Game theory is the study of strategic decision making. Specifically, it is "the study of mathematical models of conflict and cooperation between intelligent rational decision-makers." An alternative term suggested "as a more descriptive name for the discipline" is interactive decision theory.Game theory is mainly used in economics, political science, and psychology, as well as logic, computer science, and biology. The subject first addressed zero-sum games, such that one person's gains exactly equal net losses of the other participant or participants. Today, however, game theory applies to a wide range of behavioral relations, and has developed into an umbrella term for the logical side of decision science, including both humans and non-humans (e.g. computers, animals).

Modern game theory began with the idea regarding the existence of mixed-strategy equilibria in two-person zero-sum games and its proof by John von Neumann. Von Neumann's original proof used Brouwer fixed-point theorem on continuous mappings into compact convex sets, which became a standard method in game theory and mathematical economics. His paper was followed by the 1944 book Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, co-written with Oskar Morgenstern, which considered cooperative games of several players. The second edition of this book provided an axiomatic theory of expected utility, which allowed mathematical statisticians and economists to treat decision-making under uncertainty.

This theory was developed extensively in the 1950s by many scholars. Game theory was later explicitly applied to biology in the 1970s, although similar developments go back at least as far as the 1930s. Game theory has been widely recognized as an important tool in many fields. With the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences going to game theorist Jean Tirole in 2014, eleven game-theorists have now won the economics Nobel Prize. John Maynard Smith was awarded the Crafoord Prize for his application of game theory to biology.

Early discussions of examples of two-person games occurred long before the rise of modern, mathematical game theory. The first known discussion of game theory occurred in a letter written by James Waldegrave in 1713. In this letter, Waldegrave provides a minimax mixed strategy solution to a two-person version of the card game le Her. James Madison made what we now recognize as a game-theoretic analysis of the ways states can be expected to behave under different systems of taxation. In his 1838 Recherches sur les principes mathématiques de la théorie des richesses (Researches into the Mathematical Principles of the Theory of Wealth), Antoine Augustin Cournot considered a duopoly and presents a solution that is a restricted version of the Nash equilibrium.

In 1913 Ernst Zermelo published Über eine Anwendung der Mengenlehre auf die Theorie des Schachspiels. It proved that the optimal chess strategy is strictly determined. This paved the way for more general theorems.

The Danish mathematician Zeuthen proved that the mathematical model had a winning strategy by using Brouwer's fixed point theorem. In his 1938 book Applications aux Jeux de Hasard and earlier notes, Émile Borel proved a minimax theorem for two-person zero-sum matrix games only when the pay-off matrix was symmetric. Borel conjectured that non-existence of mixed-strategy equilibria in two-person zero-sum games would occur, a conjecture that was proved false.

Game theory did not really exist as a unique field until John von Neumann published a paper in 1928. Von Neumann's original proof used Brouwer's fixed-point theorem on continuous mappings into compact convex sets, which became a standard method in game theory and mathematical economics. His paper was followed by his 1944 book Theory of Games and Economic Behavior. The second edition of this book provided an axiomatic theory of utility, which reincarnated Daniel Bernoulli's old theory of utility (of the money) as an independent discipline. Von Neumann's work in game theory culminated in this 1944 book. This foundational work contains the method for finding mutually consistent solutions for two-person zero-sum games. During the following time period, work on game theory was primarily focused on cooperative game theory, which analyzes optimal strategies for groups of individuals, presuming that they can enforce agreements between them about proper strategies.

In 1950, the first mathematical discussion of the prisoner's dilemma appeared, and an experiment was undertaken by notable mathematicians Merrill M. Flood and Melvin Dresher, as part of the RAND corporation's investigations into game theory. RAND pursued the studies because of possible applications to global nuclear strategy. Around this same time, John Nash developed a criterion for mutual consistency of players' strategies, known as Nash equilibrium, applicable to a wider variety of games than the criterion proposed by von Neumann and Morgenstern. This equilibrium is sufficiently general to allow for the analysis of non-cooperative games in addition to cooperative ones.

Game theory experienced a flurry of activity in the 1950s, during which time the concepts of the core, the extensive form game, fictitious play, repeated games, and the Shapley value were developed. In addition, the first applications of game theory to philosophy and political science occurred during this time.

In 1965, Reinhard Selten introduced his solution concept of subgame perfect equilibria, which further refined the Nash equilibrium (later he would introduce trembling hand perfection as well). In 1967, John Harsanyi developed the concepts of complete information and Bayesian games. Nash, Selten and Harsanyi became Economics Nobel Laureates in 1994 for their contributions to economic game theory.

In the 1970s, game theory was extensively applied in biology, largely as a result of the work of John Maynard Smith and his evolutionarily stable strategy. In addition, the concepts of correlated equilibrium, trembling hand perfection, and common knowledge were introduced and analyzed.

In 2005, game theorists Thomas Schelling and Robert Aumann followed Nash, Selten and Harsanyi as Nobel Laureates. Schelling worked on dynamic models, early examples of evolutionary game theory. Aumann contributed more to the equilibrium school, introducing an equilibrium coarsening, correlated equilibrium, and developing an extensive formal analysis of the assumption of common knowledge and of its consequences.

In 2007, Leonid Hurwicz, together with Eric Maskin and Roger Myerson, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics "for having laid the foundations of mechanism design theory." Myerson's contributions include the notion of proper equilibrium, and an important graduate text: Game Theory, Analysis of Conflict. Hurwicz introduced and formalized the concept of incentive compatibility.

In 2012, Alvin E. Roth and Lloyd S. Shapley were awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics "for the theory of stable allocations and the practice of market design."