Friday, February 16, 2007

Winning is Incompatible with (Almost) Everything

This article follows my previous article, Winning as a Goal is Incompatible with Art, part of a series of articles in which I explore new philosophies about "winning". Note: This is not fully developed, so great gaps in my arguments still exist.

The basic theme of these articles is an analysis and criticism of the flat and absolute mechanism of "winning" within games.

To summarize some of my earlier thoughts, most games have scores which indicate relative success to other players, as well as relative success to our own previous scores. Yet, at the end of most games, we discard these scores and simply assign a "1" (for win) or a "0" (for loss) to all participants.

Or More Specifically

My goal is to separate "winning" from "goals" and "competition". Consider a game of Chess.

In the game of Chess, the goal is to checkmate your opponent. The game is competitive, in that one player works to thwart the other from doing so. The game is designed to end as soon as one player achieves their goal, thus preventing the other player from achieving theirs.

Now the game of Chess could end right there, but it doesn't. The rules for chess contain one additional sentence: "The person who achieves checkmate is the winner."

This sentence, which most people think of as integral to the goals of the game, is not at all required for the game of Chess to be competitive. The last sentence of the rules could just as easily of read as follows, instead: "The player who achieves his goal records the number of moves it took him or her. The other player does so, too. Record these figures on our central server. Your ranking is determined by the number of moves versus the strength of your opponent."

In other words, the goal of the game, and the competition remains the same. But the "reward" of calling one player the "winner" is now eliminated. And in fact, there now exists several levels of winning and losing, from a "good win" to a "small win" to a "virtual tie". In fact, one could structure the evaluation of the game so that both players could end up "winning" or "losing" to different degrees.

The point is that designating one person as a "winner" is purely a form of virtual reward. In fact, it is a reward that is based on artificial scarcity. In order for winner to mean anything, there have to be losers.

In fact, even when there is fierce competition in games, there is no absolute need for this. The label of "winner" does not have to be scarce. You can easily give out the label "winner" to all people who achieve any sort of success, without sullying the word. You still don't give it to people who haven't achieved anything; effort and achievement still count. Competition still counts. You just change the nature of "winner" from one that requires all others to fail to one that measures personal achievement regardless of the success of others.

In some situations, there really are scarce resources. If two people are racing for the last parachute on a plane that is crashing, and only one can achieve it, it appears that we have no choice but to call one the "winner" and the other the "loser".

Existing research

There are two primary research areas that tackle ideas about games and goals: game theory and competition psychology.

Game Theory

Game theory analyzes best moves for one or more people, generally when they are acting to maximize their own rewards, although not necessarily. In any case, game theory allows for all sorts of outcomes to a series of choices, including all players winning, all losing, some winning or losing, and various gradations between winning and losing.

As such, game theory doesn't deal with the arbitrary concept of "winning". Using the classic prisoner scenario as an example, if you choose right and end up being freed from prison while your fellow sits in jail, being freed is the reward that is being considered. The fact that you also "won" the game is either not a consideration, or is added as an additional reward for having made the correct choice.

For most games, being called "the winner" is the only choice that we recognize. Unless you're playing for money, winning a game of solitary Chess doesn't hand out any other tangible rewards. Yet, just about all of us today no longer play for the reward of being called "winner" or "loser", but for the sake of gaining strength in play, for testing our own abilities, in other words, for many internal rewards.

That's what's good about strategy games like Chess and so on, is that these rewards are sufficient for us.

The problem is with games like CandyLand or Chutes and Ladders. There are no internal rewards for games such as these, since nothing is required of the player. Perhaps, for the very young, the internal reward is the social experience or having behaved with good manners. But for most of us, the only reward that exists is in the winning or losing. In this situation, there is no gain, and no fun, in losing.

I content, therefore, that games with no internal rewards, or external rewards other than being called "winner" or "loser", are particularly poor choices of games.

Competition Psychology

There are some writings in the last thirty years on eliminating competition, and removing the arbitrary "winner" and "loser" rewards associated with competition. Many of these focus instead on cooperative activities.

Unfortunately, I haven't read many of these, yet. Several books on the subject are now winging their way to my U.S. mailing address for me to pick up this summer. Until I've read them, I can only speculate.

I'm not challenging the idea of competition, which is what these books appear to be mainly focused on, only the specific idea of reward through labeling one person an absolute winner and others losers. I believe that without competition, you gain lazy and spoiled people who can't overcome obstacles. However, I would like to see it at least theoretically possible for all participants to achieve rewards, and not merely the front-runner from a random sampling of people.

I will have to return to this subject when I have read more.

Three Categories of Rewards

Getting back to reward systems, there are three categories of reward systems: unlimited, arbitrarily scarce, scarce.

Unlimited Rewards

Unlimited rewards are those which are inexhaustible. Praise, for example, is essentially unlimited, as is self-esteem, love, and contentment.

If one person pursues love and achieves it, this does not indicate that all others have "lost" (unless they were pursuing the same person, in which case see arbitrarily scarce rewards, below).

We engage in games and sports with the belief that winning or losing the game is less important than the other rewards we gain from engaging. Yet, when we structure our games as winner-takes-all, we introduce a cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, rewards are meted out to all participants based on their effort and achievement - compliments, internal rewards, and so on. On the other hand, we mete out a reward of recognition ("winner") based solely on comparative performance.

When rewards are essentially unlimited, applying an arbitrarily scarce reward on top of competition as an enticement for performance is more of a hindrance than a help. It promotes complacency when the win is already guaranteed, or when the win is impossible to achieve. It rewards actions that are not internally rewarding for the sake of "the win", from gaming the rule-system of the game to cheating.

Arbitrarily Scarce Rewards

The "winning" reward for a race or sport is an arbitrarily scarce reward. We could just as easily structure the game or race to reward all players who pass a particular goal. Or, all players can earn "winningness" scores based on performance, accumulating them over the course of their careers, like baseball statistics.

Other arbitrarily scarce rewards include finding monogamous partners, and limiting rewards when it is simply a matter of convenience, rather than lack of resources. For instance, the first one hundred callers to a radio station get to wear a sticker.

Arbitrarily scarce rewards may inspire competition, true. But rather than giving out 100% to N people, and 0% to all others, a better system would promise greater or lesser favors to all based on performance; i.e. not a zero-sum competition. In this way, vast more numbers of people would get some inspiration, while comparative results between players could still inspire real competition.

Scarce Rewards

Scarce rewards exist when a reward is truly limited. For instance, you may have enough money to build one airplane, and therefore only be able to buy it from one company. Only one company can win the contract.

In an ideal world, we would be able to choose the best of both offers, i.e. 70% of the plane from company A, and 30% from company B. But even that won't help when two people race to get onto an elevator which only has room for one person. Only one person will fit; there are no two ways around it.

This reality represents the most difficult challenge to my criticism of winning. It appears that I have to make exception for these situations. What I would like to do is find ways to minimize these situations as much as possible.

Winning is Incompatible with Politics

When 49.9% of people vote for one candidate, and 50.1% for the other, it is easy for anyone to see that the "winning" candidate did not win a mandate. But that is what the winner claims. You can't have 50.1% of one person, and 49.9% of another simultaneously running the country. Can you?

Even when a politician wins with 80% of the vote, 20% of the voters are still being arbitrarily bullied by the outcome.

What if the winning candidate received 80 "chips" and the loser 20 chips? For each policy proposal, each candidate has the opportunity to spend a chip. If either decides to spend a chip, then the policy decision is decided their way. If neither or both decide, then they have to find a compromise.

This isn't a great solution, because you end up with a small series of absolute winning or losing situations, rather than one big one.

What if one set of laws apply to 20% and another to 80%? This is also a problem, because the contributions of one group (say, higher taxes to support a better military) may be used for the welfare of the other, which would be unfair.

What if policies are negotiated to some line that is 80% of what the winning candidate wants? This won't work, because some projects require a compete commitment or none at all.

The problems that we find with all of the above solutions are the result of all-or-nothing thinking. While I don't have a complete solution, it seems to me that just because some projects require an all-or-nothing commitment doesn't mean that those projects that don't can't be compromised upon. Just because some projects require equal contributions in order to be fair doesn't mean that all do.

In other words, the easy solution to politics is to give all power to the winner and ignore the losers. That's not right.

And when it comes to international politics, the only "win" for all players is a win for all.

Winning is Incompatible With Law

Our legal system is often a parody of justice. Focusing on "winning" results in legal arguments that hinge around how well the lawyer is dressed, how they can game the system, and how theatrically they can perform their arguments.

Justice is not about winning or losing, it is about trying to establish the facts and trying to assign fair responsibility. That is why it is still possible, at least theoretically, to gain greater or lesser wins in court.

Winning is Incompatible With Business

Businesses compete and fight to win contracts. In the end, only one achieves the goal. That one is the winner.

But what happens if you like 65% of the proposal from company A and 50% of the proposal from company B. If you could combine the two products, you could get to 75% of what you want.

For very simple tasks, like fixing a stove, only one person gets the job. How he or she performs on that job determines the likelihood of winning the next job. So it's a very tenuous win, with greater or lesser degrees.

For larger tasks, winning is not an all-or-nothing affair. I might buy part A from him and part B from her.

Winning is Incompatible With Education

While a certain school may have only enough places for a limited number of students, the grades and rewards that are handed out are not at all scarce. Arbitrarily limiting rewards in order to create competition is great for competition, but patently unfair most of the time. All people can gain an education without infringing upon others from doing the same.

Winning is Incompatible With Relationships

The great focus we put on wooing a partner, and lack of attention we give to creating sustainable human beings who can function in long term relationships, yields predictably disastrous results.

You don't win a partner. You engage in a continuous relationship.

Winning is (Should Be) Dead

Assigning a "win" at the end of a contest is superfluous, when a reward was achieved anyway, or archaic, otherwise. Winning for the glory and honor of defeating an opponent is now a remnant of a brutal past, where everyone who was not "us" was the enemy and therefore in need of conquering.

In our day where every human is now "us", our focus is on a lifetime of growth, of helping others to achieve their potential, and on dying or living together as one race. Winning - an arbitrary goal that occurs at a single moment in time, and requires others to lose - is incompatible with that.



Coldfoot said...

Ahh. But losers have reason to strive to be better. A subsequent win makes the reward even sweeter.

Striving strengthens the human condition and all society can benefit from the effort.

Winning is part of the human psyche. A healthy part of the human psyche.

Winning is important in politics. Losers are forced to analyze why they lost, refine their message or goals and try again in the next election. The desire to win forces politicians to work hard to impress the electorate. A winner take all system, like the American system is not perfect, but it does force political parties to be responsive to the voter's desires in order to retain power.

Winning is important in education. As a former student I speak with authority when I state that most students are basically lazy. If a poor homework paper gets the same grade as a well researched paper, most students will skate with the minimum amount of work and spend the rest of their time partying and playing X-Box. The more effort students put into their education, the better the education will be. Schools where grades are not handed out, or where every student gets an "A" are failing to educate students properly.

Losing (receiving an "F") and possible getting kicked out of school is a fine motivator. Winning (receiving an "A") and possibly getting a scholarship and continuing their education is also a fine motivator.

By winning in business all society wins. Without the desire to do things better and produce a better widget the economy stagnates. Competition is a cornerstone of a vibrant economy.

Concerning the justice system, I can only nit pick your thoughts. I basically agree. Unfortunately we no longer have a justice system. We have a legal system. The purpose of a court is not to determine what is just, the purpose is to determine what is legal. Just and legal are so diametrically opposed that... Well, I get angry just thinking about how perverted the court system has become.

Winning can be destructive to relationships, but winning and losing were never supposed to be a part of relationships. Relationships, as you correctly point out, are partnerships. However, the concept of winning and losing in a relationship is different than winning and losing in other aspects of life. It has to do more with control than reward. It is a subject less suited to game theory than marriage counseling.

Anonymous said...

Marvelous post, Yehuda. I am hoping it provokes much thought (as opposed to much passion).

In the Well-Played Game, one of the chapters is called "Playing to Win vs Having to Win" - I don't know if that would be helpful to this particular focus on winning itself (the artifice and illusion), but I think it might help in the debate, which seems to be lie everywhere in the background of your piece. Whether winning is necessary or not for games, playing to win, as long as it remains "play," helps make the game engaging for all players. Having to win, on the other hand, leads to a breakdown of the game and the social contract, and is a sign of the kinds of psychoses that are everywhere found in work, politics and war.

By your questioning winning itself, I think you open a very heavy door. By pointing out the lack of compabatibility between the idea of winning and the experience of everyday life, I think you are identifying a key factor in social pathology. As you so well know, we have yet to learn that wars really can't be won, and neither can minds or hearts.

Thank you for the depth of your thinking on the meanings of winning. Please, don't stop.

Yehuda Berlinger said...

coldfoot: I stressed several times that I am not against competition, performance, and goals. I am only against the idea that in order to win, others have to lose, unless scarce rewards are available.

If 100 people run a race, it doesn't have to end with a single winner for there to be competition. Each person races against themselves and others, and the result can be a "winningness" score for all players.

Players can still compare their results to others (I scored a higher result than you did), but no, any, or all players can actually win a race.

I agree with giving F's to people who don't actually succeed. But I don't agree that only one A is available to all students, and all others must perforce get an F.

Business: I developed this one the least of all. Again, competition: yes. But even business has to realize that they haven't one, definitively. They have only won a temporary monopoly on establishing a relationship, which they must continuously develop.

majorfun: Thanks for the book link. I didn't know you had written a book! I just ordered it.


Coldfoot said...

I should have stressed that I am for people losing (marriage and justice aside). It builds character and promotes more creative approaches, among other things.

Yehuda Berlinger said...


When you finish a game of Taj Mahal, the scores may be something like 65 to 54 to 33.

"Winning" changes those scores to 1 to 0 to 0.

Which is better? Ending the game as winner/loser/loser, or ending the game as did well/did not as well but ok/did poorly?

Isn't "did poorly" as much of an incentive as "loser"?

Worse yet, once the "did poorly" player realized that he could no longer "win" in round 10, didn't he stop trying to do well altogether? And the same for the "did well" player, once he realized that there was no reason left to expend effort?

If games end 1/0/0, instead of 65/54/33, incentive is removed except for very close games.


Anonymous said...

In response to "the specific idea of reward through labeling one person an absolute winner and others losers", in any case I don't believe that this is the traditional perspective on games in our society. A more dominant perspective, I'd say, is that a winner is one person (I'll say "person" for simplicity; it could of course be a team), a loser one person, and that all the people in the middle neither won nor lost. To put it another way, society's traditional perspective in my experience is that "loser" in games is the *opposite* of "winner", not the *complement*. For example, when playing card games in which there is an arbitrary number of players and the winner is whoever's first to be out of cards, I am sure that most families continue to play after someone has won, in order to find out who "came second". The notion of a "loser" is only applicable in games where the ranking is such that a single person can be identified as such.

Coldfoot writes, "Winning is important in politics. Losers are forced to analyze why they lost, refine their message or goals and try again in the next election". Ah ... but unfortunately, "refine" is what they fail to do. The voters may think, "Well, there are some good ideas in these policies, and they definitely have potential, but like a wine that hasn't yet matured, they aren't quite there. The party needs three more years in opposition with which to refine their policies, and then they'll be ready for government". But sadly, politics is riddled with the disease of believing that loss (I'm thinking of a de facto two-party system) is tantamount to total loss. When a party loses an election, it doesn't refine its policies while keeping the best of what it had; it rips itself to shreds, falls prey to a cycle of leadership challenges, and starts afresh on a new set of policies. Back to the metaphor, the wine lost the competition because it was insufficently matured, so the producers tip the contents out and replace it with fresh wine, in the hope that this can win! The example that's foremost in my mind is the recent history of the Australian Labor Party.

Yehuda Berlinger said...

Good points, Adrian.