07
Aug
09

toolkit: zero sum

Zero sum is where loss or gain is exactly balanced between all participants. If one person gains, then one or more others lose out. This posits a finite resource e.g. a magical sword that must be wielded by a king confers kingship on it’s wielder (even if it’s no basis for stable government) or a hierarchy (beauty contests or asking a magic mirror to find who’s the fairest of them all).

Competition or conflict occurs if there is a need for the resource or to be top of the hierarchy – how the competition or conflict takes place and who wins depends on factors like location, timing, individual or social attributes and opportunity. Inclusion and providing frontiers provides explosive growth as exclusion and barriers lead to loss and recession.

Where there is a finite resource but enough for others to achieve their objective, zero sum may lead to a social trap as multiple parties exploit an available resource for short term gain but then loses out in the long run as that resource vanishes; this can be simulated with a bowl of snacks. When they’re gone, they’re gone unless they can be renewed. Then the game starts over again.

Making zero-sum situations enjoyable depends on a social contract – perhaps the prototypical social contract. Participation may provide benefits and more often the cliche of ‘it’s the taking part that counts’ and experience through failing to gain those benefits. A zero-sum game where everyone wins assumes limited benefit for all participants leading to the prisoner’s dilemma.

Where there are a multitude of new frontiers and niches for self-expression and advantage, there is a shift in values and a sudden wealth of opportunities to gain social capital. Evaluation of such gains challenges previous perceptions of social capital and the lines have to be re-drawn; one example of this is Elizabethan England where new frontiers changed how things were seen.

I’ve touched on discovering new frontiers before though some would argue that exploitation of those new frontiers means it’s just a bigger zero-sum proposition. While it could be argued that if you’re going to win, win big there is a cost in doing so. By expanding the winner’s circle there is greater gain for others though it means you have to redefine success along the way.

One way is to celebrate the accomplishments of other participants. Another is to positively recognise what is done well and compassionately suggest successful strategies. Yet another is to increase the intrinsic value of participation so those who take part gain something more from it than just the taking part.

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