Classified: Game Theory Class Turns to “Survivor” for Life Lessons

In our ongoing series of “Classified” articles we spotlight some of the powerful lessons being taught in classrooms around Haas. 

The soulful sounds of Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” reverberated through Cheit 125 as second-year MBA students filed in on a recent Monday for Prof. John Morgan’s Game Theory class.

For nine weeks now, the 65 students enrolled in the elective course have been participating in a game modeled after the CBS reality show “Survivor.” Of the 14 original teams, only six were still in the running.

Just as on TV, Morgan’s contest features a series of teams competing weekly to win a game—minus the sleep and food deprivation and exotic locales. In Morgan’s version, each game mirrors a real-world business challenge, including basketball free agency, radio spectrum auctions, online retailing, and legislative lobbying.

The team with the highest score each week gets immunity, while losing teams duke it out in “tribal council” to see which one would get voted out of the competition in a secret ballot.

Morgan, who has taught Game Theory, or the science of strategy, at Haas for 11 years, has long relied on team competitions within his class. But it wasn’t until last year that, at the suggestion of his then-11-year-old son, he combined the games into a semester-long contest modeled after “Survivor.”

His goal, he says, is to teach students to be “outward thinkers.” By that, he means to show them that they need to be able to relate to others to succeed in business. “You don’t really learn how to empathize by having some professor tell you about the need to empathize. It’s like a reading a self-help book. It doesn’t work. You actually have to do it.”

Fragile vs resilient

On this day, Morgan’s game was about to take a dramatic turn. The theme of this late October class was “Redemption Island.” As the name suggests, one team that had previously been given the boot would be given a second chance.

That team—called WITS Going Down! (WITS stands for “Walk in Their Shoes,” an acronym Morgan uses to promote the use of outward thinking)—had excelled at the weekly challenges, but stumbled badly when it came to the behind-the-scenes maneuvering, where personality often trumps performance.

The team recovered quickly, and spent the intervening weeks when it was officially out of the competition building the kind of alliances that led to its redemption.

WITS Going Down seemed to have figured out that, to win, its strategy didn’t need to be perfect. “Perfect-but-fragile strategies,” says Morgan, “are less good than mediocre-but-resilient strategies.”

Getting to the final round

Here’s how “Survivor: Game Theory” has worked during the course: 14 teams started the semester split evenly into two camps, named after Nobel Prize winners in economics: House Harsanyi (the Haas School’s own Nobelist) and House Vickrey.

After each competition, all members of the house with the best-performing team were guaranteed to make it to the next round. The teams in the losing house then convened in an end-of-the-week “Tribal Council,” run by Morgan’s assistant Sibo Lu, to talk through which one of their own to vote off.

Through a process of elimination, three teams will make it to the final round in December. At that point, all 14 teams will get to decide which of the three wins the entire game. Each member of the winning team gets $100 (out of Morgan’s pocket) with the team captain collecting $150.

The incentives are an important aspect of the game: “People play differently when money is on the line,” says Morgan. But because he wants the incentives to mirror closely the business world, he won’t grade students on their performance in the game.

At first, the votes were straightforward. The first team to be eliminated, for example, didn’t show up to Tribal Council. Soon, however, the balloting became much less predictable. And that’s when WITS Going Down! ran into big trouble.

Emanuele Rusina, MBA 16 and a member of WITS Going Down!, says the teams in his house had all agreed to vote off members who had acted ruthlessly in trying to win weekly competitions. Yet, when votes were tallied, the “nice” teams in his house were being picked off. “It was clear early on that someone was playing a different kind of game,” says Rusina.

Learning from mistakes

To get back into the competition, WITS Going Down! embraced the kind of behind-the-scenes lobbying that it had originally avoided. The result: a second shot and an alliance that Rusina says — at least as of press time — will determine the team’s votes going forward.

Rusina, for one, is taking Morgan’s message to heart. “The game has been a great reality check for me, for my team, and for a lot of people who pride themselves on defining principles,” he says. “It’s teaching us how to learn from our mistakes, get back on track, and to keep friends close but your enemies just as close.”

Travis Dziubla, MBA 16, was surprised by his takeaway. He signed up for Game Theory in the hopes of learning more about mathematical approaches to complex business situations. He didn’t expect to get a heavy dose of life lessons, too. “We have this tendency as humans to attribute the worst possible intentions to any outcome,” says Dziubla, whose team, Russians v. Germans, was eliminated. But when dealing with human beings, “there can be lots of misinterpretation or different interpretations of the rules of a game.”

Hannah Davidoff, MBA 16, agrees: “If you think about it, ‘Survivor: Game Theory’ recreates the game of life.”