What is Gaming Theory?

–Dr. Rebecca M. Reese–

While games have been used to engage learners for centuries, the application of Game theory and game-based elements in higher education is a fairly recent trend. In higher education, the most common course subjects utilizing game theory are economics, political science, criminal justice, sociology, healthcare, biology, computer science and psychology. This article provides a general introduction to game theory and associated concepts.

Game theory is the study of mathematical models of strategic interactions between intelligent rational decision-makers (Myerson, 1991). In other words, game theory provides a mathematical process to analyze situations where decisions influence outcomes. Decision-makers are rational if they consistently make decisions to achieve their own objectives. For example, the prisoner’s dilemma is a game in which two rational decision-makers may or may not choose to cooperate with each other, even if it is in their best interest. In this game, each player has the opportunity to betray or cooperate with the other player. Their decision will affect the outcome (in this case length of prison sentence) and players will reward or punish the other player through the length of sentence received. This game can be used to model real world situations involving mutually beneficial or cooperative behavior. For example, an economics or business class might look at a case in which two companies compete for shares within the same market (e.g. Coca-Cola versus Pepsi Co.).



Another theory commonly associated with Game theory is Flow theory. According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990), Flow is a state in which a participant is fully immersed in an activity to which there is a high level of enjoyment and fulfillment from participation. Flow theory presumes activities that challenge learners, but are still within their abilities, set the stage for optimal emotional and motivational experiences as well as improved chances for learning.

Key elements for achieving Flow are:

  • a challenging activity that requires skill,
  • complete absorption of awareness by the task,
  • clear goals and feedback,Flow1
  • sense of control, loss of one’s sense of self,
  • changes in the perception of time.

Game theory also builds on the fundamental principles of Expectancy Theory of Motivation (Vroom, 1964) by presuming that each player’s objective is to maximize the expected payoff. It proposes that if there is a positive correlation between an individual’s effort and performance then the outcome of a favorable performance will yield a reward. If the reward satisfies a need for the participant, the effort is seen as worthwhile. In other words, expectancy theory attempts to explain the behavioral processes behind an individual’s choices and ultimately their motivation to participate in an activity.

For example, if a student plans to become a biologist then doing well in mathematics and science courses will have a high value because it will allow them to get into a biology program. If not, then the value of doing the necessary work to succeed may be too low to motivate effort.


Game Theory offers a variety of means to effectively model interactions within informal and formal activities. In the April issue, I will share some ideas for modifying your current courses and/or activities to include game-based elements.

Begg, M., Dewhurst, D., & Macleod, H. (2005). Game-informed learning: Applying computer game processes to higher education. Innovate: Journal of Online Education, 1 (6). http://www.innovateonline.info/index.php?view=article&id=176

Burguillo, J. C. (2010). Using game theory and competition-based learning to stimulate student motivation and performance. Computers & Education, 5 (2), pp. 566-575. doi: 10.1016/ j.compedu.2010.02.018

Csikszentmihaliy, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Droar, D. (2006). Expectancy theory of motivation.

Jackson, M. O. (2011). A brief introduction to the basics of game theory. Social Science Research Network. http://ssrn.com/abstract=1968579

Camerer, C. F. (2010). Behavioral game theory. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press



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