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Q&A: What is a positive sum game?

Geoff Riley

4th April 2009

A positive sum game refers to the outcome of a decision or a policy or a negotiation involving at least one agent. And in this outcome a positive sum game occurs when no one wins at someone else’s expense - indeed the sum of positives and negatives (wins and losses) is positive.

A good example of this are the mutually beneficial gains from trade in goods and services between nations. If businesses or (more generally) countries can find a terms of trade in which both parties benefit then specialisation and trade can lead to an overall improvement in the economic welfare of both countries.

Many environmental campaigners believe that countries should do more to recognise the benefits of cooperation in designing policies and incentives to mitigate the impact of climate change. Surely there are positive sum games from agreement on strategies to lower C02 emissions for example by promoting innovation and the diffusion of technological change?

At a micro economic level positive sum games might be discussed in the context of negotiations between employees and employers or businesses in an oligopoly recognising their mutual interdependence and agreeing to cooperate in ways such as joint research projects (legal under EU competition law). Joint ventures are good examples of businesses understanding the power of collabborrative ventures.

A good recent example of this is the joint venture agreed by O2 and Vodafone to build and share new network sites together. They will share the masts, antennas, cabinets and power supply, as well as consolidate their existing G and 3G masts.

Geoff Riley

Geoff Riley FRSA has been teaching Economics for over thirty years. He has over twenty years experience as Head of Economics at leading schools. He writes extensively and is a contributor and presenter on CPD conferences in the UK and overseas.

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