02 February 2009

Game Theory Week: That's Cheating!

Michael Shermer, champion skeptic and former competitive bicycle racer, has an article in the January issue of Scientific American:

A recent comment by Jason about "cheat Scrabble" reminded me of this SciAm article that gives a nice explanation of why people cheat in terms of game theory, and sparked my idea for this series of posts (Thanks Jason!). Here are a few notes I grabbed from the key concepts:
  • Game theory highlights why it is rational for professional cyclists to dope: the drugs are extremely effective as well as difficult or impossible to detect; the payoffs for success are high; and as more riders use them, a “clean” rider may become so noncompetitive that he or she risks being cut from the team.
Roughly speaking, when the payoff for winning far exceeds the penalty for cheating, "clean" athletes are pushed into cheating in order to keep up with those who cheat. While it is quite a different situation among the tabletop gamers, there are rumors of players banned from convention events, so it is not unheard of. It is far more common that people might have selective memories about what rules get applied and which dice rolls get modifiers, so gaining a small advantage at a critical moment. In games with quite complicated rule sets like I generally play, this sort of mistake might happen to anyone, and is not generally classified as cheating, but making too many mistakes makes gaming buddies suspicious, and so there is a social penalty for incorrect play.
  • The game theory analysis of cycling can readily be extended to other sports. The results show quantitatively how governing bodies and antidoping agencies can most effectively target efforts to clean up their sports.
Game theory can show how the problem of cheating might be solved, by changing the payoffs so that honest play gains the athlete (or player) the greater benefit. Social groups are actually pretty good at enforcing "good behavior", but professional cycling (and maybe some other sports) have some problems to fix.
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