What is it about games that draws us to them? Five days at the beach where I had the opportunity to observe evening volleyball matches, two-on-two basketball, corn hole, Frisbee, bocce, and more left me ruminating about this question.

I look forward to discussing this with my Jepson School colleague Don Forsyth, who could draw on his expertise in social and personality psychology to provide some profound answers. In the meantime, I share a few insights from economists Frank Knight and James Buchanan, who have taken up the subject of games.

Importantly, both Knight and Buchanan see games as a small-scale example of how cooperation emerges in the course of play. Games are, of course, competitive, but they also involve a great deal of getting along. Indeed, the most interesting games are not purely competitive but offer opportunities for players to work with each other to obtain a shared goal. That’s why such games are so interesting and why leadership opportunities emerge over the course of play.

But those opportunities are constrained by the rules of the game, and this is the second reason economists have found games of interest. As Buchanan frequently argued, games provide an example of the difference between law–agreed-upon constraints–and legislation–agreements that happen over the course of play.

Before players begin a game of poker, they decide on the rules, how many cards are drawn and so on. They play their hands within these constraints, which can’t be changed during the game. If the constraints did alter arbitrarily, players would have no sound basis on which to calculate odds or make decisions.

On a larger scale, scholars of constitutional political economy talk about how we have some rules that are relatively absolute, that change rarely if at all. We operate within that framework and cooperate with each other, knowing the rules will, for the most part, remain in place. I have long thought about what happens when the rules are wrong or badly framed, such as when women could not own property. But that is for another post.

What is the role for leadership in such settings? In a situation where players’ actions are uncoordinated or not very effectively coordinated, there are rich opportunities for one or more players to lead. Such leadership may take the form of conveying information, as when someone suggests a strategy that has a higher probability of winning than current, uncoordinated play.

More than this, the leader offers insights and inspiration. A team that is down in volleyball may flounder and lose without a leader, or it may respond to a leader’s cheerleading-type suggestions with a rally. Simply put, in this context, leadership constitutes the acts that, within the established rules of play, influence the odds of coordination and, ultimately, success.

The parallels to leadership on a larger scale are obvious and cannot be emphasized enough: good leaders operate within the guidelines of the electoral system. Those who change the rules, midcourse, are dictators rather than good leaders.

Leadership and games

Sandra J. Peart

Dr. Peart is Dean of the School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond. She is an economist with special interests in leadership and economics and leadership ethics. More about her: Go to jepson.richmond.edu and see faculty information.

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