Books / Feminism

Jane Austen: The First Game Theorist

Image of Kiera Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet and some guy as Darcy getting all lovey on the moors of England.
How did Lizzie do it? GAME THEORY.

I’ve never been much of a fan of Jane Austen. I don’t dislike her, but I’m not personally drawn to romance as a genre, or even romantic subplots in books whose praises I would otherwise sing from the mountaintops. And Austen’s characters are purportedly fascinating and intelligent and intriguing, so it’s often that I have to sit down with my books and tell them, “It’s not you, it’s me,” and blubber on about my cold robot heart. It’s hard to write literary romance, and it’s hard to write literary happy endings, and I still have a personal bias against romance that doesn’t come out as anything but sorrowful, critical, or at least ambiguous (can you tell I’m more of a Brontë fan?).

However Jane Austen has become famous for all these things that are difficult to do, and because of this, she has a wide readership and a huge following. So while I’ve never been personally enthralled by her books, I can’t help but see her name in the aisle of a bookstore, an entire shelf with her novels lined up back-to-back, and not think, “Damn, girl!”

Most recently, UCLA researcher and political scientist, Michael Chwe put forth the argument that Austen is possibly the earliest game theorist, having laid the groundwork for game theory long before it was recognized as an academic field. Game theory, in extreme simplified terms, is the study of strategic decision making. In other words, if you’re good at game theory it means you’re good at understanding people on large and small scales, figuring out the probability of their actions, and then predicting which action they will take. MATHEMATICAL! In her works, Austen uses classic examples of game theory, where her female protagonists, armed with an intuitive understanding of the human romantic psyche, strategize, scrutinize, and anticipate the actions of others. In doing so, they are able to tip the odds in their favor in order to outsmart those who otherwise have the power to smush them.

Chwe’s theory on Jane Austen was developed one evening while watching Clueless with his kids, a modern-day romcom based on Austen’s Emma, which is more evidence that maybe you need to give Emma  a second read, or schedule a girls’ 90s movie night. If you’re not up to snuff on game theory or Jane Austen, Chwe filmed a 5-minute video (above) that goes over both, as well as game theory’s significance in wartime and the Civil Rights era. It’s worth checking out. If you’re interested in how Austen laid the groundwork on game theory, and specific examples from her work, this article from the NYT has bits of analyses and quotes from Chwe.


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