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Games and Values

Myth of Competition

When you enjoy a sport or a game it reflects what you value in life overall. It reflects how you see the world and what you value in it. When you look at the games specific to one culture, you can see what that culture really values, or believes. This is a core understanding of Cultural Anthropology.

So let's look at American sports and see what Americans really value and how we really view the world.

  1. Americans are an oppositional people, willing to take forcibly from others for personal gain.
  2. Americans believe that your loss is my gain, and my loss is your gain.
  3. Status and authority are more important to Americans than community and support.
  4. Americans would rather scheme and use the system for personal gain than work productively for the community.

This is the opposite of what Americans claim to believe, but our rituals speak louder than our words.

[1] Views of success and winning

Zero-Sum Games and Positive Sum Games

When my gain requires your loss, we have a "zero sum game." In zero sum games, for every winner there is a loser, for every point gained there is a point lost. Most American sports have this characteristic. So do taxation, theft, and gambling, where for every dollar gained by one, there is a dollar lost by another.

In "positive sum games," successes for one team, or player, can result in gains for the other teams or players. One's gain does not imply another's loss. For example, in education the learners success is the teacher's success also. For me to advances you must advance also. In an engineering team, the success of your part of the project requires the success of my part of the project.

There is a third possibility not common in games. My gains could have no consequences to your gains. For example, if we are both building houses, my successes do not affect you.

Zero Sum
- for me to win, you must lose
  • ball sports (e.g.: football)
  • golf & track (scoring)
  • card games & gambling
  • most video games
Positive Sum
- for me to win, you must win also
  • rock climbing
  • parachuting
  • dance
  • hackey sack
-to win, I must simply do my best


  • golf (actual play)
  • track (actual play)
Analogy to common experiences within the culture
  • interviewing for a job
  • taxation
  • insurance
  • crime
  • war
  • relationships / friendships
  • education
  • work / productivity
  • economic growth
  • conflict resolution
  • engineering design teams
  • work / productivity
  • art
  • property improvements

In America, most people learn to value zero-sum games at a very young age. We view the world primarily in terms of zero sums. You are as likely to hear an American game player say, "You lose," as you are to hear him say, "I win," because Americans equate a win for one with a loss for another.

Since more Americans enjoy zero-sum games than positive sum games we would expect that Americans approach conflict with zero-sum mentalities. In most American movies, and video games, the hero is the one who kills the most, or forces his opponent to lose the most. The American electoral system and the American legal system are both oppositional, we try to force the other side to lose. Even American business heroes, such as Bill Gates, gained their wealth forcing others to lose, not by producing the better product. Our own President has repeated his intention to "defeat the enemy", while expressing very little intention to win the peace. American culture is primarily oppositional.

Yet to gain the type of lives that we desire, and claim to believe in, there are more life situation that require positive sum, and non-summed mentalities, than zero sum mentalities. There are more situations where my success requires your success, or my success does not affect you. But in America we do not reinforce this awareness.

[2] Views of groups

When there is more than one group, my group may oppose your group, as in war, or support your group, like different offices in the same company.

- We oppose you
  • ball team sports
  • TV game shows
Analogy to culture
  • war
  • lawsuits
  • mudslinging
- We support you
  • rock climbing
  • parachuting
  • dance
  • hackey sack
Analogy to culture
  • education
  • engineering
  • relationship
From the above, we can see that most Americans identify with zero-sum, oppositional sports. We can infer from this that most Americans identify with oppositional behaviors, such as war, and materialistic aggression. Unfortunately, looking at the parallel behaviors, the greatest gains for the greatest number of people would come from positive-sum, cooperative behaviors such as education, labor, and engineering.
[3] Status Roles

Games can be characterized by distinct status roles, or by simply allowing people to contribute their best, where ever they may happen to be.

Distinct Status Roles
- I know who is below me and above me
  • coach
  • quarterback
  • pitcher
  • goalie
  • superstar
Reinforced relationships
  • military general
  • project coordinator
  • CEO
  • king / dictator / president
Equal level or non-statused
- these are the people I support and work with

  • hackey sack
  • volley ball
  • community dances
Reinforced Relationships
  • project team
  • workers
  • community "equal before the law"
  • web-page designers

In any society, both situations with status roles, and without status roles are needed. Declining societies are frequently characterized by, "too many chiefs, not enough Indians," or so many people clawing for overvalued status, that the critical non-statused positions go unfilled and unvalued. The American preference for status oriented games has worrisome implications for the long term.

[4] Rules ("letter of the law") vs. Action ("spirit of the law")

Games may be approach by focusing on the rules, or by focusing on the actions. The last two minutes in a football game frequently take more than 15 minutes, because the teams are playing the rules, using time outs, intentional groundings, faked injuries, etc. These are clear examples of playing the "letter of the law" that using the rules, instead of the "spirit of the law" meaning just playing the game. Similar, is true for basketball games. For both sports, the litigation of the referees frequently takes longer than the actual playing of the game.


Rule Based
- I use the rules for my advances
  • football
  • basketball
Reinforced methods
  • Politics
  • Laws
  • regulations
Game Based
- I succeed simply by playing the game
  • soccer
  • dance
  • hackeysack
Reinforced methods

  • Production
  • Science
  • Engineering
  • relationships

The American preference for playing the rules, using the litigation, shows up in the quantity of the unproductive, counterproductive, and parasitic, schemes that dominate our economy and political system. We show a clear preference for the schemes over the productivity of labor, education, and engineering. One only needs to watch American rules football to realize that we are a very litigious society. The cost of the litigation burdens down, and even stops, the potential action of the sport, and gains of real work. And again, this is the way Americans deep down believe that it really should be, and we celebrate that belief in our sports.

Sports may be characterized by action, such as European football called soccer in the States. Or they may be characterized by suspense, such as American football or baseball.


  • soccer


  • football
  • baseball
  • productive work
  • litigation
  • stock market
  • get rich quick schemes
Again, much like the American tendency to play the rules, instead of the game, suspenseful games reflect the American scheming behaviors, and the hope to affect a sudden change in fortune. And again, the greatest gains for society overall come from the action of real work.

There are different ways that individuals may contribute to the group as a whole. We can all act together as one unit, we can each contribute or own best efforts to the team, or we can simply play as individuals.

Group is a unit

  • synchronized swimming
  • dance
  • acrobatics

Individual efforts support group

  • ball team sports
  • hackey sack


  • golf
  • tennis (singles)
  • some heavy labor
  • Most jobs
  • Education (ideal)
  • relationships
  • Education (real)

In this case, the American preference for individual effort benefiting the group as a whole is the most productive choice in most situations. It works well in our sports, and it works well in our lives.


Overall, Americans prefer militaristic, oppositional, selfish gain sports over cooperative egalitarian sports. Similarly, our thinking is militaristic, oppositional, and selfish in most scenarios. We are at least willing to "give it our all," for the success of our own team. We might produce greater good for a greater number of people if we could only change our focus to positive-sum, cooperative thinking.