as Opinion Observatory and Opinion Facilitator, which allow people to monitor the dynamics of conflict situations, for example by helping to link news articles containing related concepts.

Polarization models

“These tools have already allowed us to better understand polarization patterns and understand different worldviews,” Olbrich said.

He said, for example, that his team succeeded in developing a model of the effect of social feedback on polarization that game theory ideas incorporated.

The results suggest that the formation of polarized groups online was less about the traditional concept of social media bubbles and echo chambers and more about how people construct their identities by gaining peer approval.

He added that connecting the dots between game theory and polarization could have real applications for things like how best to regulate social media.

“In a game theory formulation, you start with player incentives, and they select their actions to maximize their expected utility,” he said. “It predicts how people would change their behavior if, for example, you regulated social media.”

Olbrich added that he hopes such modeling can provide a better understanding of democracy and debates in the public sphere, as well as point people to better ways to participate in public debates. “We would then have better ways of dealing with the conflicts that we have and need to resolve,” he said.

But using game theory in real-world situations also presents significant challenges, Olbrich explained.

Diverse Perspectives

For example, incorporating cultural differences into game theory has proven difficult because such differences can mean that two people have wildly different ways of approaching a problem.

‘The problem with game theory is that it looks for solutions to how a problem can be solved,’ Professor Bunnefeld added.

“Having looked at conflict over the past few years, it’s clear to me that we can’t resolve conflict, we can only manage it.” The integration of factors such as climate change and the local context is also complex.

But game theory is a useful way to explore patterns, games and applications for managing conflict, he said. ‘From its very simple basics to quite complex situations, game theory is a good entry point,’ said Professor Bunnefeld.

“It gives us a framework that you can work in and also captures people’s imaginations.”

The research in this article was funded by the European Research Council of the EU and originally published in Horizonthe European magazine for research and innovation.

Sharon D. Cole