Battle of the sexes (game theory)

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Battle of the Sexes 1
Battle of the Sexes 2

In game theory, battle of the sexes (BoS) is a two-player coordination game. Some authors refer to the game as Bach or Stravinsky and designate the players simply as Player 1 and Player 2, rather than assigning sex. [1]

Game theory is the study of mathematical models of strategic interaction in between rational decision-makers. It has applications in all fields of social science, as well as in logic and computer science. Originally, it addressed zero-sum games, in which each participant's gains or losses are exactly balanced by those of the other participants. Today, game theory applies to a wide range of behavioral relations, and is now an umbrella term for the science of logical decision making in humans, animals, and computers.

In game theory, coordination games are a class of games with multiple pure strategy Nash equilibria in which players choose the same or corresponding strategies.


Imagine a couple that agreed to meet this evening, but cannot recall if they will be attending the opera or a football game (and the fact that they forgot is common knowledge). The husband would prefer to go to the football game. The wife would rather go to the opera. Both would prefer to go to the same place rather than different ones. If they cannot communicate, where should they go?

Common knowledge is a special kind of knowledge for a group of agents. There is common knowledge of p in a group of agents G when all the agents in G know p, they all know that they know p, they all know that they all know that they know p, and so on ad infinitum.

The payoff matrix labeled "Battle of the Sexes (1)" is an example of Battle of the Sexes, where the wife chooses a row and the husband chooses a column. In each cell, the first number represents the payoff to the wife and the second number represents the payoff to the husband.

This representation does not account for the additional harm that might come from not only going to different locations, but going to the wrong one as well (e.g. he goes to the opera while she goes to the football game, satisfying neither). To account for this, the game is sometimes represented as in "Battle of the Sexes (2)".

Equilibrium analysis

This game has two pure strategy Nash equilibria, one where both go to the opera and another where both go to the football game. There is also a mixed strategies Nash equilibrium in both games, where the players go to their preferred event more often than the other. For the payoffs listed in the first game, each player attends their preferred event with probability 3/5.

This presents an interesting case for game theory since each of the Nash equilibria is deficient in some way. The two pure strategy Nash equilibria are unfair; one player consistently does better than the other. The mixed strategy Nash equilibrium (when it exists) is inefficient. The players will miscoordinate with probability 13/25, leaving each player with an expected return of 6/5 (less than the return one would receive from constantly going to one's less favored event).

One possible resolution of the difficulty involves the use of a correlated equilibrium. In its simplest form, if the players of the game have access to a commonly observed randomizing device, then they might decide to correlate their strategies in the game based on the outcome of the device. For example, if the couple could flip a coin before choosing their strategies, they might agree to correlate their strategies based on the coin flip by, say, choosing football in the event of heads and opera in the event of tails. Notice that once the results of the coin flip are revealed neither the husband nor wife have any incentives to alter their proposed actions – that would result in miscoordination and a lower payoff than simply adhering to the agreed upon strategies. The result is that perfect coordination is always achieved and, prior to the coin flip, the expected payoffs for the players are exactly equal.

In game theory, a correlated equilibrium is a solution concept that is more general than the well known Nash equilibrium. It was first discussed by mathematician Robert Aumann in 1974. The idea is that each player chooses their action according to their observation of the value of the same public signal. A strategy assigns an action to every possible observation a player can make. If no player would want to deviate from the recommended strategy, the distribution is called a correlated equilibrium.

Burning money


Interesting strategic changes can take place in this game if one allows one player the option of "burning money" – that is, allowing that player to destroy some of their utility. Consider the version of Battle of the Sexes pictured here (called Unburned). Before making the decision the row player can, in view of the column player, choose to set fire to 2 points making the game Burned pictured to the right. This results in a game with four strategies for each player. The row player can choose to burn or not burn the money and also choose to play Opera or Football. The column player observes whether or not the row player burns and then chooses either to play Opera or Football.

If one iteratively deletes weakly dominated strategies then one arrives at a unique solution where the row player does not burn the money and plays Opera and where the column player plays Opera. The odd thing about this result is that by simply having the opportunity to burn money (but not actually using it), the row player is able to secure their favored equilibrium. The reasoning that results in this conclusion is known as forward induction and is somewhat controversial. [2] In brief, by choosing not to burn money, the player is indicating they expect an outcome that is better than any of the outcomes available in the "burned" version, and this conveys information to the other party about which branch they will take.

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In algorithmic game theory, a succinct game or a succinctly representable game is a game which may be represented in a size much smaller than its normal form representation. Without placing constraints on player utilities, describing a game of players, each facing strategies, requires listing utility values. Even trivial algorithms are capable of finding a Nash equilibrium in a time polynomial in the length of such a large input. A succinct game is of polynomial type if in a game represented by a string of length n the number of players, as well as the number of strategies of each player, is bounded by a polynomial in n.


  1. Osborne, Rubinstein (1994). A course in game theory. The MIT Press.
  2. For a detailed explanation, see p8 Section 4.5.