Comilla: Games in an
Ancient Learning Centre
The Speaker and the final year undergraduate students.
Photo Credit: Nobin Kundu
Comilla University is one of the newest Public Universities in Bangladesh established in 2006 with 14 departments and approximately 3,000 students. Located beside The Mainamati Buddhist Monastery, it silently bears testimony to Comilla, as one of the oldest learning centres of South Asia. The Great Sachin Dev Burman was also a student here.
A surprise phone call from my student Nobin Kundu, Faculty in the Department of Economics, took me to Comilla University on May 11, 2011 for an official engagement. I was looking forward to the visit because I was asked to give a talk to the final year undergraduate students on a topic of my choice. The choice was obvious- Game Theory, since game theory has been my greatest personal intellectual discovery in life and my latest obsession.
I started with a simple version of the ultimatum game where a mother gives a cake to her eldest child and asks her to divide it. But the younger child will decide which piece to take first. From self-interest (the foundation of mainstream economic theory) the eldest child will divide the cake into two equal pieces because her decision now depends on what her younger sibling will do first. This is the essence of Game Theory- my decision is a function of your decision and vice versa. John Nash first formally modelled this behaviour in 1950 in his PhD Thesis at Princeton, which is now universally known as the Nash Equilibrium.
Game Theory was formally launched in 1944 through John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern- also at Princeton. They discussed zero-sum games where players have conflicting interests- mutual cooperation cannot be enforced. To illustrate this, I played a version of Martin Schubik's 1971 game where a Tk 100 Note would be auctioned between two players. Bidding started at Tk 20 and was raised by Tk 20 slots. When the bid came to Tk 100, the other player had to raise the stakes otherwise she losses her last bid (Tk 80) and also the 100 Taka note. Experimental economics suggests a 100 Taka note will sell at Tk 300- three times its face value. Interestingly, that 100 Taka note sold at Tk 500. The plausible explanation would be that there are no bank notes in Bangladesh between Tk 100 and Tk 500. A psychological barrier stopped the bidding at Tk 500. Due to the conflicting interests rational players behave irrationally in auction games. I gave the proceedings back to the students for refreshments.
It is certainly not possible to cover Game Theory in a single lecture of two hours. It is possible though to break the myth and exoticness that has surrounded Game Theory since its inception at Princeton. Intuition still remains the most powerful weapon of the human mind. Game Theory can be presented with complex mathematics and also with very simple intuition to explain environments where the decision of one player depends on that of another player(s). If this little talk with minds of the new generation in an ancient learning centre in Comilla achieved this objective through fun and games in the classroom, then another trip to ancient Comilla could well be in the offing.
(The author teaches economic theory at Jahangirnagar University and North South University.)