More than a Game: Sociological Theory from the Theories of Games*


  • *

    Address correspondence to: David R. Gibson, Department of Sociology, University of Pennsylvania, 3718 Locust Walk, 113 McNeil Building, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6299. Tel: (215) 898-4568. E-mail: Authors are listed alphabetically. For comments on earlier drafts of this article, we are grateful to Jacob Avery, Ira Cohen, Ann Mische, David Peterson, and Tukufu Zuberi; participants in the Culture & Interaction workshop (especially Annette Lareau and Keri Monahan), the fall 2008 article workshop, and the spring 2009 Graduate Contemporary Theory class at the University of Pennsylvania, Department of Sociology; and three anonymous reviewers.


Sociologists are fond of game metaphors. However, such metaphors rarely go beyond casual references to generic games. Yet games are little social systems, and each game offers a distinctive perspective on the relationship between rules and constraints, on the one side, and emergent order, on the other. In this article, we examine three games—chess, go, and (Texas hold ‘em) poker—for sociological insights into contested social arenas such as markets, warfare, politics, and the professions. We describe each game's rules and emergent properties, and then offer a brief theorization of the social world through the “lens” of that game. Then we show how a study of the three games advances the sociology of strategy by enriching ideas about skill, position, and strategic dilemma.