Friday, December 6, 2013

Bidding $100 to Win $20

Game theory. Ever heard of it? I know it sounds sitting around thinking of the best way to set up a Monopoly board, but it’s actually used by the CIA to predict the actions of foreign dictators and by businesses to create pricing schemes. Writers, too, should know a little something about it, although the good writers already work with the principles even if they don’t know it.

Game theory is the science of strategic decision-making. Put differently, it’s about calculating human motivation.

Here’s an example of game theory in action. There was once a professor of game theory who sold a 20 dollar bill for more than two hundred dollars in an auction. How’d he do it? Simple: the winner pays the bid and then gets the prize, just like in a normal auction. The only difference was that the second-place bidder also had to pay whatever they bid, and they walk away with nothing. That means the top two bidders will go higher and higher, because it’s cheaper to lose in first place than to lose in second.

I decided to see if the experiment would actually work, so I decided to try it on my students. It seemed unethical to bilk a bunch of trusting teens out of hard currency, so instead of auctioning off an Andrew Jackson, I put up 10 Style Points instead. Style Points are funny class tokens with which I reward anyone who can make an out-of-class connection to in-class material, like, for example, finding an allusion to Macbeth while we’re reading the Scottish Play. Style Points aren’t worth anything—not even extra credit—but they can be exchanged for bathroom passes and a few other amenities, and occasionally I buy them back with leftover Halloween candy.

I explained the rules about the highest bidder getting the prize and the second-place bidder also having to pay, and then I opened the auction and I had a bid right away. Who wouldn’t bid one goodie to get 10 more just like it? And the next person bid two because that would still net him eight. It was all good fun and there were lots of smiles… until the bidding hit nine and 10. Then the second place person realized if he lost, he would be out nine, but if he bid 11 he would only end up with a net loss of one. The problem was that the other guy realized the same thing, and then the smiles turned into grimaces and the room sank into tense silence as the bids climbed higher and higher. I did this in two classes: in one I got 19 Style Points in exchange for my 10, and in the other class I got 29. It works.

Two lessons here. 1) These kids have a REALLY mean teacher. 2) All humans are driven by a shifting combination of motivations, including and especially hope and fear. At first, they hoped for a big win, then they feared a big loss. The class discussion then related this to the experiences of the boys in Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Perhaps a reference to this little experiment will show up in their essays to argue whether or not civilization is just a mask to hide our savagery.

How does this relate to writing? A good storyteller needs to understand human motivation just as much as any game theory analyst. If characters are going to seem alive, they have to experience hope and fear—not just the main character, but also the villain, the minor characters, and everyone in between. As Kurt Vonnegut said: “every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”

Oh, and for those poor students who ended up in the Style Point poor house because of my evil auction, I think I’ll surprise them by forgiving their debt after New Year’s. I realize that if any of them read this it won’t be a surprise, but, fortunately for me, they don’t know this blog exists. ;)

So what are your character’s motivations? What are the most interesting, compelling, or original motivations of characters you’ve enjoyed reading? I figure it’s worth spending a few Style Points to find out.

Be good, and dream crazy dreams,

Sechin Tower is a teacher, a table-top game designer, and the author of Mad Science Institute. You can read more about him and his books on and his games on


Stephen Wallenfels said...

Interesting post! I feel like I've had this experience with a slot machine. I think it's probably best if your characters and my characters don't get together for coffee. I hope your students know how lucky they are.

Sechin Tower said...

Today I offered a donut to the one person who could convince the majority of the class to vote for them. It became like a verbal version of the Hunger Games, and I sat back and watched like President Snow.

Stephen Wallenfels said...

I'd like to see that donut.