February 6, 2017

SCHULMAN | Matching Games: a Matter of Life, Love and Death

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I’ve been taking it easy lately. Last fall, I realized I wouldn’t graduate a computer science major if I didn’t load up on classes. Now that I’ve reached the end of the tunnel and have time to relax, I started playing a game. It’s called Tinder; you’ve probably heard of it.

Tinder is part dating app, part middle school sleepover party and part ego booster. On the app, you swipe through people’s pictures: right if you find them attractive; left if otherwise. When people swipe right on each other, they can chat. Whether you use the app for self validation, or actively use it for hook ups, Tinder is a game.

Analyzing games like Tinder can be very interesting — even more so when you understand how changing the rules changes strategies. Tinder is especially interesting because it matches the participants. Although Tinder isn’t serious business, studying matching games can literally be a matter of life and death. Economists at Stanford have saved lives by improving the mechanism for kidney transplant matchings.

Just because Tinder is a game doesn’t mean it’s all fun and games.  All games have a mathematical structure and certain strategies are objectively better than others. Certain strategies are better than others for getting matches. For example, think about how including one picture in your bio as opposed to five or six would affect your matches.

Tinder is especially interesting because it is a matching game. Sometimes Tinder modifies the rules that determine matching. For example, Tinder introduced notifications called super-likes. Using them tells people you’ve already swiped right. Obviously, this changes the game. If you know someone already swiped right on your profile, you are more likely to reciprocate. As a result, Tinder sells super-likes. As you can see, changing the rules of a matching game changes the matching.

Analyzing how rule changes affect strategies can be life saving — especially with respect to matching games. Take kidney exchanges. The wait list for kidney transplants is also a matching game. If your kidney is compatible with a loved one, your loved one can cut the line for a surgery and take your kidney. Otherwise they have to wait. For this reason, people who aren’t compatible with their loved ones didn’t donate kidneys. So, people spent years waiting for kidneys because donors were scarce.

By analyzing this game, economists improved the rules to encourage more kidney donations. If you want to donate a kidney but aren’t compatible, you can trade with someone who is compatible and also wants to donate a kidney to a loved one. The procedure, performed simultaneously, is a called a domino surgery and has saved many lives. In hindsight, it seems like an obvious change to the rules.

So not to be dramatic, but the rules of a game can determine life and death. Obviously, Tinder is a fun example of the importance of rules and strategies in a matching game. Changing the app’s rules by adding and selling super likes was profitable. More importantly, allowing kidney exchange to precipitate domino surgeries has saved lives. That’s this week’s schtick and I’m sticking too it. Tune in alternating Mondays for my final semester.

Eric Schulman is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at eschulman@cornellsun.com. Schulman’s Schtick appears alternate Mondays this semester.

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