What Game Theory Can Teach Us About Instructional Design

Game theory is fascinating! It’s the study of achieving the best outcomes of a “game”, like soccer or chess, where more than one person is involved and the theorectical outcomes are known or are generally predictable.

So how does Game Theory apply to Instructional Design? In one sense, the two disciplines don’t really intersect at all. After all, instructional design is a lot of things, but it rarely involves war-time-like strategy. However, if you’ve ever studied game theory, you’ll know that game theory educators have some very interesting instructional techniques to teach people decision making – and decision making can be a part of any type of instructional content, especially when geared toward advanced learners.

Let’s explore a game theory example in which two people are playing a coin-flipping gain. Each player is given a quarter to flip and the rules of the game are: you gain one point if you flip heads.

If you were to write out the outcomes in a slide, you might have the dreaded “bullets of insanity”:

  • Scenario 1: both players flip heads, so both people “win” but tie
  • Scenario 2: both players flip tails, so both people lose, but lose equally
  • Scenario 3: one player flips heads, the other flips tails, so the player who flips heads definitively wins
What I’ve observed is that game theory educators don’t use the “bullets of insanity”. They use a fairly standard outcome matrix. Let’s build one for our scenario, step by step.

First, let’s only consider the outcomes for player 1.

Player A
Heads 1
Tails 0
Pretty straightforward, eh? If Player 1 flips heads, he gains one point. If not, Player 1 stays at 0. Now, let’s add the “game” part of this by adding in and comparing the outcomes for the second player. Notice how easy it is to spot the situations that yield the best and worst outcomes for both players.
Player 2
Heads Tails
Player 1 Heads 1, 1 1, 0
Tails 0, 1 0, 0
Isn’t that SO much better than the “bullets of insanity”? And it lends itself to eLearning animations as well. You can animate the filling in of each of the outcome boxes (e.g. “1, 1”) with a voice script overlay.

So, the next time you need to discuss comparative decision making, now you have a bullet-free way to do it, courtesy of game-theory educators. To see more examples, check out this amazing website: http://gametheory101.com/

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