Microsoft has a game for you to play on Facebook.
What game is Microsoft playing?
The Research Games team at Microsoft Research is a very strange outfit from the general programmer's point of view. Its members create games, not so much because they want people to play them, but more because they want to know how people play them:
"The goal of this project is to build a platform for research in behavioural game theory on social networking sites which will enable experiments of unprecedented scale, resolution, interactivity and social embedding. We aim at testing the behaviour of real people in game theoretic interactions in social networks. How do people negotiate with one another? How can we aggregate opinions of individuals to arrive at high-quality decisions? In what ways do people reciprocate other people’s actions?"
Players have 100 soldiers that they have to allocate to five battlefields. The overall winner is the one who wins most battles and a battle is won simply on the basis of who allocated the most soldiers. Both players know that allocating 20 soldiers to each battle isn't an optimal strategy because that allows your opponent to achieve four wins and a single loss.
So what is the optimum strategy?
To achieve a good result the players need to adopt a random strategy that makes them vary their play at each round so the opponent cannot take advantage of their play. It is very much like a multiple game of rock paper scissors.
At first sight the game appears to be so simple that it is almost boring - only time and number of players will actually tell if this assessment is correct. The research group thinks otherwise:
"The game is complex from a game-theoretic perspective, involves randomized strategies, and can be approached by reasoning about the opponent's reasoning. We have also found it to be fun, engaging, and slightly addictive."
It is difficult to see how analysis of the way that this game is played could be of any advantage to anyone. However Microsoft Research are quite clear that their work is to have practical uses. In the future they hope to extend the idea to a “Facebook Game Theory Lab”. The deeper idea is to bring game theory out of the artificial environment where all of the subjects are psychology grad students to the real world of Facebook and viral marketing. However I doubt Project Waterloo will go viral.
It really does all raise the question of why Microsoft might be interested in the social game playing strategies. The simplest answer is that it is that game theory is a potential theory of how to do business - which is, of course, something Microsoft does now and again.
Research Games team
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