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In game theory and economic theory, zero-sum describes a situation in which a participant's gain or loss is exactly balanced by the losses or gains of the other participant(s). If the total gains of the participants are added up, and the total losses are subtracted, they will sum to zero. Zero-sum can be thought of more generally as constant sum where the benefits and losses to all players sum to the same value of money (or utility). Cutting a cake is zero- or constant-sum, because taking a larger piece reduces the amount of cake available for others. In contrast, non-zero-sum describes a situation in which the interacting parties' aggregate gains and losses is either less than or more than zero. Zero-sum games are also called strictly competitive.



The zero-sum property (if one gains, another loses) means that any result of a zero-sum situation is Pareto optimal (generally, any game where all strategies are Pareto optimal is called a conflict game).[1]

Situations where participants can all gain or suffer together are referred to as non-zero-sum. Thus, a country with an excess of bananas trading with another country for their excess of apples, where both benefit from the transaction, is in a non-zero-sum situation. Other non-zero-sum games are games in which the sum of gains and losses by the players are sometimes more or less than what they began with.

The concept was first developed in game theory and consequently zero-sum situations are often called zero-sum games though this does not imply that the concept, or game theory itself, applies only to what are commonly referred to as games.


For 2-player finite zero-sum games, the different game theoretic solution concepts of Nash equilibrium, minimax, and maximin all give the same solution. In the solution, players play a mixed strategy.


A game's payoff matrix is a convenient representation. Consider for example the two-player zero-sum game pictured at right.

The order of play proceeds as follows: The first player (red) chooses in secret one of the two actions 1 or 2; the second player (blue), unaware of the first player's choice, chooses in secret one of the three actions A, B or C. Then, the choices are revealed and each player's points total is affected according to the payoff for those choices.

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