Game Theory is a branch of economics that applies to rational decision making. Its of specific interest to game designers looking at playability and balancing options.
Game Theory suggests (and its a pretty good suggestion) that a rational actor will always make the decision with the best outcome, given the information provided. Sound wordy and confusing? I’m probably getting a term or two wrong. The jist of it is: people make the best decisions they can with the information they have. Every time. Given the opportunity to do so, rational, normal people will analyze their options and figure out the most effective way to use their resources.
Doesn’t that sound a bit like min-maxing?
Min-maxing means exactly the same thing in economics as it does in roleplaying, except in econ its a mark of a rational actor: to not minmax, one would have to be insane. In roleplaying, min-maxing is often chided as the last resort of the munchkin or the power gamer. This is a bad instinct, since it’s out of whack with reality. People that are playing the game to “win” are playing the game correctly, as far as any analyst would be concerned.
As players, gamemasters, and game designers, we should not fear min-maxing, or make would-be-sly puns about “role” vs. “roll” playing.
As players, we should embrace rational decision making, and make the very best characters we can, and not deride others for their devotion to system mastery. Attention to one’s craft is a positive trait, not a negative one.
As game masters, we should push the envelope for the players: take the game systems to their limit, push the hard core, and stress involvement from everyone around.
As game designers, we should be aware that people are going to look for the best strategy, and incorporate this into our designs, and be aware of the processes that will occur. This is of middling interest towards a designer with a “narrativist” agenda, hoping only to explore an idea, but for the game-play afficionado, it is vital.