Is Game Theory the Same as Nash Equilibrium?


Vincent White

Game theory is a fascinating subject that has been studied by economists, mathematicians, and strategists for decades. It is the study of how individuals or groups make decisions in situations where the outcome depends on the decisions of others. One of the most well-known concepts in game theory is Nash equilibrium, but many people wonder if game theory and Nash equilibrium are really the same thing.

What is Game Theory?

Game theory is a branch of mathematics that deals with decision-making in interactive situations. It studies how individuals, companies, or nations make decisions when their outcomes depend on the actions taken by others. The central idea behind game theory is that every decision we make has an impact on other people’s decisions and hence on our outcomes.

What is Nash Equilibrium?

Nash equilibrium is a concept in game theory named after John Nash, who received a Nobel Prize for his contributions to the field. It refers to a situation where each player in a game chooses their best strategy given the strategies chosen by all other players. In other words, it is a set of strategies where no player has an incentive to change their strategy.

Is Game Theory the Same as Nash Equilibrium?

The short answer to this question is no – game theory and Nash equilibrium are not the same thing. Game theory encompasses a broader set of concepts and tools than just Nash equilibrium. Game theorists use various models and techniques to analyze strategic interactions between players, such as dominance, backward induction, and repeated games.

On the other hand, Nash equilibrium refers specifically to a solution concept in non-cooperative games – games where players act independently without any agreements or communication with each other. It provides a way to predict what will happen in these types of games if all players act rationally.


To illustrate this point further, consider two classic examples from game theory: the prisoner’s dilemma and the battle of the sexes.

In the prisoner’s dilemma, two suspects are arrested for a crime and are being interrogated separately. If both confess, they will each receive a five-year sentence.

If one confesses and the other doesn’t, the one who confesses will receive a one-year sentence, while the other will receive a ten-year sentence. If neither confesses, they will each receive a two-year sentence.

The Nash equilibrium for this game is for both players to confess, even though this results in a worse outcome for both than if they had both remained silent. This is because each player’s best response depends on what they think the other player will do – if they think the other will confess, it is better to confess as well.

In contrast, in the battle of the sexes game, a couple must decide whether to go to a football game or an opera. The husband prefers football but would rather be with his wife than alone. The wife prefers opera but also wants to be with her husband.

The Nash equilibrium for this game is for each player to choose their preferred activity, as long as it means being together. However, there is another solution known as Pareto optimality where both players go to their least preferred activity but still get to spend time together. This solution is not captured by Nash equilibrium alone.


In conclusion, while Nash equilibrium is an essential concept in game theory that provides insights into strategic interactions between players in non-cooperative games, it is not synonymous with game theory itself. Game theory encompasses a broader set of concepts and tools that allow us to analyze various types of games and strategic interactions between players more comprehensively.