NonZero Sum Games—An Explanation

We’ve all heard the term “zero sum game”. A stock analyst saying the market is a zero sum game. Or someone is talking about a win-lose situation, it’s bound to come up. But unless you’re into game theory or behavioral economics, you probably don’t hear about “nonzero sum games” that often. To call something a zero sum game has become pedestrian and cliché. We get it. With checkers there is one winner and one loser. The sum is zero. But I contend that games, indeed all games, are “NONzero sum games”. The little league mantra “it’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game” is didactic. However, it is helpful to consider.

If you’re a gamer that is only having fun if you’re winning, you probably aren’t much fun for those around you. After all, even the games that are cooperative can be lost to…the game. But if you’re the type of player that enjoys the time spent gaming, win or lose, then I want you at my table. We’re all having fun regardless of who’s winning and this is what keeps us coming back to the table.

Robert Wright’s quote from Nonzero:  The Logic of Human Destiny

On balance, over the long run, non-zero-sum situations produce more positive sums than negative sums, more mutual benefit than parasitism. As a result, people become embedded in larger and richer webs of interdependence.”

Robert Wright’s book isn’t directly a study on game theory but it was interesting to see his take on cultural and biological evolution through the game theory lens.  My favorite definition of game theory comes from Investopedia:

A model of optimality taking into consideration not only benefits less costs, but also the interaction between participants.”

You see? It’s not just the outcome. That is just a component of optimality. The interaction between participants is crucial. We don’t just gain a benefit (aka “utility”) if we win.

What NonZero Sum isn’t saying

I’m sure by now someone is thinking this is some pie in the sky call for harmonious gaming with minimal conflict. Let me assure you that it isn’t. I will still be a ruthless player in Munchkin; if I can stab you in the back, I will. Possibly getting a favor in return later means I’ll help you out. Similarly, I’ll still bluff and deceive my way through a game of Coup regardless of your age or ability. Even in Zombie Dice, I’ll encourage you to roll again if you already have two shotgun blasts and only three red dice remaining! In short, I want to win and I’ll do anything short of cheating or be cruel to do so and I expect nothing less from everyone else I play with. As I often tell my children when we play, “everyone is a target!”

Despite the cutthroat nature of some games, my friends, family, and I continue gaming because we love it. At our table, we don’t let you win. You earn it. When my kids win a game, they know it’s a legitimate victory.

I do caution you however in your gaming pursuits. Known side effects are camaraderie, creativity, dialogue, and improved problem-solving skills.

NonZero Sum Games
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