While winning a game like rock, paper, scissors may seem reliant on luck or chance, one Stanford class is teaching students to use game theory strategies to optimize their chances of winning. POLISCI 153: “Thinking Strategically,” taught by assistant professor of political science Avi Acharya, spans the eight-week summer quarter and teaches students how to make optimal decisions by introducing them to the basic concepts of game theory.
The course uses games and activities to help students develop a conceptual understanding of game theory. It is not uncommon to see Professor Acharya challenging his students to rounds of rock, paper, scissors and other games in between lectures and note-taking.
“While the class is taught in a lecture format, there is a tremendous amount of involvement from the students,” Acharya said. “I really enjoy seeing the amount of fun they have in learning concepts by both doing well in the games and by not doing well.”
However, the practical applications of knowledge and skills gained through this course extend beyond the optimal strategies for winning rock, paper, scissors. The course also gives students the opportunity to observe the applications of game theory in important real world situations with which firms, countries, political parties and even regular people may come into contact. According to Acharya, these applications can be found in models of elections, negotiations, auctions and other market mechanisms.
The wide variety of applications has attracted a similar diversity of students, including all types of scholars from engineering and chemistry majors to those studying political science and the humanities. Simon Tirman, who is just taking classes at Stanford over the summer, said he enrolled in the course because game theory fascinates him.
“Game theory is interesting to me because it involves rational thinking,” Tirman said. “It teaches us how to consider the different options that we have in different situations and how to use that knowledge to become better decision makers in our daily lives.”
Acharya strives to use the course to give his students the tools they need to analyze situations applicable to negotiating policy or business deals where one must strategize how to balance theories of cooperating, compromising and occasionally detecting deception. Acharya hopes students will also learn the limitations of strategic reasoning.
“What I really want my students to take away from this course is how to think like a game theorist,” Acharya said. “That means being able to make arguments like game theorists and learning what it means to reason strategically.”
Contact Amy Guo at acguo29 ‘at’ gmail.com.