Calculated sexual games play out across contemporary American popular media, from self-help books and advice columns to dating apps and reality television. This article argues that economic game theory subtends the saturation of popular culture with lay theories of sex as a “numbers game.” Game theorists contribute to the invisible ubiquity of this phenomenon by using sexual examples to demonstrate the range of their discipline’s models while downplaying the significance of exemplification. Lydia Davis’s short fiction—by taking for granted the economization of intimate relationships without disavowing, naturalizing, or objecting to it—registers the cultural footprint and vernacular intellectual history of the game theory of sex, and elaborates its key modes of fictionality, antinarrativity, and self-fulfilling prophecy. Ultimately, the game theory of sex offers a prehistory of sexual gamification that extends beyond its most immediate digital substrate.
American economist Ken Binmore’s Game Theory: A Very Short Introduction (2007: 1) begins with humblebraggadocio:
When my wife was away for the day at a pleasant little conference in Tuscany, three young women invited me to share their table for lunch. As I sat down, one of them said in a sultry voice, “Teach us how to play the game of love,” but it turned out that all they wanted was advice on how to manage Italian boyfriends. I still think they were wrong to reject my strategic recommendations, but they were right on the nail in taking for granted that courting is one of the many different kinds of games we play in real life.
This elliptical opening gambit traces a rapid series of reversals in the meaning of a “game of love.” The phrase at first appears to be bold innuendo, then, a solicitation of expertise. In the end, the women reject even Binmore’s advice, shutting down the prospects of both sexual and intellectual exchange. The flirtation that opens this popular introduction to game theory turns out not to be between Binmore and the (likely fictitious) strangers. Rather, the anecdote demonstrates the range of game theory’s applications by teasing out the implication that it might contain even a theory of sexual strategy. At the same time that the anecdote alludes to an association between sex, economic game theory, and the quotidian games we play, it also makes light of that proposition through the self-deprecating comedy of an economics professor mistaking an inquiry about strategic interaction for a romantic overture.1
In a review of indie band Game Theory’s career, Stephanie Burt (2011: 13) defines the group’s namesake as “a branch of applied mathematics, but also the sometimes obtuse application of that branch to human endeavors—war, politics, sex.” As Burt’s description of the band’s nerd-rock cult appeal suggests, game theory is an awkward interest for the sensitive soul—comforting but embarrassing in its analytical reductions. In Game Theory’s cerebral pop compositions, Burt identifies a plaintive desire articulated through the game theoretic dream that “rules—once mastered—could help solve problems of love and sex” (13). That desire for rule-bound sociality is not always benign; it’s not hard to glimpse, in the shadow of Burt’s sensitive nerd, the bitter incel whose applied sciences of sex manifest as entitled demand rather than melancholy wish.
These disciplinary fables—the game theorist’s flirtation with sexual desire and the theorist of desire’s play with game theory—represent flashes of insight into a neglected subject of shared scholarly concern: the intellectual and cultural history of the commonplace that sex is a numbers game. The notion of a calculated sexual game frequently plays out in American popular media, from self-help books and advice columns to dating apps and reality television. But Binmore’s and Burt’s accounts of games of love are manifestly awkward, simultaneously proposing and withdrawing their claims that game theory and sex might meet. Binmore’s exemplary case of courtship immediately dissolves into a generalization about the “many different kinds of games we play,” and Burt’s characterization of Game Theory’s name as an encapsulation of the band’s concerns retreats behind claims that the name is “very unpromising” (6) and that “the music knows better” (13) than to rationalize love and sex. These assertive denials characterize broader scholarly orientations that overlook and underestimate lay theories of sex as a strategic game.
Understanding game theory’s contribution to the sex/game metaphor requires a study of what historian Lorraine Daston has described as mythologies of choice in the human sciences. In a 2004 forum on the future of humanistic criticism, Daston (2004: 361–62) named game theory as a new scholarly frontier, arguing that
what [the humanities] have not undertaken is a confrontation . . . with rival frameworks of interpretation in the human sciences. . . . Rational choice theory, game theory, and other models of human conduct are frankly imperialistic in their aims. But insofar as there has been any humanistic response to them, it has been a rolling of eyes heavenward and a shrugging of shoulders about the absurdity of it all. . . . This is not simply a matter of the weary war between the faculties; it is a matter of how all manner of decisions—political, social, and economic—are being routinely made, firmly embedded within these interpretive frameworks. To be concrete: how about articles devoted to the history and mythology (in the sense of Roland Barthes) of the algorithm? of cost/benefit analysis?
In the interim since Daston’s prolegomenon, humanists, and literary scholars in particular, have confronted the game theory narrative and other cultural manifestations of rational choice theory. Yet we still lack an account of the game theory of sex: not because of scholarly indifference or cultural insignificance, but due to polarization in approaches to games and play in humanistic accounts of sexuality and game theory. In this article, I trace contributions to the game theory of sex in lay theory, the humanities, economics, and literature. In the first section, I survey the cultural ubiquity of sex/game metaphors—which manifest in self-help, song lyrics, advice columns, and slang—along with theories of sexuality, economics, and games that circle the game theory of sex without converging directly on the subject. In the second section, I examine cases from well-known game theory texts to show that, despite game theory’s fundamental methodological assertion that its examples are arbitrary and meaningless, heterosexual situations are not only ubiquitous in game theory’s generalizations, but they help to ground the discipline’s assertions of universality. From the Stable Marriage Problem (Gale and Shapley 1962, see fig. 1) to Waiting for Mr. Perfect (Prisner 2014), sexual exempla persistently subtend game theory’s attempts to bracket irrelevant detail and distill social interaction into predictable motives, rational strategies, and regular behavioral patterns.
Following this account of the sex/game metaphor’s scholarly occlusions, I turn to American writer Lydia Davis’s engagement with the economics of sex and romantic and familial relationships. Critics tend to understand Davis’s economy in negative terms, emphasizing its stylistic sparsity, mordant minimalism, and emotional withdrawal. I read Davis’s playful economic microfictions (or microeconomic fictions) as generative models for the game of love. By taking for granted the economization of intimate relationships without disavowing, naturalizing, or objecting to it, Davis’s work offers the opportunity to begin elaborating the form of the game theory of sex. Interpreting Davis as an artist and theorist of the multiplicity and plenitude of applied mathematical models, this reading aims not to apply or reify game theory, nor even to evaluate the fit of its applications, but to register its cultural footprint and its vernacular intellectual history. Davis’s work demonstrates the range of game theory’s insinuation into everyday lay theories of sociality, and it focuses the diffuse impression that the language and methods of economic games have already silently colonized contemporary cultures of sex and dating. This article ultimately offers an understanding of game theory not only as an abstruse specialization tightly associated with midcentury geniuses and American Cold War excess, but for better or worse, as an element of the contemporary, everyday suffusion of sex, desire, and interpersonal relationships with models of strategic interaction.
Love Triangulated: Economics, Games, and Sex
In popular culture, the game metaphor has become flexible enough to articulate everyday vicissitudes of love. The concept of a sexual game is so thoroughly integrated into contemporary American culture that, despite its multiplicity, game rarely needs more than the slightest intimation of context to disambiguate any particular usage. Having game and being a player are praiseworthy in some circles, but playing games (with hearts) indicates a slimy, manipulative engagement with sexual partners in bad faith. Just playing the game, on the other hand, attempts to exculpate the romantic agent and reassign responsibility to a system. Calling dating a numbers game reassures us that patience in love is rewarded—not by providence, but by probability—and that quantity is the path to quality in love. Playing the field describes a prolific approach to dating adapted from gambling on horse racing, a hedging strategy that distributes bets across a field of competitors. In an etymological back-formation, playing the field has also converged with the baseball family of sexual euphemisms (the bases: first, second, third), yielding a secondary analogy between dating around and covering a wide swath of outfield. As these examples imply, the colloquial game of contemporary sex spans a diverse range of interactive behavior unified by a competitive, calculating, and strategic—in other words, microeconomic—character. The game of love indicates not boundless free play but convention-bound dynamics that intercede in and persist beyond any individual coupling.
In the context of contemporary game studies’ multiplicity, elaborating the sex/game metaphor in terms of game theory—a single mode of gaming—might appear to be a regressive move. But as economic historian Philip Mirowski (2017) argues, the chasm between game theory’s limitations and intellectual promiscuity is perhaps its most important and intriguing feature. Outside of academia, adaptations of game theory have flourished in popular dating manuals, advice columns, and self-help books on sex and romance.2 Acknowledging game theory’s outsized influence on the American sexual vernacular does not confirm its exclusive claim on the concept of sexual games, but rather addresses how the field has frequently positioned itself—and even more surprisingly, achieved recognition—as a unifying theory of the social.3
While lay theories naturalize the game theory of sex at the intersection of economics, games, and sex, humanistic scholarship has tended to consider these subjects pairwise, triangulating the game theory of sex without confronting it. In queer theory and sexuality studies, scholars primarily elevate the unrealized possibilities and openness of play, or they peg sexual gamesmanship to digital media and video games.4 Lauren Berlant (2008), for example, wonders, “who knows what sex could be if people were encouraged to enjoy it as play rather than as a drama.”5 This account of play, in the tradition of Johan Huizinga’s ( 1980) “magic circle,” Roger Caillois’s ( 2001) “paidia,” and Gregory Bateson’s ( 1972) “This is play,” figures play as a space apart from routine norms and default scripts, an unknown or a surplus separate from the ordinary. Judith Butler (2011: 237), informed by Roland Barthes, approaches the matter of love as mundane, describing the utterance “I love you” as submission to a cliché that “risks a full evaporation into an anonymous citationality.” But even for Butler, citation becomes a kind of open, transformative play. Rehearsing banality and convention becomes a gamble, and uttering “I love you” constitutes “a wager we make . . . a wager we become” (237). The occlusion of economic games of love in gender and sexuality studies might be an artifact of the bifurcation of the rational games of game theory and the preferred unpredictability of sexual play.
Theorists of economics and contemporary sexual cultures examine the market logic of dating in more historical terms, focusing in particular on how economic shifts, particularly transformations in the conditions of labor, shape romantic conventions and discourses (Illouz 2012; Weigel 2016; Ghodsee 2018). These fascinating cultural histories of economics and dating tend to dehistoricize economic theory in their historical materialist focus. Sociologist and cultural historian Eva Illouz (2012), for example, employs the language of econometrics metaphorically, referencing “economic calculus” (10) and “the dating game” (53) with no attending specification about precise modes of calculation or gaming. Economic calculus, however, is a historically variable term, not a straightforward, single mode of economic theory.6
Finally, literary scholarship on economic games spans an inventive range of approaches that nonetheless cluster around two poles: game theory as good method and game theory as bad object. Game theory becomes either an adaptable tool for literary scholarship—whether borrowed with enthusiasm or trepidation—or a historical object of analysis degraded and compromised by its association with Cold War militarism.7 While Cold War culture and institutions have close ties to the origins of game theory, the discipline’s fortunes do not map neatly onto the priorities of the military-academic-industrial complex.8 As historian Paul Erickson (2010: 388) argues, the Cold War national security context does “not explain these techniques’ subsequent appropriation, often long after the development of the mathematics in question.”9 Treating game theory as a repository of methods or a historical relic brackets its permeation of academic fields and popular culture alike, and obscures its ongoing transformation of what we think of as a game. To understand game theory’s popularization and function as popular sexology, we need a shift from the game theory of Dr. Strangelove (1964) to the game theory of strange love.
Beauty, Dating, and Marriage: Sex and Exemplification in Game Theory
The disjunction between game theory’s casual relationship with sex and its prominence in lay sexology might seem to imply a simple process of scientific bastardization. Ignorant of the nuances of mathematical postulation, modeling, and proof, the naive amateur takes game theory to the bar, the club, the anthropology department, and the bedroom. At the same time, as game theorist Ariel Rubinstein (2000) has noted, scholars in the field routinely present game theory as a science of everyday life well-lived: a formalization and refinement of innate social skill and intuitive strategy. Though John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern (2007: 7) are circumspect about game theory’s scope—stating in their foundational Theory of Games and Economic Behavior (1944) that “the field covered in this book is very limited, and we approach it in this sense of modesty”—the field’s framing as social physics is now widespread. While critics of game theory sometimes dismiss the field as reductive, its boosters point to reductionism as a sign of its fundamental, privileged place in the human sciences. Some game theorists, for example, have suggested that statistics itself could be considered a subfield of game theory.10 Telescoping from the analysis of parlor games, toy models, and quotidian interactions to grand claims about consilience and the unification of the social sciences, game theory has become a minor theory of everything. A primary vehicle of this extension has been game theory’s use of examples, and sexual exempla in particular.
Sexual and romantic scenarios abound in game theory, but the field tends to present all of its cases as hollow and fungible: convenient metonyms, memory aids, illustrations, or teaching tools. One of the simplest games, Battle of the Sexes, demonstrates how game theory expresses arbitrariness through examples. The authors of popular introductory textbook Games of Strategy (Dixit, Skeath, and Reiley 2015: 115) note that the name of the game “derives from the story concocted for this payoff structure by game theorists in the sexist 1950s. A husband and wife were supposed to choose between going to a boxing match and a ballet. . . . The name has stuck, and we will keep it, but our example . . . should make clear that it does not necessarily have sexist connotations.” Dixit, Skeath, and Reiley maintain that exemplary details are orthogonal to the field’s underlying mathematical reasoning, and the problem’s connotations are only historical vestiges, easily excised without affecting any fundamental features of its analysis. The authors replace the scenario with a coordination problem they name after When Harry Met Sally (1989), Nora Ephron’s romantic comedy film. Players Harry and Sally, recast as undergrads,
meet in their college library. They are attracted to each other and would like to continue the conversation. . . . They arrange to meet for coffee. . . . Sitting separately in class, each realizes that in the excitement they forgot to fix the place to meet. There are two possible choices. . . . What should each do? (111–17)
The revision ostensibly restores the principle that examples should be relatable in two senses: in content (familiar, specific, and coherent enough to clarify and index a game despite minimal detail) and in form (vacuous enough for easy conversion into similar situations). Arbitrariness turns out to be difficult to demonstrate. The new meet-cute scenario changes more details than necessary to eliminate the gendered stereotypes of the classic game, yet it maintains a heterosexual romantic pairing as its basis. Animating the game with a reference to When Harry Met Sally is particularly ironic as a demonstration of gender’s irrelevance in game theory, because the film’s plot turns precisely on the titular characters’ debate about whether men and women can be friends without falling into romantic scripts. The peculiar arbitrariness of the sexual example works as a form of rhetorical occultatio: a marriage of concepts masquerading as annulment.
While this Battle of the Sexes revision is unusually ironic, its preoccupations are not unique. Although game theory avers its agnosticism about applications, the romantic relationship has become a paradigmatic example. Economist Thomas C. Schelling (1978: 35) suggests that marriage is a prime example because its economic character is minor, partial, and thus boundary-pushing, writing, “Of all the activities that fall within my subject one of the most important is on the borderline of ‘market arrangements.’ That is marriage.”11 Game theorist Alvin E. Roth (2016), in a recent book on matchmaking and market design, uses romantic and sexual pairing as a prototypical example and metaphor, declaring that “even if matches are made in heaven, they are found in marketplaces” (5), and “when we deal with sex, we need to recognize that we’re dealing with powerful attractions. Markets are like that, too” (215). Roth’s metonymy is both conventional and perverse. The idea of a sexual marketplace is both familiar and widely met with what Roth calls “repugnance” (196).
The accretion of exemplary figures in mathematical and mixed-methods social scientific theories transforms evacuated metonymic iteration into loaded cultural metaphor. Sexual exemplarity clarifies and anchors abstract quantification—mediates between number, language, and world—but also muddies it. The blurring of specification and generalization is a feature of exemplarity more broadly; as Simon Goldhill (1994: 70) puts it, “the example’s narrative form always threatens to produce an excess of signification beyond the controlling lines of the case it is designed to illustrate.” The excess in this case is not the unquantifiable jouissance of sexual play, but rather a disavowed pattern of metonymy between sexuality in particular and the social in general. As a triumph of method, the sexual game theory example expresses the novelty of rendering even love calculable, while also claiming that there is nothing special about the example—a rhetorical move that pats itself on the back and casually dusts its shoulders off in a single gesture. This is a case of what Eric Hayot (2009: 29) calls the “example-effect”; the claim of arbitrary exemplification is a rhetorical strategy of generalization that attempts to conceal its patterned mechanisms of abstraction.
Game theory’s interest in sexual strategy is not just a preoccupation but a disavowal: a process that its uptake of John Maynard Keynes’s Beauty Contest strikingly illustrates. In a famous passage from The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (1936), Keynes compares the appreciation of women’s beauty with the appreciation of financial investments. Game theory has claimed this passage—though it precedes von Neumann and Morgenstern’s landmark Theory of Games and Economic Behavior (1944)—because Keynes’s (1964: 156) vivid description of recursion poses a problem of strategic interaction that game theory excels at resolving, reducing a dizzying mise en abyme into simple equilibrium solution concepts:12
professional investment may be likened to those newspaper competitions in which the competitors have to pick out the six prettiest faces from a hundred photographs, the prize being awarded to the competitor whose choice most nearly corresponds to the average preferences of the competitors as a whole; so that each competitor has to pick, not those faces which he himself finds prettiest, but those which he thinks likeliest to catch the fancy of the other competitors, all of whom are looking at the problem from the same point of view. It is not a case of choosing those which, to the best of one’s judgment, are really the prettiest, nor even those which average opinion genuinely thinks the prettiest. We have reached the third degree where we devote our intelligences to anticipating what average opinion expects the average opinion to be. And there are some, I believe, who practise the fourth, fifth, and higher degrees.
Keynes uses the beauty contest to condemn modern financial speculation for detaching the value of an investment from the viability and worth of a firm’s work. The structure of the game incentivizes players to set aside aesthetic judgment in favor of strategic analysis, and this disappearance of beauty articulates Keynes’s concern that the gamesmanship of unchecked financial speculation would increasingly supersede serious investment in sound enterprises. Keynes laments the collapse of the beauty contest into a homosocial game between men, and he proposes a cure for the investor’s wandering eye: “make the purchase of an investment permanent and indissoluble, like marriage” (160). Recognizing the need for some liquidity in investment markets, however, Keynes settles for the idea of heavy regulation in the form of transaction taxes.
The Beauty Contest has enjoyed a long career since Keynes, but in the hands of contemporary economists, it has undergone a complete methodological and ideological inversion. Research on Beauty Contests since the 1990s has transformed the game into a purely numerical problem that shares the recursive structure of Keynes’s original, but quantifies a metaphor that originally exemplified what biographer Robert Skidelsky (2010: 91–92) calls Keynes’s “rejection of calculability in human affairs.”13 The games are still primarily called Beauty Contests, leaving a residue of the metaphor of desire attached to these economic inquiries, even as they skeletonize the game and render its concern with “beauty” purely nominal. The Beauty Contest gets multiplied and fixed at the same time that its specificity disappears into mathematical abstraction. In this way, the economic Beauty Contest traces a historical arc analogous to the rhetorical sweep of game theory’s orientation toward sex: a disavowal of the very vehicle of the method’s fame.
Lydia Davis’s Economic Fictions
American writer and translator Lydia Davis has never declared an explicit interest in game theory, and her stories tend to be more concerned with established relationships than with dating or sexual strategy. However, reading her as a theorist of rational decision and indecision in intimate relationships affords the opportunity to examine the routing of ordinary decisions through game theory’s distinctive imaginary. Critics frequently describe Davis’s imagination as calculating and ludic—Ben Marcus (2007) writes that Davis’s “playfulness . . . turns love into a logic problem,” and Dan Chiasson (2010) describes the presence of autobiography in Davis’s work as an open secret, “a game rigged in our favor.” In these readings, Davis’s economy is stylistic flatness transcended, exceeded, negated, and overwhelmed by emotion, confession, personality, and humor. Reading Davis against game theory, however, allows us to understand Davis’s economics not as a stylistic veneer, but as a more literal calculus of relationships.14 Davis’s microfictions closely mirror game theory anecdotes in their interest in scientific models and schematization of relationships and knowledge.15
Davis’s work strains systems of literary classification, fitting equally well into categories like short story, short short story, flash fiction, experiment, game, microessay, and riddle. The question of classification exceeds even the demarcation of literary genres, as Davis’s work fits uncertainly into the category of literature itself. Pieces routinely include no names or no characters; no more than a series of propositions; meditations on a single word; or texts that appear to be found, legible as literature only because of their publication contexts and hyperbole: letters of complaint, sociology research papers, and newspaper headlines. Rather than attempting to tame the eclectic minimalism of these stories, I read Davis’s techniques of reduction as a career-spanning examination of literary-scientific modeling—classification, valuation, and framing—that does not represent, echo, or simulate, but rather makes up relationships and lives. Davis’s work does not produce a singular theory of modeling as a general process or principle—models are manifold and diverse, ranging from scale models to model organisms, mathematical models to fashion models, and beyond. Instead of characterizing economic imperialism, quantification, or neoliberalism in general, Davis’s stories follow particular economic models across domains, or they move through multiple overlapping models of single situations. Her work organizes and generates intensified modes of overthinking—metacognition as well as excessive rumination—that characterize contemporary relationships, which often become culturally inextricable from economic games of assessment and valuation; priority and sorting; conversion, equivalence, and settling up; abstraction, diagramming, and framing. I propose fictionality, antinarrativity, and self-fulfilling prophecy as key modes of overthinking in games of love and sex.
A surprising chain of citations links game theory to Catherine Gallagher’s account of “the rise of fictionality” in the European novel. Fictionality, Gallagher’s work demonstrates, helps to distinguish credible novels from earlier, incredible literary forms. In some ways, the European novel might seem antithetical to short forms like microfiction or the game theory example, but Gallagher’s (2006: 345) definition of fictionality helpfully parses the paradox in reading a text as “credible while thinking it affirms nothing” that the framing of game theory examples also demands. Linking literary credibility to economic credit, Gallagher suggests that economic modernity and familiarity with “disbelief, speculation, and credit” (345) prepared readers for fictionality: “one is dissuaded from believing the literal truth of a representation so that one can instead admire its likelihood and extend enough credit to buy into the game” (346). Beyond Gallagher’s explicit link between economic and literary imagination, the essay also contains an unmarked citation of game theory. In a discussion of fictional characters and “the link between their real nonexistence and the reader’s experience of them as deeply and impossibly familiar” (356), Gallagher mentions “what Erving Goffman calls the ‘sufficiency’ of the characterization to the needs of the narrative” (359). No publication by Goffman appears in the works cited, but the term “sufficiency” comes from his comparison of theater, radio, and the novel in Frame Analysis (1974) (Goffman 1986: 150). The influence of game theory on Goffman’s work is most prominent in Strategic Interaction (1969) and Encounters (1961), but in this chapter of Frame Analysis, Goffman adapts the definition of games from the second chapter of game theory’s founding text, Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, to develop a concept of “information states . . . the knowledge an individual has of why events have happened as they have, what the current forces are, what the properties and intents of the relevant persons are, and what the outcome is likely to be. In brief, each character at each moment is accorded an orientation, a temporal perspective, a ‘horizon’” (134). Lydia H. Liu (2010), in an astounding archaeology of the concept of play in French theory, uncovers a foundational interaction between Jacques Lacan and American game theory. Similarly, we can find in Gallagher’s indirect citation a hint of how game theory structures our understanding of the credit we extend to fictions, and how we critically conceptualize what nonexistent characters know and think about each other.
While Goffman (1969) draws on spy narratives as intensified examples of ordinary game theoretic strategic thought about what others are thinking, in Davis’s work, the modeling of other people as players of information and expression games is heightened in romantic, sexual, and other intimate relationships, like friendships and families. Davis’s story “Go Away” (1997) traces the second-person narrator’s analysis of intention, meaning, and information states after a heated argument. The story makes no attempt to suggest fullness or completeness, and it contains few details: no proper names, no personal or relationship histories, no setting, and no objects—only details necessary and sufficient to elaborate the narrator’s attempt to interpret a single sentence, the command, “Go away and don’t come back” (Davis 2009b: 247). The “words themselves mean what they say” but also more than that, and the narrator wonders if the meaning of the words is the same as their speaker’s meaning (247). Linguistic confusion emerges from the tension between the finality of the statement, which promises infinite extension, and the expiration of a speech-act limited by what Goffman calls the speaker’s temporal horizon. We change our minds, and in that sense, cannot properly speak for future selves; “he must want you to come back, either soon or later, depending on how quickly he may grow less angry” (246). The story also descends through multiple levels of perception and speculation about perception. The narrator figures that “don’t come back” could be an imperative uttered to hurt rather than to communicate its semantic meaning. But even though this interpretation attenuates the force of the literal command, it also introduces new, nested degrees of hurtfulness. This estimation of meaning entails thinking about how others think (and how others think about how others think, and so on), but iterated interpretations continue to refer back to and modify the other meanings even as they pile up. After speculating that the instruction “go away and don’t come back” might be an intensifying metaphor for “I’m extremely angry,” the narrator decides “it is not the anger in those words that hurt you, but the fact that he chooses to say words to you that mean you should never come back, even though he does not mean what the words say” (247). The observation that speech can be subjected to second- and third-order interpretations, and beyond, forecloses the possibility of saying only exactly what we mean and no more, but it also opens up further possibilities for strategic speech that exploits its multiple levels of signification and intentionality. The intensity of this game theoretic analysis, though formally unexpected and unusual as a short story, nonetheless feels “impossibly familiar” not because the utterance “go away and don’t come back” is a common one, but because the pattern of dissecting layers of meaning in a potentially thoughtless comment by a significant other feels so credible.
Some of the best recent literary scholarship on game theory has focused on the discipline’s narrativity, but this research tends to treat games as bounded, extreme situations rather than everyday mythologies.16 In this scholarship, the players of game theory narratives are not ordinary people but characters with special roles: “the white-coated scientist and the horn-rimmed mathematician” (Belletto 2012: 102); “the men in the margins of history” (124); RAND scientists like Herman Kahn (Puckett 2020: 46); and survivors fighting for their lives (Elliott 2018: 85–119). In these serious games, temporal sequence and the unfolding of plot are key to the analysis of game theory as narrative. Kent Puckett (2020: 46) implies that progression is the most important element of Cold War game theory’s “bare narrativity”: a “barely but nonetheless still narratable sequence of discrete events . . . across the escalatory threshold of a minimally recuperated beginning, middle, and end.” However, the game Puckett references, the famous Prisoner’s Dilemma, is less a sequential narrative than a situation, a predicament. Though the game’s application to nuclear proliferation might induce speculation about possible futures, the Prisoner’s Dilemma as commonly formulated has no ending and no resolution; the two prisoners remain forever frozen in a moment of indecision about whether to rat each other out. We can anticipate how each combination of choices would unfold, but the text is more of a collection of conditional statements sketching a counterfactual tree than a linear plotline.
Perhaps the most striking popular example of sexual game theory’s antinarrativity is a key scene in the film A Beautiful Mind (2001) directed by Ron Howard. Genius graduate student John Nash (played by Russell Crowe) has a mathematical breakthrough in a bar. Surrounded by papers and men, Nash participates in some chauvinistic banter about the sole blonde in a group of women. His lesser colleagues cite Adam Smith, all resolving to take their chances with the blonde and let the invisible hand of “the market” (also known as “the woman”) decide. Despite his social awkwardness, Nash professes superior social insight in recognizing that an entire group of men hitting on one woman would alienate her friends. Nash realizes that the optimal strategy would be for the men to coordinate their approaches, “ignore the blonde,” and hit on the brunettes instead. “That’s the only way we win,” Nash says, “that’s the only way we all get laid.” As the scene ends, however, Nash dashes out of the bar, brushing past the blonde to write up his theorem. The beautiful, awkward Nash drops seduction in favor of optimization, more interested in formalizing the dynamics of the sexual game than winning it—or even playing. The case of sexual game theory reveals the field’s antinarrative tendency, in the narrow sense that it truncates progression and temporal unfolding. Instead, the game theory of sex and relationships traffics in statuses, combinatorial elaboration, and information states. Economic game theory has even earned a reputation as unfun, because in solving games it often renders them pointless to play. Anatol Rapoport (1960: 148), for instance, notes “the common practice among experts to concede games or to agree on a draw as a result of insight into the logic of the situation.” Once the game is solved, there is no need to play it out—chess becomes tic-tac-toe.
Nothing happens in “Problem,” a story from Davis’s early collection Break It Down (1986). The story refers to its characters only as variables—X, Y, Z, W, U, V, T—and models a complicated social dynamic by tracing a network of economic, romantic, and familial relations. The primary candidate for the titular “problem” is a dizzying network of spousal and child support:
X is with Y, but living on money from Z. Y himself supports W, who lives with her child by V. V wants to move to Chicago but his child lives with W in New York. W cannot move because she is having a relationship with U. . . . (Davis 2009c: 124)
Davis’s technique inverts an analogy Rapoport uses to explain the purpose of game theory’s examples: describing the famous exemplary syllogism, “all men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore Socrates is mortal,” Rapoport (1992: 81) notes that “the assertions about Socrates are only a ‘cover story’ invented to make the lifeless formula ‘All A are B; X is an A; therefore X is a B’ come alive.” But while Rapoport suggests that the logical sequence is lifeless without proper names, Davis’s “Problem” is precisely a story without names about economic conditions for life.
In the scope of the story’s situation, names are less important than the relations among the parties the names index. Character identifiers in the single-paragraph story mostly follow conventions for naming variables, beginning with x, y, z before wrapping back around to draw additional letters from the alphabet. This notational abstraction could easily be interpreted as a broad condemnation of an economic system that turns people into variables, and as a fictional record of a lossy, reductive procedure that eliminates nearly all of the texture, complexity, and richness of social life in its minimal transcription. Look what Gary S. Becker hath wrought—the argument would go—the trivialization of romantic and kinship bonds into a vulgar graph of financial liability, alimony, and child support; a flattening of Xena, Yohji, and Zara into X, Y, and Z; and an erasure of children into nonvariable “it”s. A great deal of detail is excluded from the story: there’s no explanation of why V wants to move to Chicago, nor why V sees his child rarely. We have only backstory, status quo—no progression, change, or development.
This reading of the story’s reductiveness, however, would disregard the specificity of the story’s modeling to criticize the procedure of modeling in general. Though styled as a math problem, the story is also nonstandard in several respects. Formally, the variable names break notation conventions; when variables are numerous, mathematicians and scientists (depending on discipline) often switch notation styles, for example using numbered subscripts or superscripts of the form: x1, x2 . . . x13, x14. Here, however, the variable names proceed haphazardly. The first four characters—X, Y, Z, W—appear in the standard sequence, but the rest come out of order—U, V, T—as if unanticipated arrivals piling into an already-established model. The out-of-order variables also hint at the existence of an alternative sorting principle outside of the logical presentation of the problem.
The break in conventions of mathematical notation is matched by unconventional social links in the implied graph of relations. The first conflict that emerges is one between V’s interest in moving to Chicago and his personal and financial obligation to his child with W in New York. The nature of these relationships is further complicated by the comparison of different forms of relation; “V sees his child rarely but provides for it. U lives with W’s child but does not provide for it” (Davis 2009c: 124). These complications demonstrate how links of financial dependence also loop in additional parties. A “problem” arises—and necessitates this form of modeling and presentation—because the family is unconventional in its disaggregation of different types of relationships (economic, sexual, romantic, and familial). In noting that “X is with Y, but living on money from Z,” the conjunction emphasizes a departure from norm or expectation, and in particular, deviation from the nuclear family structure that consolidates sexual and economic bonds, incorporating cohabitation, reproduction, and childrearing into a single naturalized unit—a version of the unity Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1993: 5) calls “Christmas effects.” A conventional nuclear family needs no graph to define its network of relations and could be narrated instead through rich characterization, detail, and progression with no risk of obscuring structure with detail. The people in the story are represented in terms of antinarrative states and statuses—graphs, nodes, and edges—because the relations are complicated enough to need a diagram.
At the same time that the story illustrates and ironizes the complexity of kinship-related financial obligations, it also traces a network of care. The odd imprecision of the description that “V sees his child rarely but provides for it” suggests a wealth of possibilities. While “to provide for” could simply mean “to support financially,” its broader definition indicates more general sustenance and the creation of conditions of possibility. Julie A. Nelson (2000: 1178) adopts the same language of “providing for” in a reflection on feminist economics: “I have wanted to redefine the field of economics. . . . I want to change the central question to one of ‘provisioning’ [rather than scarcity]—how we provide for ourselves the means to sustain and enjoy life.” As Nelson’s description of feminist economics helps to demonstrate, the language of provisioning in Davis’s story suggests that economic modeling of social relations need not necessarily function as a corruption or reduction of otherwise unquantified social life, but might also clarify and establish material forms of care. For better or worse, the story demonstrates how a financial model sustains bonds through monetary, among other, means. The titular “problem” is ultimately nowhere to be found. No distinct question appears, no problem to solve, no choice, strategy, or decision to pursue, despite several tensions. The model in this case is not an intrusive mapping but an elaboration of overlapping forms of connectedness with various material, economic, legal, and affective bases—a problematic: a useful model for an exigent situation.
Self-Reference, Metacognition, and Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
Sexual games make themselves happen. They are recursive, in the sense that games involve thinking about another person’s thinking, while in turn, that person is also thinking about your thinking. But even more than that, game theory disciplinarily justifies and reproduces itself through self-fulfilling prophecy.17 Some game theorists describe their work as overwhelmingly normative, concerned with the behavior of imaginary, perfectly rational figures, and disconnected from descriptions or predictions about the world.18 Descriptivist game theorists, however, reconcile the gap between empirical observations and game theory’s predictions by introducing the concept of learning—suggesting that those who do not conform to game theory’s predictions might need more time to converge to equilibrium. Binmore (1990: 18) offers an extreme, sociobiological version of this argument, suggesting that game theory is learned by individuals but also species, and arguing that if game theory “is ever to do more than grace the dusty shelves of academic libraries, it will be because a combination of education and evolution drives society in the direction of the theory. In this process, the existence of the theory itself will be an important factor . . . the existence of the theory itself would be partly responsible for bringing about and stabilizing the events which it ‘predicts.’” Popularization, in this view, is not a secondary process of diffusion but the transformation of subjects by theories of behavior.
In Davis’s work, models of recursion and self-fulfilling prophecy ground relationships, including characters’ relationships with themselves, in circuits of knowledge, perception, and the interactions that shape them. “A Friend of Mine” (1997) decomposes the narrator’s perspective on a friend who seems to see herself very differently from how others perceive her, before turning the same analysis inward in the second paragraph of the two-paragraph story: “I must not know altogether what I am . . . others know certain things about me better than I do . . . I have no choice but to continue to proceed as if I know altogether what I am, though I may also try to guess, from time to time, just what it is that others know that I do not know” (Davis 2009a: 243). The story suggests that the idea of an individual or a self is only a heuristic, and a person cannot even be composited out of the consensus between what they think of themselves and what others think of them. This latticework of relational characterization suggests that the self is already a fiction made from a game of perception, but at the same time, the story produces the sense that the problem raised by this model is one of the model’s own making; the narrator did not recognize the disconcerting issue until after applying it to the friend. In a sense, then, “A Friend of Mine” functions as both model and metamodel. The story is a metamodel because it entertains multiple ways of strategically constructing character (comparing the perceptions of the character with those of others; finding areas of consensus and ironic disagreement; and elaborating the contradictions that appear when trying to make sense of another person). The resolution of the story indicates a nearly imperceptible change in perspective—the insight is ultimately not actionable—despite a major theoretical shift in the narrator’s understanding of self-perception.
Whereas “A Friend of Mine” traces the recursion of knowing people, a model both created and found by the story, “The Two Davises and the Rug” (2013) elaborates a potential connection between two people entirely generated by an economic transaction. The sale of a rug animates a relationship between two strangers who share a surname and several personality traits: one owns a rug and the other offers to buy it, triggering an extended bout of indecision on the seller’s part. The story begins by describing the similarity between the two Davises—same last name, neighbors, indecisive in many of the same ways—but notes that “they did not know this about each other until she decided to put her rug up for sale” (Davis 2014: 13). The prominent framing of the Davises’ multiple similarities suggests that the seller’s indecision is in part an earnest inquiry into how two extremely similar people could ever enter into a financial transaction. The Davises’ similarities put them into contact and make the sale possible but also render it impossible, because the narrator begins to question why one Davis would want to acquire what the other wants to dispose.
Other people’s interest in the rug prompts the seller to reevaluate its worth, activating an anxious analysis of market value. The seller’s indecision, in this instance, is less a character flaw than a process of reconciliation between her sense of value and the value others perceive. Confronting this disjunction (she prices it at $10, but the appraiser prices it at $50), Davis the seller experiments with multiple ways of modeling the rug’s value:
She used different lines of reasoning to try and work out what she should do. The rug was a good one—an expert had told her that; she had bought it because she liked it in the Native American store; though apparently it was not Native American; her son liked it, the rare times he came home for a visit; she would still like it if it was cleaned up a little; but on the other hand, she had not kept it clean before and probably would not again; and the other Davis, to judge by the presentation of the interior of his house, which was clean and tidy and thoughtfully arranged, would clean it up and take good care of it; she had been ready to sell it; and the other Davis had been ready to buy it. (15–16)
By the end of the story, Davis still has not come to a decision about the rug, and she has not even decided on a decision model. The story, one of Davis’s longer pieces at five pages, is in one view a ridiculous anecdote about a trivial matter. Regardless of the rug’s value, it could not possibly be worth the time and energy the character invests into the decision. By the end, though, the situation has semi-ironically expanded in consequence to nearly the scale of a life, as Davis expresses the “wish that there were a Solomon to turn to, for a judgment” (17). The indecisive desire, here, is a wish for a final authority on value and the imposition of a single, exclusive model: a wish conditioned by ubiquitous economization that nonetheless still indicates that systems of value are always multiple. While the comparison between splitting a baby and splitting a rug is manifestly silly, the negotiation about the rug also animates the object, and imbues it with a vitality beyond the will of the Davises who seek to determine its fate. The other Davis, it turns out, is married, and his wife suggests that “since both Davises were so indecisive, the rug was taking on a life of its own” (16).19 The sense of animation emerges, in part, through the anthropomorphism of attention, but its liveliness is also a displacement of imaginative outreach to third party arbiters, including Solomon; Davis the seller’s absent son; the abstract idea of a market value; past and future selves; and even the ethical point of view of the universe that organizes Davis’s disinterested but unrealized speculation that if the other Davis wants the rug more than she does, he should just have it. The introduction of the other Davis’s wife near the end of the story interrupts what might otherwise appear to be a meet-cute and, by cutting it off, teases a new possibility that, all along, the seller’s delay in selling the rug could have been a stalling technique to extend the social interaction between the Davises. The Davises’ chance meeting could have been a conventional preamble to romance. This missed connection between indecisive Davises, like many of Davis’s stories, is not a broadside against diffuse quantification. The minor concerns in these stories demonstrate the far and petty reaches of universalizing economic rationalism applied to love, sex, and other relationships. The stories also acknowledge that we live with and through calculations; we overthink value and priority; and we seek congruence, translation, and other modes of exchange when equality is unavailable.
Toward a Prehistory of Sexual Gamification
Most observers characterize gamification as a twenty-first century phenomenon. Gamification pursues its transmedial promise—infinite applicability and disregard for boundaries between work and play, autonomy and coercion—through specifically digital means. The periodization of gamification as a contemporary phenomenon is partly grounded in the rapid expansion of the video game industry, the new ubiquity of mobile computing in the twenty-first century, and their affiliated digital cultures. As Patrick Jagoda (2020: 14) argues, gamification is the spirit of our present: “if spectacle conveys ‘the total practice’ of the ‘particular economic and social formation’ of late 1960s capitalism, then gamification expresses the equivalent formation in the present.”20 Gamification converts “success” into “winning,” and apps play us as much as we play them.
The question of where the games of gamification come from remains a site of persistent uncertainty. In a discussion of “survival game” narratives, Jane Elliott (2018: 89) distinguishes this mode of gaming “from gamification, which instead depends on the perception that existing experiences resemble or already function as games.” Greg Lastowka and Constance Steinkuehler (2015: 510) make precisely the opposite argument, noting that “if the notion of gamification means ‘exporting game mechanics to non-game settings,’ then it must follow that these sorts of behavior are not games. Otherwise, there would be no non-game settings to which games could be exported.” This confusion also plays out in popular discussions of gamification. In a TED talk about the “game layer” as a successor to social media, would-be tech wunderkind Seth Priebatsch (2010) (like Mark Zuckerberg, an Ivy League dropout living in the Boston area in the 2000s) announced, with no sense of dissonance, “I think everything is a game” alongside the gamifier’s other credo, “this isn’t a game yet, but really should be.” Is there a game layer on top of the world, or a game lair below it?
As a prehistory of gamification, game theory establishes an antecedent for the double ontology of games of life. Game theory’s popularization is not undermined by but rather depends on the paradox between two concepts: the idea that every social interaction is already a game, and the framing of game theory as applied mathematical expertise authored by geniuses and Nobel Laureates. The example of the sexual game has mostly been overlooked due to the disciplinary chiasmus I describe above, a vacant intersection where the cultural history of game theory and sex should be. For the economist, the sexual game represents game theory’s power to make neat the messy stuff of life, crystallizing social situations into their essential elements; for the humanist, the mathematical neatness of economic games, sexual and otherwise, presents a political mess, concealing the dynamics of power and ideology through an illusion of objectivity, symmetry, and fungible life. In the numerous popular forms of sexual gamification today, however, we see that it is too late for the humanist to decry the economist’s claim on the game of love—it’s time to account for all the games we can’t not play.
I’m grateful to Zarena Aslami, Sam Huber, Amy Hungerford, Xander Manshel, Laura B. McGrath, Samantha Pergadia, John Durham Peters, Anna Shechtman, Kathryn Winner, Sunny Xiang, and participants in the 2019 Post45 Graduate Symposium for feedback on this article.
For another discussion of game theory and sex at a European restaurant, see Davis 2009.
The most popular example might be Eric Berne’s ( 2004: 12) best-selling Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships, which describes game theory as its “growing sister science of mathematical game analysis.” Other examples include Birger 2015; Cresswell 2003; Fisher 2008; Gottman and Silver 2012; O’Malley 2015; and notorious “pickup artist” texts, Strauss 2005 and 2009, and Max 2006.
Avinash K. Dixit, Susan Skeath, and David Reiley (2015: 4) declare that “game theory provides concepts and techniques of analysis for many disciplines, one might say all disciplines except those dealing with completely inanimate objects.”
Similarly, in a recent book on sex and play, media studies scholar Susanna Paasonen (2018: 3) argues that “a focus on playfulness allows for conceptualising sexual selves as being in constant, more or less subtle transformation.”
As Mirowski (1996: 530) argues, “an appreciation that there are many possible ways of assigning number, each with its own characteristic algebra, would actually strengthen [the] thesis that there is little inevitable about the way in which quantification happens.”
Examples of the first approach include de Ley 1988; Kaplan 1996; Swirski 2007; Brams 2012; Flesch 2012; and Banerjee 2018. Examples of the second approach include Grausam 2011; Nealon 2012; Belletto 2012; Medovoi 2012; and Seltzer 2016.
As game theorists Drew Fudenberg and David K. Levine (2016: 151) recall, game theory was not yet considered central in economics during their graduate studies at MIT in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Similarly, Ariel Rubinstein (2012: 124) notes that “for half a century the study of game theory barely extended beyond the mathematics and operations research departments. Only in the 1970s did game theory penetrate into the core of economics. . . . Since the 1980s, countless people have delighted in declaring that game theory is useful in all fields.”
For a study of sex and Cold War rationality, see Carol Cohn’s hilarious “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals” (1987). Considering strategic seduction plots in Cold War spy narratives—including cat-and-mouse games and “honeypot traps”—could also further develop this line of inquiry.
Schelling (1981: 94), for example, cites the Beauty Contest to define “coordination,” a key concept in the expansion of game theory beyond competitive and adversarial applications. A graphic introduction to game theory (Pastine, Pastine, and Humberstone 2017) describes it as a “classic example.”
The Beauty Contest game in its current form also has a new and considerably less sexy name: the Guess 2/3 of the Average game. See Nagel 1995.
While Davis is singular in her commitment to very short forms, her writing also belongs to a broader category of fiction in what Jane Elliott (2018) calls “the microeconomic mode.” While Elliott’s examples tend to emphasize violence and extremity, the sex/game metaphor appears in a broad range of settings where economic calculation and sex appear in conflict or in congress, like the early 1970s suburbs of Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm (1994), with its cultural combination of free market economics and experiments in free love: laissez-faire and faites l’amour. Other fictions of the game theory of sex range from Mary Gaitskill’s (1988) stories about sex work, labor, and exploitation to the speculations of Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story (2010).
Like David Lewis’s ( 2002) philosophical adaptation of game theory in his study of linguistic convention and coordination, Davis’s short fiction is often concerned with mapping what people think about what other people think. Davis (2011) also elaborates an interest in microeconomics in her writing about translation, which she describes through metaphors of quantity and transaction.
For example, see Elliott 2018. For considerations of narrative by economists, see McCloskey 1998; Rubinstein 2012; and Robert J. Shiller’s American Economic Association Presidential Address (2017) and monograph (2019). For more on economic fictions, see Clune 2010; and McClanahan 2016.
Jagoda (2020: 52) introduces game theory into the genealogy of gamification, arguing that it “influenced an ideological and cultural receptiveness to games in the broader society.”