Games can have lifelong benefits

Analyzing parlor games is a scholarly endeavor for a prominent Texas A&M Universit y economics professor — and his research shows that the lessons learned can possibly have lifechanging and lifelong benefits.

Key to it all is effective heuristics, especially when it leads to “eureka” moments, contends John Van Huyck, who holds the Rex Grey Professorship in economics and is director of the Economic Research Laboratory in the Private Enterprise Research Center (PERC) at Texas A&M.

Wondering what heuristics means? “Effective heuristics, or rules-of-thumb, allow a player to rapidly find a solution that is close to the optimal solution,” explained Van Huyck in a PERC working paper titled “Eureka Learning.”

He co-authored the paper with C. Nicholas McKinney Jr., who is now on the economics faculty at Rhodes College but earned his Ph.D. degree in economics at Texas A&M.

In the context of their paper, a “eureka” moment comes when a player understands a heuristic and sees that it improves his or her chances of winning.

They say the principles in play ing games of strateg y — ranging from simple tic-tac-toe to more challenging chess and Nim — can apply to some of the concepts encountered in real-life situations, such as investing for retirement.

“We face complicated decisions in which the eventual outcome is well beyond our ability to backwards induct on a daily basis,” the researchers noted, citing saving for retirement as a prime example.

“We place our retirement savings in mutual funds, not because we know what they will be worth 30 years from now,” they contend in the working paper. “We do it because, as a general rule, the market will outperform most other forms of investment in the long run.”

They also point to attending college as another example. “We choose to attend college because, as a general rule, college graduates live longer lives and have higher lifetime earnings.

“Virtually all of life’s longterm decisions are made using heuristics designed to simplify the complicated,” the two economists concluded.

In their paper, the two economists address three specif ic questions about results of playing “perfect information” games (PI games): “When given a number of PI-games in a short period of time, does player performance improve? If performance does improve, can it be attributed to learning new heuristics or are the players actually increasing their reasoning depth? And finally, is the improvement in performance slow and gradual or does it occur in discrete jumps that correspond to Eureka Learning?”

To get answers to those questions, they recruited 71 Texas A&M students and pitted them in two sets of 47 games against a computer opponent. They concluded that subject performance does improve over time.

Va n Huyck , a member of the Texas A&M faculty since 1985, has had scholarly papers published in such prestigious publications as the American Economic Review, the Journal of Political Economy, the Quarterly Journal of Economics and Econometrica.

One of his co-authored papers is titled “Credible Assignments and Coordination Failure in Laboratory Public Goods Games” and another was published under the title of “Optimization Incentives and Coordination Failure in Laboratory Stag Hunt Games.”

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