Zero-sum game

A zero-sum game is a situation, especially a competitive one, in which there is no net gain among the participants. If one gains, it means others have to lose an equivalent amount. For example, if the only way for you to gain $1,000 is to deprive someone else of $1,000, you’re in a zero-sum game. The term is also sometimes used to refer to situations in which one’s own gains offset one’s losses.

These are zero-sum game’s popular meanings, anyway. Followers of game theory, where the phrase derives, might find these definitions to be oversimplifications.

Zero-sum game is sometimes misspelled zero-sum gain. This sort of makes sense, as a zero-sum game results in a gain of a sum of zero, but it’s not the conventional form of the phrase.

Examples

The first step is to stop viewing international trade as a zero-sum game that costs some countries as much as it benefits others. [Project Syndicate]

Commodity trading is a zero-sum-game. For every dollar won there’s another dollar lost and vice versa. [Portland Daily Sun]

It’s a zero-sum game out there; paying too much attention to older artists will inevitably mean missing out on new ones. [Bowdoin Orient]

Income is not a zero-sum game: The rich aren’t getting wealthier at the expense of the poor. [Fortune]

All this is basically a zero-sum game. What one generation gains, another loses. [Financial Times]

Of course, this is not a zero-sum game: the difficulty of getting rich for bad guys doesn’t imply that the consequences are small for good guys. [New York Times]

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