– Bruce Long

Most of us have heard the phrase ‘zero sum game’. It is a term of art from the science and mathematics of game theory. Game theory is a fascinating and powerful mathematical modeling technique for planning and predicting what will happen in interactions between agents that must negotiate outcomes between them, when doing such things as competing for limited resources, for example.  In a zero sum game the opposition or opponent in a game – in a situation where one is competing with an opponent for a finite discrete resource or outcome – either wins or loses. There is no middle ground, and no chance for compromise: the value of one agent’s gain is the value of the other agent’s loss, and if there is only one thing to be lost or gained (not a cake cutting situation, but instead a contention for one single indivisible item or outcome) there will be a 100% winner and a 100% loser.

In game theory, there are two kinds of constraints or influences that can affect the outcome of a either competitive or a cost-benefit game or situation: parametric and non-parametric influences. Parametric influences are fixed in the environment: they are not responsive to or anticipatory of the reasoning or behaviour of any agent involved in competition or outcome optimisation in a game or situation. An example is the limitation of resources in the environment for which agents might be competing. Another example is features of the environment or the setting that involve risk of harm or cost. Two hunters competing for game in a forest must anticipate each other’s moves and intentions – these are parametric considerations. However, they do not have any control over things like rainfall, rockfalls, lightning strikes: such things are parametric variables associated with parametric risk variables.

As I related in a previous article about a city planning project being carried out by the Chinese Goverment in the Quaidim Basin, game theory is being deployed in this and other Chinese development projects with a view to trying to anticipate what stakeholders in the development process will do and how it will affect the outcomes that are required (the project includes the likely construction of at least one mine and at least one steel smelting plant). A relevant question from a political, social, and philosophical standpoint arises, perhaps. Is the application of game theory – with its inherent core of agent opposition and competition – too confrontational and conflict orientated for application in a situation where the needs, concerns, and behaviour of the stakeholders in question?

The application of game theory has many moral and ethical questions associated with it, and this has been true since its development into a formal science in 1944. The modelling deployed by the Chinese Government in Quaidam incorporates game theoretic principles and scenario building based upon constructivist precepts and principles. The idea is to anticipate and account for the responses of local inhabitants and their political/state representatives to development plans. Given the Socialist disposition of the CCP, it would be fair to assume – within reason – that the government does not want to alienate, and regard as contentious, the local people of the Qaidam basin, and those stakeholders that have an interest in the development project.

Thus the Spanish conqueror Cortez, when landing in Mexico with a small force who had good reason to fear their capacity to repel attack from the far more numerous Aztecs, removed the risk that his troops might think their way into a retreat by burning the ships on which they had landed. With retreat having thus been rendered physically impossible, the Spanish soldiers had no better course of action but to stand and fight—and, furthermore, to fight with as much determination as they could muster. Better still, from Cortez’s point of view, his action had a discouraging effect on the motivation of the Aztecs. He took care to burn his ships very visibly, so that the Aztecs would be sure to see what he had done. They then reasoned as follows: Any commander who could be so confident as to willfully destroy his own option to be prudent if the battle went badly for him must have good reasons for such extreme optimism. (Don Ross: SEP)

Of course, the deployment of game theory does not have to be unethical or untoward in the planning context. It is simply one of the most effective tools available for helping to model the outcomes in order to bring about an optimal development project which obeys the dualist harmony-sustainability ethos of the CCPs planning regimen – something that has been carefully thought through and considered. The other strength of the game-theoretic modelling approach is that, as alluded to above, inherent in its structure is a distinction between parametric (non-agentive) and non-parametric (agentive) variables and factors: a useful distinction for a planning and development project that must account for social harmony, ecological and economic sustainability, and that will result in human geographic outcomes. The Quaidam proposal is interesting from the perspective of human geography, since the entire project involves a potentially significant effect on the landscape due to mining and large construction projects, which are extremely relevant to the sustainability half of the CCP’s planning principles regimen.

The application of game theory to planning brings a number of philosophical sub-disciplines into play: the philosophies of mathematics and probability theory, ethical philosophy, political philosophy including Marxism and Maoism, and probably – in the case of the Chinese development in Quaidam – Weberian and Confucian bureaucratic philosophies. In the application of game theory to constructivist cit planning, zero sum games are not the objective and are not necessary. The objective is to identify the best outcomes in non-zero-sum game terms. This means that there is plenty of scope and latitude for game theory to be a good starting point for constructivist-inspired city planning.