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Game Theory and the Humanities: Bridging Two Worlds


  • Steven J. Brams

    () (New York University)


Game theory models are ubiquitous in economics, common in political science, and increasingly used in psychology and sociology; in evolutionary biology, they offer compelling explanations for competition in nature. But game theory has been only sporadically applied to the humanities; indeed, we almost never associate mathematical calculations of strategic choice with the worlds of literature, history, and philosophy. And yet, as Steven Brams shows, game theory can illuminate the rational choices made by characters in texts ranging from the Bible to Joseph Heller's Catch-22 and can explicate strategic questions in law, history, and philosophy. Brams's strategic exegesis of texts helps the reader relate characters' goals to their choices and the consequences of those choices. Much of his analysis is based on the theory of moves (TOM), which is grounded in game theory, and which he develops gradually and applies systematically throughout. TOM illuminates the dynamics of player choices, including their misperceptions, deceptions, and uses of different kinds of power. Brams examines such topics as Abraham’s decision to offer his son for sacrifice when God commanded him to do so; the outcome and payoff matrix of Pascal’s wager on the existence of God; and the strategic games played by presidents and Supreme Court justices; frustration games, as illustrated by the strategic use of sexual abstinence in Aristophanes’s Lysistrata; and how information was slowly uncovered in the game played by Hamlet and Claudius. Going beyond the explication of these specific situations, Brams also derives propositions about "generic games," applicable to a broad class of situations. The reader gains not just new insights into the actions of certain literary and historical characters but also a larger strategic perspective on the choices that make us human.

Suggested Citation

  • Steven J. Brams, 2011. "Game Theory and the Humanities: Bridging Two Worlds," MIT Press Books, The MIT Press, edition 1, volume 1, number 0262015226, January.
  • Handle: RePEc:mtp:titles:0262015226

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    Citations are extracted by the CitEc Project, subscribe to its RSS feed for this item.

    Cited by:

    1. Mongin, Philippe, 2009. "A game theoretic analysis of the Waterloo campaign and some comments on the analytic narrative project," Les Cahiers de Recherche 915, HEC Paris.
    2. Vikas Kumar, 2012. "Cartels in the Kautiliya Arthasastra," Czech Economic Review, Charles University Prague, Faculty of Social Sciences, Institute of Economic Studies, vol. 6(1), pages 59-79, March.
    3. repec:spr:grdene:v:23:y:2014:i:3:d:10.1007_s10726-013-9346-6 is not listed on IDEAS
    4. Brams, Steven J. & Kilgour, D. Marc, 2012. "Inducible Games: Using Tit-for-Tat to Stabilize Outcomes," MPRA Paper 41773, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    5. Crettez, Bertrand & Deloche, Régis, 2013. "On experimental economics and the comparison between the last two versions of Molière's Tartuffe," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 87(C), pages 66-72.
    6. Bryan Randolph Bruns, 2015. "Names for Games: Locating 2 × 2 Games," Games, MDPI, Open Access Journal, vol. 6(4), pages 1-26, October.
    7. Aleskerov, F., 2013. "Game-Theoretic Modeling: An Attempt of Brief Discussion and a Forecast of Development," Journal of the New Economic Association, New Economic Association, vol. 17(1), pages 181-184.
    8. Brams, Steven J. & Ismail, Mehmet S., 2018. "Stabilizing Cooperative Outcomes in Two-Person Games: Theory and Cases," MPRA Paper 86295, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    9. Brams, Steven & Kilgour, Marc, 2017. "Stabilizing unstable outcomes in prediction games," MPRA Paper 77655, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    10. Frank C. Zagare, 2014. "A Game-Theoretic History of the Cuban Missile Crisis," Economies, MDPI, Open Access Journal, vol. 2(1), pages 1-25, January.

    More about this item


    game theory; law; history; philosophy; literature; theory of moves; strategic choice;

    JEL classification:

    • C7 - Mathematical and Quantitative Methods - - Game Theory and Bargaining Theory
    • Z1 - Other Special Topics - - Cultural Economics


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