Competitive and collaborative games

May 9, 2010

When coordinated behaviour takes place without the intervention of a regulating authority, we often attribute the coherent action to the existence of values and ethics. We tend to think that the existence of a strong value base means that less or even no regulation is needed. A decay of values conversely means that rules and regulation are needed.

A game theory approach to values assumes that people choose the kind of behaviour that gives them the highest expected benefit over time, given their expectations about what the other players will do and the rewarding or punishing feedback they get as a result of their own actions. Players learn by trial and error, keeping strategies that work and altering the ones that turn out badly. Players always observe each other. Those with a poor performance often tend to imitate those who are doing better. What has worked is likely to be used again.

In most games who wins and who loses is the whole point of playing. It would be hard to imagine a more unpopular outcome in the reality TV-series that today are watched by millions, than an announcement that all the players ended up as winners! It is, of course, beneficial that the place of the lazy, the incompetent, and the unmotivated is taken by better-motivated and more enterprising players.

Competitive games require rules to prevent players from cheating. Competition should be as fierce as the existing laws allow, we think. Any ambiguity in the regulations is immediately exploited. This is where our thinking does not serve us any more. Innovations by the players often make existing rules obsolete and call for new ones, as we have recently experienced in the financial markets. The present relationship between regulators and financial institutions is a competitive game in itself. Instead of a home audience watching, here we have the markets watching. The principle is the same.

There are also other growing problems with the games we play. In competitive games, there is always a lack of appreciation for the need of complementarities. You are supposed to manage without help from others. As a result of competition which excludes, diversity is reduced in the system that the game is played in. There are also more losers than winners in our games. Losers multiply as winning behaviours are replicated in the smaller winners’ circles and losing behaviours are replicated in the bigger losers’ circles.

As losers are excluded from the game, they are not allowed to learn. The divide between winners and losers grows constantly. This is why, in the end, the winners have to pay the price of winning in one way or another. The bigger the divide, the bigger the price that has to be paid. The winners end up having to take care of the losers, or two totally different cultures are formed, as is happening in the big US cities today. Psychologically, competitive games create shadow games of losers competing at losing.

The games we play have been played under the assumption that the unit of survival is the player, meaning the individual or a company. However, today the reality is that the unit of survival is the player in the game being played. Following Darwinian rhetoric, the unit of survival is the species in its environment. Who wins and who loses is of minor importance compared to the decay of the (game) environment as a result of the competition.

We need a new concept of the game

In games that were paradoxically competitive and collaborative at the same time, losers would not not be eliminated from the game, but would be invited to learn from the winners. What prevents losers learning from winners at the moment is our outdated zero-sum thinking and the winner-takes-all philosophy. In competitive/collaborative games the winners would be all those whose participation, comments and contributions were incorporated in the development of the game.

The most important reason why we need a new concept of games is because the players and their contributions in the real world are, at best, too diverse to rank. They are, and should be, too qualitatively different to compare quantitatively. In competitive games the players need to have the identical aim of winning the same thing. Unless all the players want the same thing, there cannot be a genuine contest. Zero-sum games were the offspring of scarcity. In the era of creativity and abundance, new approaches are needed.

In competitive/collaborative games the approach to rules is very different from before. The rules should be created, agreed upon and changed by the players themselves as the game continues. As there absolutely cannot be pre-existing rules for every conceivable situation that might arise, we have to move beyond seeing the players and the rule-makers as separate parties. The games are too complex to be governed totally from outside. We desperately need values-based participation as a prerequisite for taking part.

The players have the responsibility not only for adhering to the existing rules, but also for developing the rules further – specifically when the game (environment) decays as a result of the actions of the players.

The criteria for success in competitive games do not lie solely in winning but in the development and continuation of the game itself through collaboration.

Thank you Fons Trompenaars and Robert Axelrod


Situational values or sustainable values.

4 Responses to “Competitive and collaborative games”

  1. mike green Says:

    I like your logic and agree with your overarching premise. The paradoxical competitive/collaborative model is a superior model to the winner-takes-all tragedy that leaves more losers than winners and thus more carnage to cleanup by the winners.

    I like the mentorship option that seems to be more in line with Japanese and other Asian models.

    The challenge is in overcoming the inertia of moving away from the established American model that capitalizes upon inherent human qualities like greed and pride. Since these are not manufactured, but rather natural born qualities, the model of competitive capitalism works well within these frameworks, exploiting our inherent desires to be “the best” to be worshiped and adored by millions and to live according to our own desires, putting ourselves and our comfort ahead of the problems of others.

    Any collaborative model will require some measure of sacrifice, elevation of the greater good over our own desires, and the ability to look beyond ourselves to establish a community in which everyone is benefiting, rather than an ownership of property we call our own upon which we build bigger and bigger monuments that we control for our own benefit and satisfaction.

    In other words, how do we overcome the strongly held desire to build our own kingdom and instead build equitable communities?

    How do we move away from building a $50 million home for ourselves, in which we entertain others by invitation from time to time; and instead build up the poorest communities to become stronger and more effective as productive members of societies?

    I see your premise and like it. However, I am not optimistic that it is feasible within the construct of a secular, capitalistic, prideful society that idolizes fame and fortune and ignores, if not outright despises, poverty. We love winners and hate losers. Why would we ever help those poor bastards, except out of the “goodness” of our hearts we may toss them a small bone form time to time. And when we do, we consider that also a part of what makes us “great.”

    How is it possible to give birth to your way of thinking within the womb of ingrained antithetical behavior in our society?

  2. Lía Goren Says:

    Thanks a lot. Very clear. I usually work as a family therapist and it might be an interesting article to debate with parents.

  3. Minna Says:

    Thank you Esko – I’ve use Carse’s distinction of finite and infinite games, and found it really helpful many time.

    “A finite game is played for the purpose
    of winning, the infinite game for the purpose of continuing the game …” (Carse, 1986)

    Finite Games
    * The purpose is to win
    * Improves by fittest surviving
    * Winners exclude losers
    * Winner takes all
    * Aims are identical
    * Relative simplicity
    * Rules fixed in advance
    * Rules resemble debating contests
    * Compete for mature markets
    * Short term decisive contests
    * Externally defined

    Infinite Games
    * The purpose is to improve the game
    * Improves by game evolving
    * Winners teach losers better plays
    * Winning widely shared
    * Aims are diverse
    * Relatively complexity
    * Rules changed by agreement
    * Rules resemble grammar of original utterances
    * Grow new markets
    * Long term
    * Internally defined

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