Teaching a workshop on art and game theory is the second cooperative venture Pablo Helguera and I have undertaken in the last couple of years. The first was a diet. Bear with me; the two are not unrelated. Frustrated with our personal efforts to shed a couple of pounds, we were ready for an experiment. A website offered a new set of motivations: We were required to report our weight to one another on a weekly basis, to allow our wives to monitor our progress, and (here is the kicker) we gave them our credit card information with the understanding that if we failed to lose the specified weight, we would automatically donate money to the National Rifle Association (NRA). How is this related? Game theory studies how and why people make decisions. Pablo and I wanted to lose weight but we also enjoyed eating —and the latter was prevailing, one dessert at a time. The structure of the diet added new elements to our decisions—our weight became public, our competitive natures were activated, and given our feelings about the NRA, our political and moral sense was now at stake in our menu decisions. No donations were made. The pounds melted away. It would have been a considerably different situation if the rules had been changed—for example if there were a slim and happy winner and a loser who ignominiously and publicly contributed to the NRA. Had we entered a diet with those rules we might have emerged even thinner, but as friends, we most likely would not have joined in the first place.
Game theory opens a set tools to think about rational and irrational decisions. These decisions are always conceived in terms of pairs and groups—otherwise they are not games—so we can begin to understand how we decide what to do in relation to other people. If we are interested in art that is relational, interactive, cooperative, or participatory perhaps we should look at this theory of relations. Pablo and I are not experts in game theory. But we both think games like the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the Dictator Game, the Ultimatum Game, and others are interesting starting points for a discussion of interpersonal behavior. When played in public—as we intend to do in the class—the games have an interesting performative quality that can lead to a rich conversation on a topic we are quite conversant in—participatory, cooperative art. Quite frankly, as much as we have written about social practice art, this is a new field, and we are all still struggling to get a handle on how to think about it.
I’m looking forward to the workshop as an experiment in this emerging discussion and hope you will join us on October 22 and 24 at MoMA for Games Artists Play: The Game as a Socially Engaged Art Form.