“Game Theory”

Cover of TLR's "Game Theory" issue



The husband of one of our editors was pursuing a doctorate in Game Theory when I first arrived at the magazine six years ago. I thought then I had never heard of a more evocative subject for advanced study and immediately started trying to come up with ways to involve her husband in TLR. Keep in mind that I intentionally delayed asking her to explain exactly what Game Theory was (also, keep in mind that most of my formal expertise lies in mid-century Italian literature and turn-of-the-millennium Episcopal vocational theology, so I should be considered an extreme naïf vis-à-vis the hard sciences). While I was trying to come up with alluring literary projects that a professional game theorist might be interested in undertaking, I flitted from one entirely unfounded notion of what it was to another.

It was great fun to speculate upon the nature of Game Theory . . . . There were so many possibilities: Counting cards at blackjack. Figuring out how many squares there should be on a new board game from Milton Bradley. The trajectory of a curve ball, or whether the ball gets hit at all? Does it have more to do with batting order or the salary of the lead-off hitter? Do game theorists study why we dream about Tetris or what synapses fire and/or fail after fifteen minutes of Candy Crush, after twenty minutes of chess? Does it have anything to do with Twitter, birth rates, or cock fighting?

When I finally do get it explained to me—“the study of strategic interactions within decision making”—I realize that it is just as marvelously dense as I’d always hoped, and almost as nonspecific as I’d imagined. Though I might have to learn math in order to explore its practical applications, because really the prime movers behind strategic decision making are economists. Or, I think, I could just study me, and the editorial process.

Our work at TLR is defined by decision making. We read, we select, we curate, and present. Decisions are an exhausting and exhilarating constant of this work. To wit: For every poem we publish, there are many we don’t, and the reasons for that are varied (e.g., someone else has already published it; we don’t read ancient Greek; that poet was so very very mean to us at a literary festival in Metuchen that even if everybody else in the world disagrees, we can’t bring ourselves to interact with her again; we can’t abide the words “belly button”; the poem has nothing really whatsoever, even read in a mirror while standing on our heads, to do with a forthcoming theme; and so on) but the reasons always come out of some logical plan for what we want to achieve with TLR.jeff explains game theory copy

What is that, you might ask? It’s a very good and relevant question. The answer: We want you to read and love something that we read and loved.

Put like that, I realize, of course, that we aren’t very strategic, and we’re certainly not economists. We’re possibly just pathological oversharers with a weakness for literature.

A further clarification from our resident game theorist arrives to stipulate that Game Theory “includes limited rational thought and can incorporate behavioral assumptions.” The clarification puts me back in the game. I am operating with specifically limited rational thought. You might even say, intentionally limited rational thought. I refused to learn what Game Theory was before putting together this issue, and so the pieces here represent more than anything our collective exploration of what Game Theory could be. Which I’m quite sure makes it a game of chance.