The von Neumann-Morgenstern Cooperative Theory of N-Person Games

From Encyclopædia Britannica:

Von Neumann and Morgenstern were the first to construct a cooperative theory of n-person games. They assumed that various groups of players might join together to form coalitions, each of which has an associated value defined as the minimum amount that the coalition can ensure by its own efforts. (In practice, such groups might be blocs in a legislative body or business partners in a conglomerate.) They described these n-person games in characteristic-function form—that is, by listing the individual players (one-person coalitions), all possible coalitions of two or more players, and the values that each of these coalitions could ensure if a counter-coalition comprising all other players acted to minimize the amount that the coalition can obtain. They also assumed that the characteristic function is superadditive: the value of a coalition of two formerly separate coalitions is at least as great as the sum of the separate values of the two coalitions. …

Von Neumann and Morgenstern defined the solution to an n-person game as a set of imputations satisfying two conditions: (1) no imputation in the solution dominates another imputation in the solution and (2) any imputation not in the solution is dominated by another one in the solution. A von Neumann–Morgenstern solution is not a single outcome but, rather, a set of outcomes, any one of which may occur. It is stable because, for the members of the coalition, any imputation outside the solution is dominated by—and is therefore less attractive than—an imputation within the solution. The imputations within the solution are viable because they are not dominated by any other imputations in the solution.

In any given cooperative game there are generally many—sometimes infinitely many—solutions. A simple three-person game that illustrates this fact is one in which any two players, as well as all three players, receive one unit, which they can divide between or among themselves in any way that they wish; individual players receive nothing. In such a case the value of each two-person coalition, and the three-person coalition as well, is 1.

One solution to this game consists of three imputations, in each of which one player receives 0 and the other two players receive 1/2 each. There is no self-domination within the solution, because if one imputation is substituted for another, one player gets more, one gets less, and one gets the same (for domination, each of the players forming a coalition must gain). In addition, any imputation outside the solution is dominated by one in the solution, because the two players with the lowest payoffs must each get less than 1/2; clearly, this imputation is dominated by an imputation in the solution in which these two players each get 1/2. According to this solution, at any given time one of its three imputations will occur, but von Neumann and Morgenstern do not predict which one.

Although there may be many solutions to a game (each representing a different “standard of behaviour”), it was not apparent at first that there would always be at least one in every cooperative game. Von Neumann and Morgenstern found no game without a solution, and they deemed it important that no such game exists. However, in 1967 a fairly complicated 10-person game was discovered by the American mathematician William F. Lucas that did not have a solution. This and later counterexamples indicated that the von Neumann–Morgenstern solution is not universally applicable, but it remains compelling, especially since no definitive theory of n-person cooperative games exists.

[Emphases added.]

I learned today a perfect example of the three person game discussed in the article:

מי שהיה נשוי שתי נשים ומכר את שדהו, וקנו מהאשה הראשונה תחלה ואחר כך ממנו, השניה מוציאה מיד הלוקח והראשונה מיד השניה והלוקח מיד הראשונה וחוזרים חלילה עד שיעשו פשרה ביניהם:1

The Aharonim recognized that this situation is the three person ‘game’ in question, and that there is no deterministic outcome:

לא נתבאר בגמרא [כתובות צ”ה ע”א] אופן הפשר שיעשו. ונראה אם השניה רוצה לעשות פשר עם הלוקח אז אבדה הראשונה זכותה, כי השניה לא תטרוף מן הלוקח, ואם הראשונה תרצה לעשות פשר עם הלוקח אז אבדה השניה זכותה, כי הלוקח לא יטרוף מן הראשונה, ואם הראשונה והשניה יעשו פשר אבד הלוקח זכותו, כי הראשונה לא תטרוף מן השניה:2

  1. שולחן ערוך אה”ע סימן ק’ סעיף ד []
  2. חלקת מחוקק שם ס”ק כ”ו, וכעין זה כתב הבית שמואל ס”ק כ”ב []
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