What are Zero-Sum Games?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Many games are win/lose games, meaning essentially that one player wins while another player loses. Since one win is equal to one loss, this are called zero-sum games. Wins perfectly balance losses resulting in zero. Examples of zero-sum games include games like checkers or chess. One winner equals one loser and the result is zero.

Chess is a zero sum game, with one winner and one loser.
Chess is a zero sum game, with one winner and one loser.

This doesn’t quite take into account all situations under which one might benefit however. A person who is learning to play chess might benefit from losing, at least in future games, since the game he or she loses might provide considerable teaching on what not to do. When two players are equally matched, the game provoking win or loss doesn’t necessarily benefit either player.

The concept of zero-sum games has been extrapolated to many different disciplines and studies. In psychology for instance, a married couple that have a dispute can reduce disputes to zero-sum games if one person gets to “win” the fight, implying the other person loses. Psychologists and therapists try to work with people to instead resolve disputes in non zero-sum game ways. For instance, if the couple agree to compromise, both people gain, instead of having one winner and one loser.

In economics, an interesting solution to the problem of zero-sum games was proposed by mathematician John Nash, for which he was later awarded the Nobel Prize. Standard economic theory had held that economics work best when each person acts in his or her own self-interest. Nash proposed that you could eliminate the zero-sum game aspect of economics by each person acting not only out of self-interest, but also out of interest for the group at large. This would produce more winners and fewer losers.

The considerable complexity of things like relationships between countries, trade agreements, and even negotiations within a country often provokes people to think of non zero-sum game means of arriving at solutions. For instance, when a trade agreement is proposed between two countries the goal may be to make both countries winners of the agreement, instead of creating an agreement where one country loses considerable advantage to another. On the other hand, a country that wants to act in its own interest may ignore the principles set forth by Nash and others and attempt to build a zero-sum game trade agreement. When such is attempted, this does little to benefit all and may result in no trade agreement, or disharmony between the two countries since one must “lose” to the other. Building resentment instead of creating good relationships in no way creates positive outcome for the country that acts in self-interest only.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


@KoiwiGal - There are ways around that though. It's one of the reasons we have governments, for example. Otherwise everyone would be completely self interested, in economics and otherwise and everyone would be playing to win all the time.

With laws you can't really do that because if you agree to conditions like mutual co-operation, and then stab the other party in the back you have to face consequences.


@Mor - Unfortunately, you have to remember that Nash's theory depends on all the parties being completely honest with each other and, more crucially, trusting that the others will be honest. If they suspect that the other party is still playing a zero-sum game, then they will do the same, since participating in group co-operation is not a successful strategy in a zero sum society.

For example, if we are in a village and we all agree to share the best of our crops equally, but I think I know that Bob is keeping half his crop as well as taking the share of his neighbors' crops then I'm going to be tempted to do the same thing because I know that his holding back means I'm going to get less unless I do the same.

But if everyone does this than everyone gets much less from the others.

That's why it's so difficult to move away from a zero sum method. It involves potentially giving the advantage to someone else.


I remember that theory which Nash proposed from the film they made dramatizing his life. I always thought it seemed kind of obvious, especially the way they put it in the film. Maybe not obvious to someone who is participating in a situation, but obvious to an outside observer and sad that he was the first one to really propose it as a valid way of doing business.

I really hope that, as time goes by, the kinds of zero sum situations we have in the world right now which lead to wars will become less and less prevalent as people see the sense of Nash's theory and apply it to the world.

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