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No. 37 (January 2000)

The Game of Gotcha
by Win Wenger, Ph.D.

One simple thing could make ours a hugely better world—If more people had the basic concepts which would allow them to recognize and use the opportunities around them for cooperative gain, while developing a sense which allowed them to better avoid being destructively exploited or "conned."

The relevant concepts have, in fact, been around for a half century or longer, in the branch of game theory known as "non-zero-sum games." They are usually associated with discussions of something called "The Prisoner's Dilemma," a very negative context which most people don't identify with (I hope!), or pay it much attention. Thus relatively few of even those few people who encounter the concept are likely to transfer the relevant understandings into their own, hopefully more positive, lives and circumstance. And yet ...

The basis of "non-zero-sum games" is one of the utterly vital truths of human society which ought to be one of the major cornerstones of the educational curriculum from pre-K and Head Start on through college.

As yet this should-be educational cornerstone has not made it even into American high schools, much less elementary and pre-schools. A few have encountered it in specialized college courses or in independent reading, including some who are presently reading these lines now. But certainly not even a majority of college students and graduates, or the reading public, has even an inkling.

Most of the rest of this particular Winsights article is a set of instructions or "lesson plan" for teaching this cornerstone concept to a class in social studies, economics, political science, history, civics, behavioral science....or even to a Sunday school class!


What is a "non-zero-sum game" situation?
A non-zero-sum game situation is very different from— and also a lot more frequent in occurrence than—the zero-sum game that the unthinking public reflexively considers most situations to be. And that difference is critical, crucial indeed throughout most areas of life. To understand non-zero-sum games both positive and negative, first consider the zero-sum, which is where the sum together of all wins and losses = 0. If someone wins, someone else has to lose. Most people still believe you can't really get ahead without beating someone else down in the process.

Yet most economic transactions (and most other transactions as well), especially between partners of relatively equal bargaining position, are in fact positive-sum games. The (voluntary) sale would not occur if both buyer and seller didn't each stand to gain from that trade. The cash from a sale of bread is worth more to the store owner than is that bread; the bread is worth more to the buyer than is that amount of cash. In fact, human organizations and institutions exist mainly to actualize some of the opportunities people have to benefit from working together in some form of cooperation.

The inefficiencies and unproductivity of coercive command structures have long since consigned both slavery and the communist "dictatorship of the proletariat" to history's dustbin. (Such rescue services as the police or military are specialized for fast-response situations and—in civilized countries at least—are careful to defer to civilian policy which has somewhat better checks on the decisions arrived at.)

Even such games as football, basketball and chess, which officially have one winner and one loser, actually have strong non-zero-sum components. If the object of the game were only to determine who won and who lost, a flip of the coin would suffice. How exciting—band on the sidelines, 70,000 screaming fans, 11 players on each team—just to decide the whole outcome with but the flip of a coin! The non-zero-sum elements include the excitement of the contest itself; the opportunities to hone one's own skills against an opponent; the opportunity to learn from a skilled opponent; the opportunity to capture imagination and admiration; the adrenaline rush..... And why would schools form cooperative athletic leagues with "their most hated and bitterest rivals" except for both these non-zero-sum elements and the added revenues such long-standing rivalries generate in attendance?

So it is possible, in most real-life situations and most games, to have win-win instead of merely win-loss, and also to have loss-loss, as the late Cold War for so long threatened to become. (What would you call a nuclear war which only ten Americans survived but only one Russian survived? A stunning victory?)

And what difference does it make in your dealings with other people, in how you treat other people, and the kinds of situation you can move effectively in, if you understand most situations to be win-win opportunities instead of assuming that to win you must make someone else lose?


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