Thoughts on economics and liberty

Puzzle: Why do people play games?

Can anyone refer me to a good academic paper (economic analysis) that demonstrates why people play and watch games? (e.g. soccer/cricket)

Half the people who watch the game (assuming equal number of supporters) receive a disutility from the loss, half gain utility, the net social utility is zero. So the game should not start off in the first place.

On the other hand, if India is playing a game of soccer with some tiny country (Bahrain/Cameroon?) and India loses, then a lot more people become unhappy than those who become happy (in the tiny country). So why don't markets award the results of a game based on the number of supporters?

This is a puzzle. 

I know this sounds silly (and one can think of a lot of reasons), but it is still worth exploring this further, in a more formal setting. 

in other words, I'm looking for a published, mathematical theory of games (not game theory).

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9 thoughts on “Puzzle: Why do people play games?
  1. Charu

    I don't have the original citations handy, but my recollection is that the brain's reward response [primarily dopamine] is activated not just by reward, but by _anticipation_ of reward. This explains why many find gambling to be a pleasurable activity, even though the majority of gamblers lose [think lotteries, casinos].
    So: why do people watch sports? Because they hope/expect their team will win. The anticipation of victory produces enough of a neural pleasure response to offset the pain of defeat.

  2. ramesh

    Oh! Dear Sabhlok,
    Why do people play games?
    Why do people earn money more when sufficient can do well?
    What people get by building bungalows when smaller can do, get better cars when ordinary can do?
    Why do people beget children?
    Why do people wish to be respected; learned; to be in good position?
    Why to people want to bring change like Ramdev; Hazare; Gandhi; Lincon; you and me?
    …so on!
    I fail to see the difference between your puzzle and the rest of puzzles I quote. Therefore accordingly to me do you expect the answer to all the above?
     Isn’t it a way of life, Dvaita?
    Most likely I have understood you wrong. Happy to be rectified.

  3. AK

    You say you are puzzled as to why people play games. Then why are you looking for some mathematical/economic explanations, Sanjeev? That itself is a puzzle! :)
    If you find one, most likely it would be a two-bit bullsh*t paper, written solely to earn a Ph.D!
    However, if  you are genuinely interested in taking the first step toward the 'Why', then I  guess you should read first  the classic "Games People Play" by Eric Berne.
    Good to see you alive and kicking, Sanjeev. For I found you after more than two decades!
    Will contact you on Email. Take care!

  4. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear AK

    I’ve read Berne long ago, but that’s not what I’m looking for. That’s about strategic games in daily life and hypothetical (unproven) assertions about the psychology that might underpin such games. This is about sporting games, where people pick teams (e.g. IPL/AFL) without any particular reason, and then watch/play these games despite the (ab initio) net expected utility of zero (simplistically speaking).

    Btw, often if we come up with answers without building a precise mathematical model first, we are likely to come up with unscientific answers (e.g. Berne’s work is unscientific).


  5. AK

    I'm afraid I must  disagree, Sanjeev, with your assertion that Berne's work is 'unscientific'.  I will not waste your  – nor mine – time going into details. Nevertheless, I can always cut through any arguement, supporting your assertion, with pure logic.
    And I also disagree with your seemingly rhetorical, summarily dismissal'- 'without any particular reason' – behind people watching IPL etc. If you are so sure that there is no particular reason, then why are you looking so particularly for some 'scientific' model to prove just that? For fun? For fame?… Or just for no 'particular reason'?
    BTW, another assertion of yours, 'utility of Zero' is also frivolous. Life itself is a Zero sum game, if you think dispassionately – and we still cling to it with all our might! Have you wondered, why? Without looking for support from scriptures and other books by the known dead or alive 'great thinkers'?
    Last but not least, do you know Einstein figured out the Relativity first then went on learn complex mathematics so as to build a 'presentable' model for the scientific community?
    All the great ideas, in all the domains of life,  CAME – without the need of any precedence of a mathematical or otherwise model! World is just a sequence of Paradigm Shifts, Sanjeev.
    You'd better sit down, and think about it!
    PS. Please, don't mind my bluntness. I am built that way.  I put a given idea, a person in the dock before I decide to go along.

  6. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear AK

    Let me repeat: I’m looking for a model that explains why people watch sports. Berne’s book is not about that.

    Second, Berne’s makes a wild assertion about three ego states: Parent, Adult, and Child. It is pure speculation- AFTER THE FACT – to classify human behaviour into three types. That’s an interesting story, but not scientific. It can’t be tested. We can’t break up a single human being into three distinct parts.

    Human nature, analysed scientifically (e.g. see DOF for details – chapter 1 and 2) is a single unit. Economic models are able to explain almost all human behaviour quite well, based on simple assumptions of rationality. I’m looking for such models, please. Let’s avoid the pseudo-science called psychology (experimental psychology is still fine but most of it is pure imagination).


  7. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Sorry, Charu – took a long time to get back on your response. I agree there are a lot of such readily available reasons that can be readily assembled. Indeed, psychologists have surely constructed a theory about this, particularly linked to one’s socialisation. Thus, I can explain why those Indians who watch cricket might want India to win a cricket match against Pakistan based on their socialistation. And so an Indian might watch an India-Pakistan match. But why would he watch a Pakistan-Sri Lanka match? Indeed, we know that spectators drop off dramatically if their team is not playing a match, a point when rationality steps in and people realise that the match is essentially pointless (except those who get utility from watching a high quality game).

    In other words, the prediction of a rational model would be that no match would be watched by those not playing in the game because they are rational. Perhaps a touch of irrationality (idiosyncratic reason for utility) – as you have suggested – is needed to explain the fact that people do watch sports? Anyway, this is an interesting question. Would like to see a model that captures key factors and can then be tested in real life.



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