Game Theory and the Kingdom of God (A Quirky Series Installment), Part 2: "The Game of Life"

In game theory, two types of games are commonly recognized: Zerosum games and Non-zerosum games.

Zerosum games are games of "total conflict." They are also called "war" games. What those labels mean is that the two (or more) player’s interests do not overlap. That is, every gain of mine is an equal loss to you. I have to take away something from you to "gain" or "win," and you must do the same to me if you are to "win."

The game of poker is a good example of a zerosum game and it also illustrates why, mathematically, the name "zerosum" is used. Let's say you and I are playing heads up poker and each of us start the night with $100. At the end of the night we tally up our winnings and losses. You find you are up $30, leaving the night with $130. By definition, I must be down $30, leaving the night with $70. That is, the sum of gains and losses SUM TO ZERO.

It is known that zerosum games always have a "best" strategy (the famous Minimax theorem proved by John von Neumann). That is, depending on if the game is fair or unfair (not all "games" are fair as when the United States negotiates trade agreements with third world countries), there will always be a way to either maximize your gains or minimize your losses. In short, zerosum games are always "solvable."

But rarely in life are we confronted with games/interactions of total conflict. For example, during the Cold War it appeared that USSR and the US were totally opposed. It appeared that we were headed for a nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. But the interests of the USSR and US were not totally opposed. Our interests did overlap to some degree. For example, neither country wanted to die in a nuclear holocaust. And it was this overlap of interests that kept the fingers off the buttons.

Here's another example. Chess is generally a zerosum game. I cannot win unless you lose. But imagine I'm playing with my eight-year old son. Now the game is non-zerosum. That is, my interests and my son's interests overlap: We both want him to win (although he doesn't know that). So, my son's win is actually not my loss. It is my win as well.

When interests overlap, as they do in non-zerosum encounters, we have this potential for the Win-Win. Both players reap positive sums (in the case of my son and I, both of us reap a net gain in emotional satisfaction) which means that the gains and losses DON'T sum to zero. Hence the name, "non-zerosum."

I'll have a lot more to say about all this, but I want to end today reflecting upon this idea of "overlapping interests." It seems to me that Jesus is calling us to be non-zerosum people. More and more. To see the interests of others as my own. That is very difficult to do. What gain is it to me to help the poor in Africa or the poor in my own city? But Jesus asks us to "love our neighbor as ourselves." In game theoretic terms, Jesus wants us to play the game of life as a non-zerosum player. More, as the ultimate non-zerosum player, where my interests WHOLLY overlap your own. When this happens I can truly rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. Your gain is also MY gain. Your loss is also MY loss.

So how will you play the game of life? As a zerosum game? Or as a non-zerosum game?

I think it is your move.

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3 thoughts on “Game Theory and the Kingdom of God (A Quirky Series Installment), Part 2: "The Game of Life"”

  1. I agree Christians should fall under nonzerosum,but shouldn't we at least be aware of the tactics the devil may use in his zerosum games?

  2. please say if my thinking is correct:
    whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant.

    //this commandment works only in population there "tit for tat" or better algoriths are 50% and more


    do good till you loose
    when you lost, do other algorithm // because you already became greater in sense of altruism, and earned bonus points
    other algorithm is probably of pastoral commandment - if you are greater, you have responsibility sometimes to punish your children(them who are lesser them you are)

    when your altruism become lesser ther partners one, start this algorithm again.

  3. Did you ever read D. Miller's Discipling Nations? I was reading it today. He talks a good bit about Malthus and whether our worldview inclines us to see the world as a zerosum or non-zerosum game. He says those having a secular worldview see the world as a closed system and a zerosum game. He suggests a theistic worldview would imply a non-zerosum world where God invites us to draw greater potential from the earth's natural resources through creativity and wisdom.

    His thoughts brought up memories I had of you writing on the subject so I thought I'd look up your stance. Looks like you two were in agreement.

    To add some implications to it, I'm currently studying this subject in the context of business leadership and the case for servant leadership. The argument is, it's more difficult to be a servant leader in the workplace if you have a zerosum worldview (still possible if you're willing to go to the cross for the other, per your Joker Ferry post where morality trumps rationality). But, if we approach the work situation as a non-zerosum, we can more readily focus on the well being of the other. So with business leaders, when budget constraints come into play, some are more quick to eliminate headcount. Better servant leaders will strive to make the business case for why increased spend is in best interest of the company as well, so to create a win/win for company and employee who gets to keep his/her job.

    Enjoyed looking back on some of your posts.

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