Some men have game. Others have The Game. I … have game theory. Advantage: Gowder.

In accordance with my plan to initiate a blogospheric investigation into the existence of “game” (item 4), I have engaged in discussions with a friend who will remain nameless (not that I think he’d give a fuck if I named him, in fact, I’m 99%+ sure he wouldn’t, but I don’t feel like it, and have a policy against revealing private conversations, though he may reveal himself if he wishes) who believes in the existence/efficacy of “game.”*

The first step, of course, to conducting a blogospheric investigation of X is to inquire into the theoretical grounding of X. Homey ain’t no empiricist, yo, and is disinclined to believe in something just because a bunch of people say it works, or even if there’s unexplained data showing it works (though the latter is, admittedly, rather more pressurizing).

So let’s strip the misogynist bullshit, which, as far as I can tell, is 95% of “game.” What’s left? Well, I’m tempted to answer nothing, but what seems to be left is something like the ancient advice “play hard to get.” (The heritage of this advice and its traditional universal application suggests that “game,” if efficacious, is not something that men do to women, but something that men and women do to one another, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.** And that fact suggests that there is something non-misogynist in it, if it’s genuinely applicable to different gender combinations. Though that doesn’t redeem its purveyors, such as the notorious Roissy, from the justified charges of misogyny, given the horrible claims about women that they package with it.) That is, don’t fawn over someone in whom you’re interested (or are dating: my friend insists that game doesn’t stop once one is in a relationship), don’t invest vastly more than you’re getting back, etc.

So, hah, let’s analyze what little is left to death.

In discussions with my friend, things have boiled down to two explanations for why playing hard to get is supposed to work.

1. “The scarcity principle.” This is the simple claim that something’s being rare is, for that reason, perceived as more valuable.

2. “Social proof.” The idea here seems to be that acting as if the person one is pursuing doesn’t matter to one suggests to that person that one has numerous other equally good options available, which further suggests that one has a high mate value.

I’ll consider both of those explanations.

1. The “scarcity principle” is fairly commonly discussed in social psychological circles, e.g., for why stores advertise closeouts all the time and otherwise create an air of scarcity, and why people do seem to value goods more for which the supply is limited.

But we need to think some more about scarce goods. First, is it rational to value scarce goods higher? It is definitely rational to be willing to pay more for scarce goods, in that one can’t expect as much of a consumer surplus in a good for which there is less supply. But one’s valuation of that good ought not to change — that is, one should not expect to get greater utility from the good, or have a higher maximum price (that is, price + consumer surplus) from a good because of its scarcity — not, at least, unless it’s some kind of status good which is worth more to the extent one can deny it to other people. (If that’s true about romantic partners, it’s a whole ‘nother discussion, one that touches on elements of jealousy, the whole polyamory debate, etc., and one that I really don’t want to open up right now. And it’s also moot in light of what I say two paragraphs down.)

So the claim here has to be that perceived scarcity makes people irrationally desire a good more. This, too, is a claim with some tradition behind it,*** as well as some support from psych research.

HOWEVER, the effect is at best indirect here. That is, the notion of scarcity is that one cannot easily find a substitute for a good. But how does one person’s playing hard to get suggest to the play-ee that there aren’t adequate substitutes for that person? That is, why is the target of this “game” not to infer from the use of “game” that she can’t find another 20 equally good guys? I can only think of two hypotheses. First, this “neg” business is actually a lot nastier than its defenders claim — that is, it’s actually supposed to convince its victims that their own mating value is lower than it actually is, and thus that suitors of equal value to the neg inflicter are, in fact, scarce — at least scarce to the victim. (That, needless to say, seems rather manipulative and unethical.)

The other way that scarcity might be an issue here is just a reduction to the “social proof” idea — that is, someone’s playing hard to get might suggest that she (I’m deliberately switching the gender pronouns here) is scarce insofar as there are fewer substitutes for her than there are people who are attracted to her, and thus that she is in demand.

Preliminary conclusion 1: there’s nothing to the scarcity principle claim, except insofar as the social proof claim works.


2. The social proof claim … and this is what the whole post has been building up to … seems to me to call for another signaling game! Yay! I so love game theory.

I won’t write it in this post, because I want to do some real work at some point tonight. But here’s the basic idea. People have private information about their own mate values. For simplicity, we can say that nature assigns them to two categories: hotties and duds. And just like the fabulous beer-quiche game, which is the most awesome bit of game theory ever,**** hotties have a natural strategy (don’t invest much in the relationship, don’t perceive the other person as awesome or put them on a pedestal, etc. — don’t act desperate, basically), which duds have an incentive to mimic. In fact, this seems almost exactly like the beer-quiche game, except that there’s a direct cost to player 2 from player 1’s playing the “beer” strategy (player 2 gets less affection, free meals, etc.). This is worth modeling at some point when I have time, but for now I’m inclined to suspect that we could pretty easily find a pooling equilibrium on both types of player 1 (seducer) plays hard to get and player 2 accepts advances from players who play hard to get, for plausible parameter values.

So it looks like the social proof explanation for the play hard to get core of “game” might be sound, at least preliminarily. However, there’s a catch. My friend insists that mid-relationship game is necessary too — that one’s partner loses interest if one doesn’t *keep* playing hard to get, if one fawns, etc. But, mid-relationship, we can fairly assume that one knows one’s partner’s mate value. That is, one knows how attractive one’s partner is, how intelligent one’s partner is, how funny one’s partner is, how good one’s partner is in bed, how caring (except for caring that one’s partner withholds in the name of “game!”) one’s partner is, how much money one’s partner makes, etc. So why would one fall for a hottie signal from a dud? And why would one need a hottie signal to verify one’s hottie partner’s actual hottieness? Signaling games don’t work when player 2 has perfect information.

Thus, preliminary conclusion 2: the “social proof” claim probably makes at least theoretical sense, as this is the sort of game where a pooling equilibrium on “play hard to get” seems likely. This, of course, is pending my actual composition of the model at some point in the future. However, it only provides a theoretical backing for some of the claims of proponents of “game” — it explains why one (allegedly) ought to do this at the beginning of the relationship, but not why one (allegedly) ought to do it throughout a long-term relationship.

Most important, however, is preliminary conclusion 3: David Kreps is daddy of the mack.

Aren’t you glad you have me to tell you how to run your love life?

But perhaps you should be sad, rather than glad, since if the claims of proponents of “game” are true, it’s a bad idea to be honest to your love partners, express the true strength of your feelings toward them, show devotion, etc. But we don’t know that yet. All we’ve seen so far is that playing hard to get is likely wise at the beginning of a relationship. So romantics should hope that nobody can supply me with an alternate theoretical grounding for mid-relationship “game.”

Huh. Perhaps I shall not return the next text from that girl who works at the bookstore. Or perhaps schedule another girl for the time I was holding open for her.

* I’m still skeptical, but things like this are starting to sway me a little. J, are you reading and will you work on convincing me the opposite way?

** Dude, do you think I’m kidding about its heritage and application across gender and sexual orientation boundaries? Here is PLATO applying it to PEDERASTY:

Most assuredly, I said, those songs are all in your own honour; for if you win your beautiful love, your discourses and songs will be a glory, to you, and may be truly regarded as hymns of praise composed in honour of you who have conquered and won such a love; but if he slips away from you, the more you have praised him, the more ridiculous you will look at having lost this fairest and best of blessings; and therefore the wise lover does not praise his beloved until he has won him, because he is afraid of accidents. There is also another danger; the fair, when any one praises or magnifies them, are filled with the spirit of pride and vain-glory. Do you not agree with me?

Yes, he said.
And the more vain-glorious they are, the more difficult is the capture of them?

I believe you.
What should you say of a hunter who frightened away his prey, and made the capture of the animals which he is hunting more difficult?

He would be a bad hunter, undoubtedly.
Yes; and if, instead of soothing them, he were to infuriate them with words and songs, that would show a great want of wit: do you not agree.

And now reflect, Hippothales, and see whether you are not guilty of all these errors in writing poetry. For I can hardly suppose that you will affirm a man to be a good poet who injures himself by his poetry.

Assuredly not, he said; such a poet would be a fool. And this is the reason why I take you into my counsels, Socrates, and I shall be glad of any further advice which you may have to offer. Will you tell me by what words or actions I may become endeared to my love?

That is not easy to determine, I said; but if you will bring your love to me, and will let me talk with him, I may perhaps be able to show you how to converse with him, instead of singing and reciting in the fashion of which you are accused.

And so then they go and get the boy, and Socrates insults him for a while. Or, hah, perhaps I should say “negs” him for a while? It ends as follows:

And you, Lysis, if you require a teacher, have not yet attained to wisdom.

And therefore you are not conceited, having nothing of which to be conceited.

Indeed, Socrates, I think not.

When I heard him say this, I turned to Hippothales, and was very nearly making a blunder, for I was going to say to him: That is the way, Hippothales, in which you should talk to your beloved, humbling and lowering him, and not as you do, puffing him up and spoiling him. But I saw that he was in great excitement and confusion at what had been said, and I remembered that, although he was in the neighbourhood, he did not want to be seen by Lysis; so upon second thoughts I refrained.

*** Aristotle, Rhetoric bk. 1 ch. 11: “what comes only at long intervals has the value of rarity.”

Gawd, I’m such a showoff. Blogging = so very unhealthy.

**** Do you know that there’s no wikipedia page on the beer-quiche game? It’s an outrage. It’s only the most well-known and fun contemporary example in game theory. If I were even slightly inclined to expend my own time creating public goods, I’d write one. But… well… I’m not.

Anyway, the story is that there’s a restaurant with only beer and quiche. Tough guys like beer, wimps like quiche. And there are people in the restaurant who like to beat up wimps, but don’t like to fight with tough guys. You can get all kinds of crazy equilibria out of the beer-quiche game, depending on the parameters and the probabilities. That’s why it’s so fun. Kreps dreamed it up, as I dimly recall, as a counterexample to one of the various ideas about iterated deletion of weakly dominated strategies, or something like that. But don’t hold me to that, I might have to look it up. Hmm… or spend ten seconds on google.


22 Responses to “Some men have game. Others have The Game. I … have game theory. Advantage: Gowder.”

  1. ben wolfson Says:

    Something’s being rare is of course only relevant if it’s also desired (except insofar as possessing the rare thing is in itself valuable as a signal). This fact is embodied in the advice “play hard to get”, of course, insofar as only what is sought is relevantly hard to get (I suppose there are many individual chunks of ice in the arctic that are hard to get, but who cares?). So the real advice on the hard-to-get tip has to have the hard-to-get-player first become sought after, whether in him or herself or through instantiating a class which is generally sought after.

    One might well take the position that that is the hard problem.

    Of course, the other interpretation of “play hard to get” is that it’s not relativized to a particular person, so that you’re playing at being hard to get in general: constantly busy because everyone loves you, or whatever. Thus when you say: “scarce insofar as there are fewer substitutes for her than there are people who are attracted to her, and thus that she is in demand.”, we should postulate that this woman is really only playing at being in this state, because really not very many people, or no people, are attracted to her; the whole thing’s a scam, a Scheinseltenheit. This is the technique recommended by that great psychologist Henri Beyle, the idea being that you become sought after precisely to the extent that people think you’re already sought after. This has nothing to do with actual rarity. The downside is that you may have to keep it up.

    I stopped reading as soon as you started talking about signalling games, I’m afraid. Maybe this is what you were talking about. It’s all in Rene Girard, Deceit, Desire and the Novel, you know. Triangular desire.

    And there are people in the restaurant who like to beat up wimps, but don’t like to fight with tough guys.

    Why don’t they just not order anything, and then follow the quiche-eaters out when they leave and beat them up in the alley?

  2. ben wolfson Says:

    See also Girard’s elegant solution as expounded by me, namely, appear to desire yourself in order to make yourself appear desirable.

  3. Paul Gowder Says:

    More pondering: one story about mid-relationship playing hard to get might be a completely different mechanism — it might be a way to forestall one’s partner’s investment in discovering other opportunities. That is, suppose that Lucy doesn’t play hard to get in a relationship. Then Ricky might think that he can go out to the clubs to meet other women, who he might become momentarily excited by, without the risk of losing Lucy. If, on the other hand, Lucy does play hard to get, this might not happen.

    Another story for mid-relationship playing hard to get is conditioning. If people are conditioned (or… evolved? this sort of explanation is so dangerous though) to associate playing hard to get with desire because of the relationship between playing hard to get and mate quality at the beginning of the relationship, that mental function might persist even though it’s no longer optimal through the relationship.

  4. Paul Gowder Says:

    Ben, I think your Girard and my game theory are leading to the same point. You can be a G too. (I’d love to see the Beyle reference, incidentally. Not familiar w/ his work.)

    (That is the story with the beer-quiche game — there are two players, the guy who orders food and the dickhead who is lurking around waiting to fight people who he perceives as wimps by their eating quiche rather than beer. Or did you mean why doesn’t player 1 order nothing? Well, he’s hungry!)

  5. ben wolfson Says:

    Beyle is Stendhal’s real name. See The Red and the Black.

  6. Paul Gowder Says:

    Aaah. That explains everything.

  7. Paul Gowder Says:

    (All this time, I thought Stendhal was Stendhal’s real name!)

  8. ben wolfson Says:


  9. Paul Gowder Says:

    I can’t possibly follow that.

  10. ben wolfson Says:

    A possibly to compact contraction of “pseudonym-pwned”.

    Anyway, it seems to me that the odds are stacked against player one in this game. If he’s hungry, quiche will naturally be more satisfying than a beer. Quiche is a serious foodstuff, lots of calories.

  11. Paul Gowder Says:

    Right, yes, I got that. It was its brilliance that I couldn’t follow, as in on stage, not its opacity, as in comprehension.

    Yeah, player 1 kind of gets it in the ass if he would rather eat quiche and get beaten up.

  12. Paul Gowder Says:

    But, to keep the continuity, ALPHA MALES always and naturally drink beer and like it, and thus never get their asses whopped. (Except, hah, in some of the freakier equilibria.) It’s only the loser beta males who want quiche who have to pretend to like beer.

  13. Aaron Says:


    1) “I don’t want to be in any club that will have someone like me for a member.”

    It isn’t the perception of scarcity that makes the guy appealing. It’s the perception that if he doesn’t need to obsess over you and be very available, then it must be because he doesn’t have much to lose, i.e. he has access to other women who are at least as attractive or worthy as the ‘target’ and is thus a worthy mate (evolutionarily speaking, of course.) (And I realise someone has already sort of made this response, but I don’t care. I am in high-demand and don’t need your approval.)

    2) Why are evolutionary explanations more dangerous than social-conditioning explanations? a) social-conditioning doesn’t necessarily imply higher malleability, b) some of the most dangerous regimes in history (Mao and Stalin, for instance) were based on the ‘Blank Slate’, ‘Humans-Have-No-Innate-Nature’ mentality.

    3) While “play hard to get” is old-school advice, people don’t tend to know *how* to play hard to get.

    4) It’s about making the woman comfortable. I can’t imagine much more uncomfortable than a guy you don’t know (unless he’s really hot) coming up and telling you you’re attractive and asking to buy you a drink. You know what he wants, you don’t know when he’s going to leave, and it would just be gross.

    Think of the difference between, “hey, so where are you from? You’re looking mighty fine tonight. Can I buy you a drink?” and, “Hey, I can only stay for a minute, but I just have you get a woman’s opinion on something…”

    The ‘comfort’ thing doesn’t arise out of caring about the woman’s comfort, of course. It is just an effective strategy because she doesn’t put up her Oh-No-Not-Another-One shield, and your foot is in the door.

    5) I don’t think it’s misogynistic any more than Karate is violent. You can use it for violence, but you can also use it to find a partner who you’d like to spend your life with. Even though the talk of ‘targets’ etc sounds misogynistic, the student doesn’t need to use it for misogynistic ends, and it isn’t the misogyny which makes it effective, so one can safely strip away these misogynistic labels etc.

    I have nothing to say about mid-relationship game, since frankly I don’t know how to tell when I or anyone else has reached the middle of their relationship. (Kidding.)

    Although I remember the anthropologist Helen Fisher once talking about staying attractive and not letting yourself go just because you’re in a relationship. Do you think you’d find yourself more attracted to your partner, months in to the relationship, if she stopped keeping herself, or kept keeping herself? I know what I’d find more attractive.

  14. Paul Gowder Says:


    Welcome to this blog, by the way. I like yours.

    1) yeah, that was my signaling game.

    2) they’re not more dangerous socially, they’re more dangerous scientifically, that is, harder to do right. more.

    3) So how do you play hard to get?

    4) hmm… that’s worth thinking about, for it does apply only from men to women, because only women get the creepy kind of attention in any quantity. (This is another one to file in the “how patriarchy hurts men too” category.) Yet it sounds like a plausible, non-misogynistic explanation.

  15. Aaron Says:

    Thank you very much :)

    And before I continue, I’d just like to say that I’m familiar with this ‘game’ stuff because I find it interesting from a psychological perspective. I’ve never felt *that* lonely. Really.

    You play hard to get by doing things like not leaning in to the girl when talking; engineer it so that she has to lean in to you. I’ve always noticed how when you see guys talking to girls, or even sitting with their girlfriends, they’re often leaning in to the girl while she just sits there doing nothing of the sort. Sit back, and be self-assured. (It even goes the other way. Wouldn’t you find a self-assured girl more attractive than one who was all desperately leaning in to you the way guys do?)

    Don’t hang on everything she says. Just give her half-answers, or even ignore some of her questions or comments. (But make sure you don’t come off like a dim-wit. Make sure you come off like a guy who’s too important to pay attention to everything she says.) If she says “hey I just asked you something” or “answer my question,” reply with “I don’t have to answer everything you say, who do you think you are” (playfully, of course).

    If she touches you, say (playfully, again; always playful) “don’t just touch! This shit ain’t for free.”

    Stuff like that.

  16. Paul Gowder Says:

    I’m familiar with this ‘game’ stuff because I find it interesting from a psychological perspective. I’ve never felt *that* lonely. Really.

    Ah-ha. But that’s exactly what “game” dictates that you’re SUPPOSED to say.

  17. Mike Says:

    Signaling games don’t work when player 2 has perfect information.

    I love ya, Paul, but hate game theory for that reason. (Love the sinner, hate the sin!) Too many dubious and non-empirical assumptions about humans. In a relationship, neither party has perfect information about each other.

    You practiced law, so surely you know that people have many shocking secrets. The stuff lawyers know……. people would never believe it. Iimagine what shirks must know about people.

    So even in a relationship, both parties lack perfect information. People keep secrets.

    Plus……… How many people even have perfect information about himself or herself? Not many. So if we don’t even know ourselves perfectly, how can we begin to fully know the beetle in someone else’s box?

    Plus……… Why do people “fall out of love” or whatever? A relationship must be *maintained*. Game is about maintaining it. Things get stale, even when no information updates. Hell, one could say that the lack of change is what causes many relationships to fail.

    That is, the notion of scarcity is that one cannot easily find a substitute for a good.

    That ain’t how it works. If you’re at Best Buy about to buy the last Simon & Garfunkel CD when someone grabs it….. even if you know you could get it at or Circuit City, you will want it more because someone else grabbed it. It’s visceral.

    That’s why ad people make so much money selling people complete shit.

    Dating is not rational. It’s visceral.

    If rational, we’d put our wants onto pieces of paper. Then some middle party would Venn Diagram the shit, and set us up with the greatest overlap. And THEN we’d fall in love with that person. Yet shit doesn’t work that way.

    How many people would even want to meet people like that?

    People like romance. People like seduction. Because we are emotional animals. Hume wins yet again.

    Hume: infinity; everyone else: 0.

  18. Mike Says:

    And before I continue, I’d just like to say that I’m familiar with this ‘game’ stuff because I find it interesting from a psychological perspective. I’ve never felt *that* lonely. Really.

    LOL at that. Just admit you like getting laid like the rest of us.


    Desiring to get laid is not somehow inconsistent with being a rational, thoughtful, or intelligent person. I guess if you need some way to rationalize something that should need no rationalization, read Simon Blacburn’s, “Lust.”

    I wish I had Marcus Aurelius’s quote on sex from Meditations. Loosely paragraphed, he said sex was “friction followed by release.” LOL. As if that’s it!

  19. Mike Says:

    Something’s being rare is of course only relevant if it’s also desired

    Not quite.

    Sure…….. Toxic waste is rare, but not desired. But scarcity itself often makes something desirable.

    A diamond is a shiny rock. That’s it. But they are rare, and thus desired. Even if they are objectively beautiful…… You can buy “man-made” rocks that are flawless and fool gemologists…… more beautiful than other rocks. Yet people still go to Tiffany’s.

    You can buy junk on QVC…… But for a limited time only (scarcity). You think marketers insert all those “Act now!” things just ’cause?

    So the real advice on the hard-to-get tip has to have the hard-to-get-player first become sought after, whether in him or herself or through instantiating a class which is generally sought after.

    No. Because then you are not “playing” hard to get.

    A single Brad Pitt, if he took some girl’s number, might not call her for a while. It’s not because he’s playing games. It’s because he’s got a lot of demands on his time.

    With game, you take a guy who is not actually hard to get, and make him appear hard to get. Thus he appears scarce. And thus he becomes more desirable. Plus he gets the social proof effect. Since a guy could only be hard to get if others wanted him…….. and others want him only because they approve of him.

    Also, there is social proof. Yes, the “Could one billion [insert ethnic group] be wrong” thing is a fallacy. So what. People “think” in fallacies.

    People think if others approve of it, then it must be good. That’s even how books become best sellers…. early push = social proof = more people want it. There’s an actual term…. Matthew Effect?

    So social proof and scarcity are tied together.

  20. Paul Gowder Says:

    Mike, if I’m at Best Buy fighting with some yoink over the last Simon and Garfunkel CD, my life is already not worth living by my own lights. At that point, you can just gas me and I’ll go quietly.

    But let’s leave that point aside for a moment.

    I confess, I would rather like the Venn diagram method of dating. There’s a reason that things like matchmakers and online dating work for people — because there are objective qualities of people that are compatible with objective qualities of other people. But I do tend to lean toward the cold-hearted rationalist end of things. Normatively. Not descriptively. Unfortunately, I tend to get wrapped up in things — I’d never make a professional seducer, a Valmont, because I’d fall for all the women I dishonored.

    And perhaps there’s a clue there. If even a fanatical rationalist like me can’t deny the limbic system, perhaps the game theoretic approach is the wrong way to look at things.

    But is there an alternative? Suppose we wanted to understand, rather than report? Suppose we want to be able to say more than “when I press X button, Y response comes out?”

    Why might we want a theory, rather than just a mass of tales?

    1) Because it would help us know whether this business is real or just a perceptual illusion.

    2) Because it would strip some of the vicious bits out. Especially the vicious bits from men, the misogyny displayed by the likes of Roissy, who seem to think that relating to women is a matter of pushing certain buttons and getting certain outcomes. That kind of thinking is encouraged, I think, by the absence of a story about why this stuff is true (if it is true, which is still a rather open question), and in particular a story that doesn’t deny the agency or basic rationality of an entire half of the species.

    3) Because there is no understanding without a theory. Understanding does not come from the mere reporting of sense data and correlations, understanding comes from being able to answer the question “why” and relate what one sees to one’s other knowledge and situations outside one’s immediate experience.

    So if the rational choicer’s version doesn’t work, what would you suggest to replace it?

  21. Mike Says:

    I was just ball breaking you on game theory. Re-reading it, it came off as snarky. My bad!

    I agree with using theoretical models. The largest problem is I have is this: You gotta plug in some data. The data to plug in involves how humans behave. I’m not sure how much valid date about people….. esp. when it comes to dating.

    the misogyny displayed by the likes of Roissy

    I meant to address that… It only appears to be misogynistic because most game involves hetero men trying to get hetero women.

    When I talk shit about women, people say, “You’re a misogynist.” I’ll then say, “Um….. Wasn’t I just saying how revolting I find the average male to be?” (Relatedly: It’s sort of interesting that it’s PC to talk shit on men, but not women, isn’t it?)

    I think most game people are misanthropes rather than misogynists. But because they are focused on women, you only see the attacks on female “rationality.” Men are just as irrational or have their own problems, though. I think most would admit that.

    Roissy isn’t a player in the PUA movement. So you can’t take what he says as being the “party line” thinking.

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