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Why Negative-Sum Games Don’t Matter (Most Of The Time)

October 27, 2017

Positive-Sum Games and Zero-Sum Games are important. Positive-Sum Games are win-win games. Zero-Sum Games are win-lose games. When you put them together in a sequence, you can understand others’ strategies. They also help you build your own (See A Spy’s Guide To Strategy for how those sequences work).


Negative-Sum Games don’t matter as much for strategies. Most of the time.

 
They don’t matter because people usually avoid lose-lose games. 


You see it when you drive. Drivers are avoiding other vehicles. They’re staying in their lane. They don’t want an accident. 


You do the same thing. You don’t want an accident, if you can avoid it. Because an accident is a Negative-Sum Game. 


You lose when you’re in a car accident. And so will the other side. You both lose time. You both lose your car, if it’s bad. And one of you will lose money, if it’s your fault. 


Which is why you can build roads where lanes are close. Where drivers pass within feet of each other. At high speed. You can build those roads and people won’t hit each other. Most of the time.
Because people avoid Negative-Sum Games. People avoid lose-lose games.


Unless there’s a strategic reason.


The strategic reason for a Negative-Sum Game is usually this: It’ll improve your position in a Zero-Sum Game to follow. 


In an air battle, say your side has a 1:3 kill ratio. That means you’ll take down 3 of their planes for every plane you lose. If you start an air battle, you and the enemy will both lose. But they’ll lose more than you do. 


Do you do it? Do you start a Negative-Sum Game? 

 

As in all strategy, it depends on what happens next. It depends on the game to follow. 


If the game to follow is the Zero-Sum Game of air supremacy, then you do another calculation. By taking out 3 of their planes for every one of ours, do we gain air supremacy? Does air supremacy allow our bombers to fly unimpeded into the enemy’s airspace? Does bombing the enemy win us the war? 


You go to the end. And you reason backward. 


And maybe you start a Negative-Sum Game. Because it means you win the Zero-Sum Game of war. 


That’s when you play a Negative-Sum Game. 


But most of the time, you don’t. 
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If you haven’t already, buy A Spy’s Guide To Strategy because it will help you understand when Positive-Sum Games, Zero-Sum Games and Negative-Sum Games matter.

 

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