Can There Be a Non Zero Sum Game in Game Theory?


Vincent White

Game theory is a branch of mathematics that deals with decision-making situations among multiple players. It’s often applied in economics, political science, psychology, and even biology.

The central concept in game theory is the “payoff matrix,” which represents the possible outcomes of the game for each player. In a zero-sum game, the sum of all payoffs is always zero, meaning that any gain by one player comes at the expense of another player’s loss. But can there be a non-zero-sum game in game theory?

What Is a Zero-Sum Game?

Before we dive into non-zero-sum games, let’s first understand what a zero-sum game is. A zero-sum game is a situation where one player’s gain equals another player’s loss. In other words, the total amount of “payoff” in the game remains constant, and any gain by one player must come at the expense of another player’s loss.

For example, consider a simplified version of poker where two players are playing against each other with a fixed amount of money on the table. In this case, if Player A wins $100, then Player B loses $100. The total amount of money on the table remains constant at $0 (ignoring ties), making it a zero-sum game.

What Is a Non-Zero-Sum Game?

A non-zero-sum game is any situation where one player’s gain does not necessarily equal another player’s loss. Instead, it’s possible for all players to gain or all players to lose together.

Let’s take an example from international trade to illustrate this point. Suppose Country A and Country B both produce wheat and corn but have different comparative advantages (i.e., they can produce one good more efficiently than the other).

If they specialize in producing their comparative advantage good and trade with each other, both countries can benefit from the trade since they can obtain more goods at a lower cost than if they tried to produce everything themselves. In this case, the game is non-zero-sum since both countries can gain from the trade.

Why Do Non-Zero-Sum Games Matter?

Non-zero-sum games are important in many real-world situations where cooperation and collaboration are essential for success. For instance, in business negotiations or labor-management relations, the two parties involved must find ways to work together to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes. In these cases, thinking of the situation as a zero-sum game may lead to suboptimal or even disastrous results.

Moreover, non-zero-sum games can help us understand complex social phenomena such as altruism and cooperation. These behaviors might seem irrational from an individualistic perspective, but they can be explained by considering the benefits of working together in non-zero-sum games.


In conclusion, while zero-sum games are prevalent in game theory and daily life, non-zero-sum games are equally crucial to understand for many real-world scenarios. In non-zero-sum games, players can work together to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes rather than competing against each other endlessly. Understanding both types of games is essential for making rational decisions when dealing with others and even ourselves.