When life isn’t a zero-sum game…


I’m grateful for Charlie Collier, theological editor at Wipf and Stock, for many reasons, but today I’m thankful he told me to see the move Arrival. He had me when he said it had game theory in it.

First off, the movie is great. Like…fantastic. So, if you haven’t seen it, you should. And you should stop reading, because I’m giving you a solid SPOILER ALERT. There. You have been warned.

Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist asked by the army to make contact with these aliens, called heptapods due to their creepy seven legs, who have parked their giant ships at various points around the earth.

As you might imagine giant alien spaceships hovering above the earth tend to freak people out. And for good reason. Anyone who knows anything about aliens from movies knows they might want to destroy us, or worse…probe us. So often we view our relationship with the Other as a zero-sum game, a conflicted relationship in which one person wins, or gains, to the extent that another loses.

John Von Neumann and Oskar Morganstern created the field of game theory precisely analyze the best way to negotiate these zero-sum games. In 1928 Von Neumann proved his minimax theorem that provides a solution for every zero-sum game played by two people. To be sure some conflicts are best understood as zero-sum games. When nations experience the total conflict of war, one nation triumphs only to the degree to which their enemy loses. Everyone didn’t get a trophy at the end of WWI or WWII. And, it’s true that some highly competitive business situations, and I emphasize the word some, are best viewed as a zero-sum game. When companies are competing for an extremely valuable bid, for instance, only one of them will win the contract. The others will lose out on the opportunity.

So, it’s understandable that the nations of the world view the alien invasion through the lens of a zero-sum game. Because of our inability to communicate well with them, it certainly was possible that we were stuck in an us vs. them situation, where only one species was going to survive. But the possibility that this was the case doesn’t make it so. And one of the most challenging things about the nature of zero-sum game behavior is that acting according to the logic of zero-sum can often transform a more potentially cooperative setting into a conflicted one. In the movie when Russia and China behave belligerently, cutting off communication with the other nations and provoking the aliens, the other nations follow suit. An American soldier also goes rogue and attempts to the blow up the aliens. In most situations if the aliens were on the fence as to whether to annihilate us or not…that kind of behavior would seal the deal.

But the actual reality of the situation is the aliens didn’t desire conflict. They wanted connection. The heptopods don’t conceive of time in a linear way as humans do but are able to see into what we consider the past, present, and the future all at once. They knew that in 3,000 years they would require the help of humanity. So, they showed up to make contact and to give us the gift of their language. The heptopods weren’t playing a zero-sum game but a positive-sum game, meaning a relationship in which one party doesn’t have to lose in order for the other to gain.

At one point in the movie Dr. Bank’s daughter asks her about the word for a game in which a person doesn’t have to lose and Bank’s tells her a non-zero sum game. This was not only the game the aliens were playing, but it was the kind of game Dr. Bank’s ultimately has to play with China in order to create the conditions for cooperation. By learning the language of the aliens Dr. Banks is also able to see into the future and the past, and she winds up communicating with the Chinese leader telling him the dying words of his wife: “Wars don’t create winners; only widows.” Because she reached out to him in this way, because she acted in a sharing, cooperative way, he reciprocated causing China to stand down.

Most situations in life aren’t zero-sum games. Most are positive sum games. One of the first things a child learns, or should learn, is that love isn’t an exhaustible, scarce commodity. I can love one of my children fully without loving the rest of them any less.

One of the most dangerous and pernicious beliefs in the world today is the religious view that other’s views have to be wrong in order for mine to be right. Most Christians I know were raised to believe faith is a zero-sum game. God has a limited amount of love and tolerance, and so we had better be on the right team…or else. And the liberal reaction to this, that all religions just represent different paths to the same goal, is really just the other side of that coin. While I prefer this view, the all-paths-lead-to-the-same-truth sacrifice the alterity, the difference of religious traditions for the sake of peace.

What I believe is that faith is a positive-sum game. Our traditions really are different, and thank goodness for this. Christianity is not the same as Islam or Buddhism. Other people are not, as Karl Rahner would have had it, merely “anonymous Christians.” (How offensive.) Rather, the people of the world do believe fundamentally and qualitatively different things. AND, God is spacious enough to not need one tradition to be wrong in order for another to be right.

In Arrival the fate of the world hinged on whether humanity was able to learn this fast enough. The move was science fiction; for us, however, this is very much a reality and a fact.