The Game of Community

Below are the notes to a speech given to the Rotary Club of Red Hook, NY.

Speech Notes

Red Hook — from NYC almost 3 years ago — bought home — more for your $ — but also to set down roots > community RH has a lot of potential for community To really understand community > cooperation — to really understand cooperation > games

Games — aim is to win, to do well — but different kinds of games

Chess, football, most games we play, someone has to lose — one player wins because the other loses Pervasive in our culture — competition, beat the other person, the other company, winner and losers, haves and have-nots — Zero sum — +1, -1 = 0.

But — blackjack? Roulette? Many players can play, all aim to win, and it’s possible they all can. Fundamentally different kind of game. Players don’t play against each other. The source of a good score — money, points, whatever — comes from another party, like a banker, like the house at a casino. Non-zero sum — because add up all players’ scores, doesn’t have to just balance out to 0 — not necessarily loser whenever there is a winner.

Game theorists, biologists, economist, psychologists, lots of people have studied these games and: 1) Non-zero sum games reflect a whole lot of what goes on in the world. 2) Any outcome is possible. Not only win-lose or lose-win, but also lose-lose — and also win-win. All depends on how everyone involved plays the game. 3) The best way for a player to do well overall is to cooperate with the other players — and to achieve a win-win.

Our culture, though, is so used to playing win-lose that even in non-zero sum games, we see only the zero-sum possibilities within it. We only see one player winning while the other one loses. Tunnelvision. Literally don’t see other possible outcomes — lose-lose or win-win.

Stock markets. Winners & losers. World economy — First World / Third World. As if against each other. But not!

Most of the inequality in the world — economic, political, on scales from the national down to even relationships among just a few people, can be explained by this — by simply playing according to certain strategies. Play selfishly and without consideration for all possible outcomes.

Sometimes we do win, but always at someone else’s loss. Even worse is that when multiple players all play selfishly in a non-zero sum game, the most likely result is, in the long run, lose-lose.

But if we can step back and see these games for what they are, we can see the other possibilities. And we can adjust our strategy to get a better outcome. A win-win. And the key is cooperation. Playing in ways so that what’s good for you is good for me. Robert Axelrod — study — discovered these principles.

Hallmarks of cooperative strategy: 1) Be nice — never be 1st to play selfishly 2) Reciprocate both selfish play and cooperative play — in other words, be nice but don’t be a pushover. 3) Be forgiving — in other words, don’t be a pushover, but don’t hold a grudge. If someone comes back around to cooperative play, go with it. Repressing your bad feelings and being nice every time someone takes advantage of you is a good way to get an ulcer — but so is holding a grudge. 4) Be clear and simple — the only way other people can learn to cooperate with you is if they understand what you’re doing. Complicated strategies, and especially strategies that attempt to sneak selfish play in the midst of what seems to be cooperation, end up not doing as well as simpler strategies that cooperate more straightforwardly. 5) Don’t be envious — don’t strive for more than the other player. It’s more important that you play for what satisfies you personally instead of comparing your performance to others. In the end, everyone will do well.

Interesting: Self-organized. Arises spontaneously, no need for central authority taking control to make people cooperative. And even arises when people look out for themselves. Create the right circumstances, and even players who are overly opposed to each other can end up cooperating. E.g.: World War I trench warfare — English and Germans.

Ways to encourage cooperative behavior: 1) Increase the length of the interaction. How long the game goes isn’t itself important, so long as the players don’t know when it will end. The longer each player thinks the game may last, the more inclined they’ll be forge a cooperative relationship with a fellow player. 2) Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Find even a small group to start. Because some subtle details of the theory show that: -Even a few people cooperating can take hold within an overall selfish environment -Once taken hold, the strategy can spread -And once spread, more selfish strategies can’t reverse the process

Seems to me that a small town like Red Hook is an ideal place for this kind of thinking to take hold. People have set down roots, giving us plenty of opportunities to continue playing games together, and even small groups can start to make a real difference.

And the more we try to play cooperatively, the more we can actually help each other get rid of the tunnelvision most of our culture has. That means that we’ll start seeing more and more opportunities to cooperate where we didn’t even see them before. And the whole thing can just snowball, constantly changing, evolving and thriving more and more.

In the end, this is how we can really make community something more than just a word that refers to a place and the people that happen to live and work in it. Community will become what it’s really supposed to be — a group of people in mutually supportive relationships. And everyone will win.

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