Liar Game and Game Theory

by eternal on July 11, 2010

One of the miracles of shounen manga is the fact that they can be about anything. It’s one thing to make a shounen series for every sport on the planet – the eroge scene can compete in that regard – but it’s no new discovery that shounen extends far beyond its traditional premises, arguably a bit too far. You could probably dig up a shounen about Gunpla building or babysitting and they’d still be as over-the-top as the rest of the genre, and proud of it.

Following this train of thought, it took me a while before I started looking at Liar Game as, quite simply, a shounen about Game Theory.

Now, before you start arguing semantics, I realize that Liar Game is more seinen than shounen. I’m not familiar with Shinobu Kaitani’s other works (aside from One Outs which I technically still haven’t seen), but his work doesn’t appear to be targeted at teenagers. Still, regardless of the demographic, Liar Game has more than enough unsubtle cliffhangers and an overpowered protagonist (with a dark past!) for it to be comparable with other shounen manga.

My second disclaimer is that I am not a mathematician or economist, and my would-be field of study has almost nothing to do with the contents of the Wikipedia page for game theory. However, I don’t believe a person needs to understand game theory to enjoy Liar Game any more than they need to understand baseball to enjoy Taisho Yakyuu Musume. Still, what follows is mostly un-academic conjecture, so be warned.

– – –

If you’ve read any of Liar Game – a story about a legendary noble con man participating in a mysterious competition with the goal of finding the world’s greatest liar – you’d know that the games are the single most important aspect of it. Each of Liar Game’s games are deconstructed, analyzed, and eventually mastered by each of the participants by the time the competition ends. Each game provides a different environment for competition, like a shounen protagonist obtaining a new weapon or ability and testing his might against a powered-up villain. Much like Death Note and even Kaminomi, Liar Game‘s battles are fought entirely with the mind. Unlike the aforementioned titles, however, its battles are fought in familiar territory.

By “familiar territory” I mean that Liar Game uses variants of games that already exist in the real world, like Poker and Musical Chairs, and generally solves them with pre-existing concepts like these. The logic of the story is based on concepts that exist for the purpose of mathematically analyzing seemingly luck-based games and finding rational solutions to them. I imagine that this is how games like Poker can be played professionally. Liar Game writes its “battles” by combining these concepts with a bit of psychology (since the majority of the characters are not very good liars), and it reveals its solutions to the reader in reverse. I’m sure than Kaitani already knows the results of each game before he begins writing, otherwise that would lead to some very awkward plot twists, but the information is revealed to the reader through the slow and detailed deductive process that the characters go through.

One of the many elaborate charts used to help the reader keep track of the developments.

The most appealing part of the story for me is the fact that I love the concept of game theory. Math is certainly not my strong point, but the basic idea of game theory can be applied in a non-academic sense to all sorts of competitions, ranging from chess to video games. The nature of competitions against other human beings means that there are a limited number of options, some of which are more profitable than others. The purpose of studying a game is to determine which option your opponent will choose and select the option that best reacts to this and puts you at the advantage. I think the math equations enter the picture in order to calculate the probability of different options being chosen, which would be based on countless variables. That’s what makes it so exciting!

I don’t want to go off on too much of a tangent, but some of Liar Game‘s concepts can be seen in everyday competitions. If you’re familiar with video games, think about the concept of mindgames in fighting games. In general, it’s impossible to deal damage to an opponent in a professional fighting game match by walking up to your enemy and executing a standard combo because they’ll simply block it. The psychological aspect is important because you need to trick your opponent before you can even land a hit, leading into the combo. When your opponent blocks an attack, do you follow up with an overhead? Do you continue the string with another attack? Do you pause and go for a throw? Both players cycle through those options in their mind, like a rock-paper-scissors match; and like a rock-paper-scissors match, it continues until one player wins and one loses. Since Liar Game revolves so heavily on forming and breaking alliances, it’s almost reminiscent of the reality show Survivor in that the players have to simultaneously make bonds of trust with others while making preparations to assure that they’re the last person standing. Betrayal might be tempting, but you can’t very well expect your victims to help you in the next round.

You’ll be hearing that claim a lot.

I don’t want to give the mistaken impression that Liar Game is a deep and complex series; in a lot of ways, it’s still a standard suspense story with typical shounen elements hidden behind a very unique premise. Sometimes the characters can be annoying – particularly a certain naive heroine – and Akiyama is overpowered to the point that you can always assume that he is never cornered. Ever. I’m sure there’s a TV Tropes page for this.

However, I don’t think that Liar Game’s depth is meant to be in its story or characters – its true depth lies in its combat. The battles in the Liar Game are very well thought out, and it’s always a pleasure to see how the simplest games can be broken down and analyzed to the point that the meta game feels as complex as a warlord’s conquest while the basic rules are as simple as a children’s board game.

This is the true appeal of Liar Game for me: it’s a dramatic, over-the-top shounen about mature, intelligent adults playing musical chairs, and it’s awesome. The only way it could get better is if they decide to play rock-paper-scissors in the next round.


{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Dom July 13, 2010 at 11:33 am

I do hear what you say about the game itself, but I just can’t get over the shakey way Akiyama is just thrown at the plot and comes out with everyone else’s heads spinning. That aside, always at best is the meta-game anaylasis that he climbs like a rock face made out of ice-cream.


ETERNAL August 1, 2010 at 11:09 pm

Like I said, I’m getting kinda sick of Akiyama myself. The whole series is enjoyable but I wouldn’t classify it as anything more than really good shounen, which is still nothing to sneeze at.


Eric July 13, 2010 at 7:41 pm

This is a good post. Kudos for making the game theory connection. Didn’t know you were into that stuff lol.


ETERNAL August 1, 2010 at 11:09 pm

I’d like to be into that stuff, but it’s all math and economics and confusing ;_;


Diky July 17, 2010 at 2:11 am

It seems the RSS feed of this blog is broken?
I can’t get the latest update on Google Reader…


ETERNAL August 1, 2010 at 11:07 pm

Ack, this is getting weird. I’m not sure if the problem is solved, but I just moved my GR subscription to the blog into a more visible location so that I’ll actually remember to check it. Thanks for the heads up.


kadian1364 August 2, 2010 at 1:50 pm

A good deal of game theory hinges on “perfect information”, that is being able to consider all your options as well as your opponent’s. So then a lot of competitive gaming is about information control, like in fighting games you might purposefully avoid using a certain move or tactic to surprise your opponent later with, or in MTG bluffing about having certain cards in your hand or deck when you actually don’t, and generally giving away as little information as possible.


Aorii August 3, 2010 at 12:59 pm

Forget ‘a lot of’, one could argue that all decision-making is dependent on the lacking of ‘perfect information’, since you rarely know enough about what the others might do. Victory is virtually guaranteed when ‘perfect information’ is achieved, hence why the art of war requires one to know themselves and know their opponents. For everything that falls short (which is like always), you have game theory covering the speculation of decision-making.


ETERNAL August 4, 2010 at 12:03 am

I never quite realized that, but it makes perfect sense. The contraband game basically relied on the lack of perfect information, and most of the strategies toward the end involved making use of the opponent’s lack of perfect information.


kadian1364 August 4, 2010 at 12:40 pm

I want to add that there are examples of games that provide players with Perfect Information; chess and go are two. You see all the variables at all times and if you read the situations deeply enough you can theoretically make the best move. Something like the Prisoner’s dilemma is a situation with perfect information. Unless the police held back other legal options, then that would be an example of them taking advantage of imperfect information (the prisoners’ ignorance of the system) to get what they want.


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: