Monday, 30 May 2016

Game Theory and "Beau Geste"

I wrote a post some time ago about Michael Suk-Young Chwe's book Jane Austen, Game Theorist, which argues that Austen's works are a systematic exploration of game theory ideas.  I have to say that I was not entirely convinced.  For me, game theory is about players thinking about their choices and their opponents' choices, and thinking about what opponent is thinking is important.  The examples in Austen of strategic thinking didn't, for me, capture that aspect of game theory.

But I recently reread Beau Geste, P.C. Wren's 1920s adventure story of the French Foreign Legion with a tragic denouement at Fort Zinderneuf.  Let me say straight away that the book shows all the unpleasant racism of its time.  It also presents an old-fashioned view of the code of duty which I fear, as a child, I took more seriously than it deserves.  (Wren's sequel, Beau Sabreur, is much more ambivalent in this regard, or perhaps I just missed the irony in Beau Geste.)

In these matters Beau Geste is very much of its time.  In its own terms, it is a rattling good adventure story.  And, unlike Austen, it presents real game theory dilemmas (I am trying not to give significant spoilers) .  The problems the heroes face require them to think through the consequences of their actions and how others will react.  Both in the matter of the theft of the jewel which sets up the adventure, and in taking sides in the potential mutiny at Fort Zinderneuf, they are thinking not only about their own actions but about the other parties'.  The mutiny is interesting because, thanks to the characters' interpretation of the demands of their duty and loyalties to their comrades, everyone on both sides has full information, so it really is a nice example of strategic game theory thinking.