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Game Theory Context-Rich Problem

Brian Peterson
Central College
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This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project


This consists of a short essay to be written by students after watching the West Wing episode "Hartsfield's Landing." In it, students are asked to help a friend to understand the content of the show using the basic components of non-cooperative game theory and the prisoner's dilemma. Students will use the game theoretic concepts of strategic interaction and non-cooperative behavior to write a short letter explaining the episode.

Learning Goals

At the end of this assignment, students should be able to:
1. explain the nature of strategic interaction;
2. explain how game theory can be applied to the different settings in this television episode.

Context for Use

This assignment is designed to be used in a principles of microeconomics course, although it can be expanded to be used in an intermediate-level microeconomics course or game theory course. It can be used in any size class, and is useful either as a group assignment, individual assignment, or exam essay question. The episode to be watched is 50 minutes long, and the assignment can be explained in less than 10 minutes.

Description and Teaching Materials

You just finished watching the West Wing episode (from Season 3), "Hartsfield's Landing," in which President Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen) plays two extended chess games: one with Sam Seaborne (played by Rob Lowe) while discussing turmoil between China and Taiwan, and another with Toby Ziegler (played by Richard Schiff) while discussing the role of negative campaigning in presidential elections.

Immediately following that episode you wrote a letter to your pen pal in Russia and described how amazing you found that particular episode, and how closely you found it tied to your economics instruction. Your pen pal, however, has never seen the episode, nor has she taken an economics course in her life, but is curious how those concepts fit together. She's asked you to explain to her exactly what you mean. In your next 1 – 2 page letter to her, explain to her how chess, negative campaigning, and armed conflict are connected to your understanding of economic theory.

Game Theory Context-Rich Problem (Microsoft Word 41kB Apr7 09)

Game Theory CRP Grading Rubric (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 12kB May28 09)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Students should have learned about non-cooperative game theory, the payoff matrix and the prisoner's dilemma by the time they write this assignment. They may also need some understanding of exactly what is happening, as some of the dialogue is a little rapid-fire in places.


Students should include in their essay:
1. The concept of strategic interaction between economic players as they relate to the different scenarios;
2. an explanation of the different strategies of the different participants;
3. How the behavior played is the best strategy against the other.
The very good essays will be separated from the good essays with specific examples from the episode, such as verbal cues regarding strategic interaction, i.e., "See the whole board."

References and Resources

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