How Does Game Theory Work in Economics?


Martha Robinson

Game theory is an essential concept in economics that deals with the study of strategic decision-making. It helps us understand how individuals and organizations make decisions that impact not only themselves but also the people around them. In this article, we will dive into the workings of game theory in economics and explore its applications.

What is Game Theory?

Game theory is a branch of mathematics that deals with decision-making under strategic interaction. It is a framework that helps economists analyze the behavior of individuals in situations where the outcome depends on the actions of multiple actors. Game theory assumes that individuals are rational and attempt to maximize their utility, which is the satisfaction derived from consuming goods or services.

The Elements of a Game

A game consists of several elements, including players, strategies, payoffs, and information. Players are the individuals or organizations involved in making decisions.

Strategies are the courses of action available to players, while payoffs refer to the rewards or costs associated with each strategy. Information refers to what each player knows about other players’ strategies.

Types of Games

There are several types of games studied in game theory, including zero-sum games, non-zero-sum games, and repeated games. A zero-sum game is a situation where one player’s gain equals another player’s loss.

Non-zero-sum games are situations where all players can win or lose together. Repeated games involve playing a game multiple times over an extended period.

Applications in Economics

Game theory has various applications in economics that help us understand different economic phenomena. For instance, it explains why firms may choose to collude instead of competing with each other. It also helps us understand why governments may choose to impose tariffs on imported goods instead of promoting free trade.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

One famous example that illustrates how game theory works is the prisoner’s dilemma. The prisoner’s dilemma involves two suspects who are being interrogated in separate rooms by the police. Each suspect has two options: confess or remain silent.

If both remain silent, they both get a light sentence. If one confesses and the other remains silent, the confessor goes free while the other gets a severe sentence. If both confess, they both get a moderately severe sentence.

The prisoner’s dilemma shows that even if it is in both suspects’ best interest to remain silent, they may still end up confessing due to uncertainty about what the other will do. This example illustrates why cooperation can be challenging to achieve even when it is in everyone’s best interest.


In conclusion, game theory is an essential concept in economics that helps us understand strategic decision-making. It does so by analyzing the behavior of individuals and organizations in situations where multiple actors are involved. Game theory has numerous applications in economics, from explaining why firms may choose to collude to understanding why governments may impose tariffs on imported goods.

By using game theory, economists can better understand economic phenomena and devise policies that promote economic efficiency and welfare.