In my forthcoming book on game theory and social media marketing (See how I slipped a mention of my book in there? Bet you hardly noticed. That’s called contextual marketing. It works because it’s subtle.), I set out to prove that game theory has something to teach us about how the testy relationship between marketers and consumers has evolved online over the last decade. In fact, game theory worked so well in analyzing this conflict that I now use it to analyze all conflicts, including why my neighbor insists on heaving his dead Christmas tree into the alley behind my house every year.
And since all marketing and no fun makes Eric a dull blogger (it’s one of the factors, anyway), I thought I’d set out to prove just how fun game theory can be by demonstrating its relevance to Battlestar Galactica, Season 3, Episode 6: A Measure of Salvation. Yes, it is actually possible to out-geek sci-fi.
I know, I know, the show ended like three years ago. I fully admit that I am late to the cause of BSG’s greatness, but I am filled with the evangelistic fervor of the recently converted. In the episode in question, the humans, who have been relentlessly pursued by the Cylons throughout the series, stumble upon biological weapons that have the potential to destroy the Cylons for good. These weapons are, in fact, diseased Cylons captured by the humans. When Cylons are killed, they are automatically “resurrected” among their own kind, so executing the captured Cylons would cause them to transmit the disease to other Cylons, setting off a chain reaction that could wipe out their species.
I’ll spare you a recap of the many brooding conversations that precede the humans’ decision to use the biological weapons; the upshot is that they use the weapons, or attempt to, and it is this decision that stirred me from the couch and prompted me to write this post, convinced as I am that game theory would have led them down a different decision path entirely.
This actually isn’t much of a stretch. Game theory was originally developed to analyze geopolitical conflict in the Cold War, especially in regard to the use of potentially world-ending nuclear weapons. As you may have heard, we didn’t end up launching any nuclear weapons in the Cold War, but they were very useful anyway in the practice of deterrence, which was basically a matter of convincing the other side that you had the weapons and were willing to use them, so that you wouldn’t have to use them. If you think deterrence worked out better for us than the grim alternative, then you have the original game theorists (partly) to thank for it.
Deterrence, I’m suggesting, is the other option available to the humans on BSG, though it’s never discussed – it’s all a lot of hand-wringing and should-we-or-shouldn’t-we. But it’s a real option. In game theory, the most basic conflicts are analyzed in terms of two options: cooperation (pursuing self-interest that aligns with your opponent’s self interest) and defection (pursuing self-interest that is contrary to your opponent’s self-interest). Self-interest is always a given; we are not altruists when it comes to our survival.
Deterrence is an interesting gambit: it is a form of cooperation with a strong threat of defection. You are demonstrating to your opponent that you’re more than willing to defect in the next round if they don’t immediately cooperate, and you have to be willing to follow through on that threat in order for future deterrence to carry any weight. In iterative conflicts –the Cylon-human conflict has been repeated for five seasons – deterrence often emerges because the cost of defection is very high, as both sides engage in a downward spiral of bloodletting.
By Season Three of BSG, both sides are sick of the fight, but neither trusts the other enough to cooperate; each believes the other will always end up defecting. The decision to use the biological weapons threatens to worsen the downward spiral. Since it is implausible that the weapons would succeed in wiping out all of the Cylons, the humans would then face a decimated foe that believes the humans are capable of anything and must be destroyed at all costs.
Using the weapons would have a positive outcome for the humans in the short run, but in the long run the outcome would be irreversibly bad for all concerned. This is a classic game theory dilemma: weighing the cost of an action that produces a short-term win against the risk of a long-term loss.
The humans and the Cylons find themselves in this dilemma because they both violated, from the other’s point of view, a cardinal rule of game theory in iterative conflicts: Never be the first to defect. The Cylons’ preemptive strike against the humans, which destroyed most of civilization, convinced the humans that the Cylons want nothing more than their total annihilation. And the Cylons claimed that they attacked in the first place because the humans’ willingness to destroy their own creation – the Cylons – proved they could never be trusted. When both opening moves are defection, cooperation is nearly impossible to achieve.
But deterrence offers a possible way out: it is a way of signaling that you are capable of inflicting a devastating act of defection, but you choose to cooperate instead, and so it engenders a degree of trust. On BSG, deterrence could involve making the Cylons aware that the humans possess the biological weapons and have the means to keep them safe until they can be used (it’s been established that the diseased Cylons can be kept alive, though not cured, with medication). The humans would only use the weapons if the Cylons defected, thus preserving their potency as a deterrent. If the humans could continue to wield the deterrence with some authority, a fragile truce could take hold.
Easier said than done, both in life and on BSG. Game theory analysis assumes perfectly rational action, and the chief proponents of using the biological weapons, Admiral Adama and his son, both have major daddy issues that cloud their judgment. Remind you of any recent office-holders? The final decision-maker, President Roslin, is locked into a story arc that includes an authoritarian streak running through her mother-hen persona. And how much fun would a show about deterrence be?
The point is, well, the point is I love me some BSG. But the other point is that deterrence is too often the option we overlook, because we’re drawn to the unhealthy extremes of either doing everything or doing nothing. The middle path is rocky. But the fate of humanity lies in the balance. So say we all.