Coop First: non-zero-sum games are reshaping our digital world

When you think of a game, what springs to mind?

Do you imagine winners and losers? Levels and leaderboards? Vast landscapes to explore? Friends gathered around a table? People working together achieve something bigger?

In game theory, there are two basic types of games: zero-sum games where players are opponents, with clear winners and losers – and non-zero-sum games where players are partners who win and lose together. You can see these game types in action  on playgrounds (and boardrooms)  around the world — boys love to play zero-sum games that involve rank-ordering within a pack, while girls gravitate towards non-zero-sum games that involve building and maintaining relationships. For more background on this, check out Deborah Tannen’s brilliant, insightful book You Just Don’t Understand – it documents how boys and girl use language to negotiate these different types of play.

The world of gaming  – both online and offline – is filled with zero-sum games that involve battles, prizes, rank-ordering, and clear winners and losers.  Score-keeping is a deep and interesting part of these games – and is at the heart of what makes team sports so engaging and fun to watch and discuss, as well as to play.

If you look at the world through a non-zero-sum lens, you see that building partnerships and relationships is a fundamentally different kind of game to play – one that has the potential to GROW THE PIE for everyone, rather than dividing up a finite pie amongst the winners. Think about a barn-raising, a quilting bee, a charity walkathon, a bunch of kids playing hopscotch — group activities with rules and goals and a quantifiable outcome that everyone enjoys together.  These games have scoring systems – but the score isn’t the main point; it’s more about the group effort, and the relationships built by playing together.

So what happens if you put head-to-head battles and rank-ordering on the back burner, and think Coop First? What gaming systems and features actually get people working together to achieve something greater than themselves? What playful activities can you imagine where people are partners, rather than opponents? That’s the vein I’m mining, and in the next few blog posts I’ll share my current answers  to those questions.

But first – what do YOU think? What collaborative and collective action systems have you seen lately that impressed you? Are you working on anything along these lines? I’d love to hear your thoughts.