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Napoleon, the game theorist

In class, we have studied Neumann and Morgenstern’s game theory, which is defined as the process of making decisions based upon the behavior of those around us. Gareth Ranger of the University of Waikato utilizes this concept in order to analyze Napoleon Bonaparte’s actions in war. Were Napoleon’s strategies the best military moves to make? Can we judge by success rates or by Napoleon’s self-fulfillment? Ranger also integrates Napoleon’s many motives in this phase of his career into his decision-making processes. These included, but were not excluded to, megalomania, greed, and opportunism. Ultimately, Ranger attempts to explain Napoleon’s military tactics through his utility.

As we know, a game consists of players, strategies, and payoffs. Each player will wish to play a particular strategy that earns him the maximum payoff. Moreover, another important pillar of the game from Neumann and Morgenstern’s Theory of Games and Economic Behavior that we have not discussed directly in class is known as ‘utility.’ Utility is the ‘the amount of risk a player is willing to take to obtain an object.’ Utility can be determined by a player’s incentives.

Ranger gives the reader some background on different types of games (the ‘Robinson Crusoe’ model, zero-sum, and non-zero-sum) that can be played as well as various qualities of these games. For example, Ranger states that if a game is played only once, each player will tend to make decisions based solely upon self-interest. Therefore, players are more likely to take risks in order to potentially make higher payoffs. However, should the game be played repeatedly for an infinite number of times, there is a greater chance for the players to cooperate with one another out of biological necessity. For these games, there is a greater emphasis on survival than the need to eliminate competing species for resources. Napoleon’s military tactics illustrate the former method of play, whereby he took large risks in order to increase his payoff. Ranger dedicates a section of his paper in order to explain Napoleon’s intrinsic motivation, which seemingly supported his taking of such risks. The research he conducted led him to believe that Napoleon was an extremely complex individual, whose actions were oftentimes contradictory, usually those towards the end of his career (the poor man had gone a little nutty by 1820). Nonetheless, Napoleon was driven by the inherent need to make himself known to the world (going a little Freud here, but there was a lack of parental guidance in his childhood, especially a mother figure). He wished to propel himself into the ranks of the gods and achieve immortality, so to speak. His personal ambition became a huge utility factor in both his political and military career, for this quality pushed him to take larger risks than the average individual. Fortunately, this quality was also the reason for much of his accomplishments. In fact, Napoleon’s ‘myth of superiority’ (his belief that he was better than the average being) was what had allowed him to become such a good game theorist and military strategist.

Another interesting point that Ranger makes about Napoleon’s ultimate demise rests on two spokes of game theory: discover the military patterns of your enemies and avoid succumbing to predictability yourself. Napoleon was able to succeed in the former task but eventually failed in the latter. His battle tactics of the Napoleonic era were studied by other generals and slowly lost their effectiveness. However, this did not mean Napoleon was a bad game theorist, for his strictly dominant strategy—playing the offensive—achieved him a great number of victories before it stopped working. Gunther Rothenberg, an outside source, states that between the years of 1792 and 1815, Napoleon commanded 34 battles and lost only 6 (Goodlad, 2009).

Overall, I’ve gathered from this reading that although game theory is based upon the notion that each player wishes to maximize his own payoff, payoffs can differ based upon the individual’s specific goals and personality. After all, another figure may not feel the same need for fame and glory as Napoleon did. Therefore, he would have most likely made different decisions to earn different payoffs, which appear better for him but perhaps worse in Napoleon’s perspective. Even though Napoleon was largely successful on the battlefield, he was continually plagued by depression, for absolute power remained beyond his reach. Thus, even though Napoleon was earning high payoffs, he was oftentimes not fulfilled by them. These emotions may go beyond the scope of game theory, but their very existence may call into question the very purpose of the theory itself. Ranger’s paper illustrates these points in its analysis of Napoleon’s motivations as a game theorist as well as a man simply looking out for his own interests. Game theory, like the humans who use it, is not simple

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