Why Is Game Theory Called Game Theory?


Vincent White

Game theory is a field of study that focuses on understanding how people and organizations interact with each other in strategic situations. It’s a multidisciplinary subject that combines elements of mathematics, economics, psychology, and computer science to analyze the behavior of individuals and groups in competitive scenarios.

But why is it called “game theory?” Let’s explore the origins of this term.

Origins of Game Theory

The term “game theory” was first introduced by Hungarian mathematician John von Neumann and Austrian economist Oskar Morgenstern in their 1944 book “Theory of Games and Economic Behavior.” The book presented a mathematical framework for analyzing decision-making in situations where the outcome depends on the actions of multiple individuals or organizations.

The term “game” in game theory refers to any situation where there are two or more players who are making decisions based on their own self-interest. It could be a literal game like chess or poker, but it could also be a business negotiation, political election, or military conflict. In each case, the players are trying to anticipate each other’s actions and choose their own strategies accordingly.

Mathematical Foundations

Game theory uses mathematical models to describe and analyze strategic interactions. These models typically involve a set of players, a set of actions available to each player, and a payoff function that determines the outcome based on the choices made by all players.

One key concept in game theory is Nash equilibrium, named after Nobel laureate John Nash. A Nash equilibrium is a set of strategies where no player can improve their payoff by changing their strategy unilaterally. In other words, each player’s strategy is optimal given what they expect the other players to do.


Game theory has numerous applications in fields as diverse as economics, political science, biology, philosophy, and computer science. It has been used to analyze voting systems, international trade negotiations, environmental policy, and even evolution.

One famous example of game theory in action is the prisoner’s dilemma. In this scenario, two suspects are being interrogated separately and must decide whether to confess or remain silent.

If both remain silent, they each receive a light sentence. If both confess, they each receive a heavy sentence. But if one confesses and the other remains silent, the confessor goes free while the other receives a very heavy sentence.

The prisoner’s dilemma illustrates how individual rationality can lead to suboptimal outcomes for everyone involved. Both suspects would be better off if they both remained silent, but each has an incentive to confess in order to avoid the worst possible outcome.


In conclusion, game theory is called “game theory” because it originated as a mathematical framework for analyzing strategic interactions between players in games and other competitive scenarios. Its applications have expanded to many fields beyond economics and mathematics, making it an important tool for understanding human behavior in a wide range of contexts. By using mathematical models and concepts like Nash equilibrium, game theorists are able to provide insights into complex decision-making processes that can help inform real-world strategies and policies.