Check out Michael Chwe’s book Folk Game Theory: Strategic Analysis in Austen, Hammerstain, and African American Folk Tales. It’s a study of game theory in the context of literature and of literature through the lens of game theory. But it’s more than that. Each of the stories in the book illustrates what happens out of equilibrium.
The fox gets tricked by the rabbit because the fox has not understood the strategic motivation behind the rabbit’s actions. The master pays the price when he underestimates the slave. A folk tale is an artificially constructed scenario which purposefully takes the characters off the equilibrium path in order to teach us to stay on it.
By recovering a “people’s history of game theory” and gaining a larger understanding of its past, we enlarge its potential future. Game theory’s mathematical models are sometimes criticized for assuming ahistorical, decontextualized actors, and indeed game theory is typ- ically applied to relatively “neutral” situations such as auctions and elections. Folk game theory shows that game theory can most inter- estingly arise in situations which are strongly gendered or racialized, with clear superiors and subordinates. By looking at slave folktales, we can see how the story of Flossie and the Fox is a sophisticated discus- sion of deterrence. We can see from Austen’s heroine Fanny Price that social norms, far from protecting sociality against the corrosive forces of individualism, can be the first line of oppression. We can see from Hammerstein’s Ado Annie how convincing others of your impulsive- ness can open up new strategic opportunities. Folk game theory has wisdom which can be explored just as traditional folk medicines are now investigated by pharmaceutical companies.