On Competition
by Kevin Fox

I've been thinking a lot about how games carry over into real life, which aspects of games mirror life directly, and which are more suspensions of disbelief. More and more I come back to the concept of the 'zero-sum' game, and the power it has over the perception of gameplay.

It may be oversimplifying, but it seems that most games can be grouped into four general 'competitive models':

First is the zero-sum game, where players vie over an item or quantity of items for possession of the item or items, until a victor emerges. In these games, any gain in the game by one player is directly linked to a loss from another player. Most betting games are zero-sum, where no more chips are created out of the ether, and any player's winnings are another players losings. Usually these games are either bound by time (poker night), game mechanic ('Othello'), or a 'winner take all' rule ('stones and bones').

Second is the race game. Like zero-sum games, race games pit players against each other directly, trying to gain points or objects, whether of intrinsic or global value. The winner is usually declared by the one who is ahead when a finish line is reached, whether that finish line is marked by elapsed time (basketball, soccer, etc.), a given 'target' of points (racquetball, rummy, or cribbage), or a finishing criteria based on another aspect of the game framework (baseball, or the board game 'Life').

Third is the common fate game. Here the players are working toward a greater goal, against a common foe or trying to achieve a common goal. They may work together or separately, but working against each other is counter to the goal of all the players. Good common goal games rely on teamwork between players. Examples are Gauntlet, Geocaching, and many RPGs.

Lastly is the independent fate game. Here the players share an arena with other players, but their gain or loss is not directly tied to the struggle of the other players. Players may experience enjoyment or comaraderie playing with each other, but their own actions don't tend to help or hurt those of the other players. Often games are scored on metrics that can be compared to those of other players to create competition, but the gameplay is not inherently competitive. Many examples of this border on puzzles or other non-game experiences, but examples exist, like Dance Dance Revolution.

I took a look at this list, judging its validity, and I had two thoughts I wanted to share. First, that it's interesting to look at how these four competitive models exist in the everyday world outside of games. Secondly, I noticed that most games don't fit cleanly into one category, but actually can be recursively decomposed into sub-games of differing models.

In the real world, most people exist pursuing an independent fate. Interactions with others can easily fall into other competitive models, and this is where conflict typically originates. I could write forever about examples, but I'll limit myself to a few workplace examples. An employee-as-individual has an independent fate. They've studied, they work, they get paid. In an everyday capacity, their salary isn't dependent on Bob doing a good job or a bad job; it's tied to the individual's personal endeavour.

As a company, in a competitive marketplace, the employees work together toward a common fate. The employees of competing companies are usually obscured so that the 'foe' is the faceless company and not the workers inside. This facilitates a team mentality conducive to competing against that company which is framed as the antagonist who must be overcome.

The struggle against a competing company is often seen as a race. Speaking to concerns about Pixar releasing A Bugs Life hot on the heels of Dreamworks's release of Antz, a movie with a very similar target audience and theme, Steve Jobs, Pixar's CEO, was unperturbed. He claimed that if there are three good movies out there, people will see all three. He stressed that this is different than Apple's struggle, since computer buyers choose to purchase one computer instead of another, creating a zero-sum industry.

Promotion can also span from independent fate to race to zero-sum, depending on if a position is created in order to advance a specific employee (independent fate), as a result of growth (race, as in a bonus structure from a limited annual bonus budget), or filling a place vacated by attrition, where 'the best person wins' (zero-sum).

It seems that the zero-sum is most rarely encountered in daily life. "There's only one ice cream cone. Who gets it?" Yet these are the situations that breed the greatest strife.

Tug-of-war and real-world land wars are both zero-sum problems.

It seems only natural that these are commonly used in games, to play upon the deepest part of our competitive nature. Whether you try to win for personal gain or to make the other player lose, the result is the same. you're tugging at their vitality. Your win or loss is internalized as their loss or gain, made personal and intrusive.

There's a reason that people don't play against each other in casinos. It creates strife. A person playing poker against another player or group of players is a zero-sum game, the epitome of conflict, while people playing blackjack against the dealer is an independent fate game under the illusion of a common-fate game, since even though one player's outcome isn't causally related to another*, the outcomes tend to coincide in a true 'common fate' sense. (* Okay, they are causally related, but in the purely random sense, which in itself fosters the 'common fate' model, for example when the 'hole player' hits when they shouldn't, and get the 10-card that 'would have' instead busted the dealer.)

The other thought I wanted to share was the nested nature of these competitive models in games. In the final analysis most games have one winner and several losers, and therefore the game taken in total, is zero-sum. (Well, not actually, as I touch on in the final paragraph.)

Trivial Pursuit, for example has at least three levels of competition. At the most basic level, the maneuvering around the board and the asking and answering of questions is an independent fate model. One level higher, there is a race among the players to fill their pies first, and at the end the winner is a zero-sum proposition.

Race games tend to almost always be zero-sum unless there are in fact, points for second place (and third, etc.). Most race games become zero-sum games because they assign winners regardless of the margin of victory.

Olympic Hockey is a race game for points, turning into a zero-sum for a check in the win, tie, loss tally, then back to a race game for the final medals after several games.

Football is zero-sum on a play-by-play level, with every yard gained being taken from the opponent. Yet the purpose is to score more points than your opponent, creating a race model. In the end, regardless of how close the game is, there is a single zero-sum winner, decided by the finer blade of overtime. if need be.

Finally, regardless of the mode of competition, I find it interesting that the enjoyment from so many games, even zero-sum games, comes from the game play itself, and not the zero-sum outcome. In this sense 'zero-sum' is a misnomer since, regardless of the final score sheet, most or all players garnered enjoyment from the shared experience, and therefore contributed to the 'common fate' umbrella model.