Saturday, 16 August 2008

Zero sum games?

This blog is stimulated by reading Mark 12:28-34 and Barclay's commentary (1975). There Jesus is responding to a question by a scribe as to “What is the first commandment?” Jesus response is to love the Lord your God with all your heart and your neighbour as yourself? What I want to talk about isn't so much what it means to love God or our neighbour but rather the attitudes that we develop in a society aimed at producing winners.

In part, we often look at things from a zero-sum perspective. A zero-sum describes a situation in which a participant's gain or loss is exactly balanced by the losses or gains of the other participant(s). That is there is never an overall growth so for someone to win others have to lose. Many games work on this basis. There is a fixed quantity of resource and some will gain while others lose.

The difficulty is that we take this idea of there being winners and losers into many of life's situations. We have to out play others in order to ensure that we get ahead. I used to work in a university were the emphasis was “publish or perish” but I discovered it wasn't simply publish, it was publish more than others in your department or college. You might be publishing on a regular basis but because others are publishing slightly more, you are the one under threat. It was a competition based on the number of papers published. Constant comparison and competition with little encouragement or support.

That to me isn't love your neighbour as yourself. I could describe other situations where competition is the primary objective and not encouragement and building up but I want to look at this from the perspective of game playing.

There was a game that we played with youth groups that was very simple but clearly illustrates some of the issues. The group was split into two teams and they were each given a small chart that told them how the scoring was done. They were instructed that the goal was to maximise the score. All the team had to do was chose either A or B. The scoring chart was:


Both chose A

You chose A

They chose B

You chose B

They chose A

Both chose B

Your team





Other team





The objective of the game is purposely ambiguous. Life is a little like that. If maximising the score for your team is the objective and you want to win then you want to chose B and have the other team chose A. That way your team gains two points and the other team loses two points. Of course if they chose B as well, you both lose a point. If both chose A then both teams gain a point but the risk is that the other team will chose B and you will lose two points while they gain two. Between rounds, you send a negotiator to negotiate the play for the next round.

As long as teams focus on competition, either both teams will lose out. Both teams scores will decline. There seems to be no way to ensure that your team will increase its score. Only through cooperation can both teams improve their individual scores and by the nature of the game, the game score but can you trust the other team.

My argument here is that if we are to love our neighbour as we love ourselves then we need to be willing to take the risk. Cooperation and encouragement builds positive relationships and enhances productivity for all. The real questions is whether we are prepared to take the risk.


Barclay, W. (1975). The gospel of Mark (revised ed.). Edinburgh: The Saint Andrews Press.

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