Mathematics professor explains concept of Game Theory

Math and movie enthusiasts alike gathered to hear Jennifer Nordstrom, associate professor of mathematics, present her lecture “Battles of Wits and Matters of Trust: Game Theory in Popular Culture,” based off of the 2012 essay she wrote, Nov. 14 in Riley 201.

Nordstrom was introduced by Susan Hopp, dean of students, who said, “The entire math department has impressed me by how generous, interested and invested they are.”

She began by explaining the basic definition of game theory, a foreign concept to those in the audience. Nordstrom’s slide show stated that game theory was “a study of how people maximize their returns in situations where the outcomes are particularly determined by the choices of another player.”

An example of this, she showed, is in the 1987 film “The Princess Bride” when Vizzini and the Dread Pirate Roberts are competing for Buttercup. Vizzini must decide what glass was poisoned and which to drink from by contemplating what he knew about Roberts and what Roberts knew about Vizzini. Both characters cheated, however, which suggests that no one can have perfect knowledge.

Perfect knowledge is when each player knows the strategies and the playoff one another. This is demonstrated in Rock,Paper, Scissors, a game where both players know the rules and there’s no way to cheat.

A game theory dilemma, according to Nordstrom, is the prisoner’s dilemma, in which if player one betrays the other, he will receive a positive payoff and vice versa with player two. However, if they both betray one another, or both do not betray one another, they receive the same payoff.

This is shown in the Batman movie “The Dark Knight” when two ferry boats are given the option to blow the other ferry up in order to save the ferry they are on. However, if neitherdetonates the other, they will both blow up. This particular prisoner’s dilemma is unique as neither ferry can communicate,and they both expect the worst from one another.

The last strategy of game theory that Nordstrom explained was Chicken. A game where two cars are driving toward each other and the first to swerve is the loser, but if neither swerve they both crash, which is a predominantly unsatisfactory payoff.

Her example for this was from the 1955 classic film “Rebel Without a Cause.” Two characters drove their cars toward a cliff and the first to jump out was chicken.

“I wanted to introduce you guys to game theory,” Nordstrom said in the closing of her lecture. “So when you’re watching a movie you can recognize these strategies.”


Paige Jurgensen

Staff writer


Paige Jurgensen can be reached at

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