Zero Sum Games in Fiction


One of the most fascinating television programs I have ever seen is one called Fail Safe.  I did not see it when it first came out as I was a little too young to be interested in such programs and so I only watched it much later.   It was an interesting concept because although it appears to be a movie, it is in fact a television play (the difference is that this one was shot and broadcast live.)  The action basically revolves around a set of bombers which have been accidentally dispatched to bomb and which can’t be recalled because the pilots are trained to respond only in certain situations (there are spoilers ahead in case you want to watch this.)   Faced with the threat of a nuclear war the US president makes the decision to drop a nuclear bomb on New York City as a matter of proving he is serious that he means not to bomb Moscow, this equal exchange proving that he does not mean to start a war.   That his wife is in adds even more weight to this decision, but he realizes he has a responsibility to protect those he swore to, no matter the cost.  This in effect represents what a game theorist would call a zero sum game, in that both parties in the equation have either equal gains or equal losses (in this case equal losses).

Because it often contains a certain level of moral ambiguity the zero sum game is often danced around in fiction but often not delved very deeply into.   This is because of one of the very defining aspects of fiction is the concept of protagonist and antagonist.  In order to operate as it usually does, the protagonist should have some form of resolution to the plot.  Generally speaking it is the protagonist that is victorious, but in certain cases the antagonist wins (the Empire Strikes Back would be a good example.)  It is very rare though that a story ends with both sides staring wondering either how both lost or how both won.   In comics too this is a pretty much ignored concept as it is so hard to set up a story like this and then leave it undefined at the end.   There was one episode of Justice League Unlimited where Superman has to make a deal with Lex in order to stave off some crisis.   In this case though there is still a loser and that’s the unified enemy that provided a philosophical Hobson’s choice to Superman.   Perhaps the best example of a zero sum game though is the still mostly unresolved trade at birth of Mister Miracle for Orion.   In both cases a father lost a son in order to achieve a tenuous peace.   That both characters grew to be heroes is represented in their stories by the triumph of good over evil, but in terms of the choice from the point of view of Darkseid or the Highfather, they essentially lost the same thing (a son) and gained the same thing (peace.)    

The zero sum game as it is represented in fiction is therefore a tricky concept.  In the hands of the right writers it can be wielded adeptly to form a compelling story but for the reader the ambiguity and moral grey areas can either lead to fascination or frustration.  

2 Comments
2 Comments
Posted by MrUnknown

Zero sum could be used to highlight both the hero and the villain where their confrontation results in both getting what they want or neither. Not every story needs a close and lately the villains have just lost so easily so this would be interesting to see more.
P.S. Don't you mean Kalibak instead of Mister Miracle?

Posted by RazzaTazz
@MrUnknown: Ah cool, someone replied to this one.  It could be a well used plot device, but it is hard to pull off I think.  It would need a solid writer with a good concept.   
 
Mister Miracle is the son of the Highfather and was raised in Granny Goodness's orphanage (why would I be thinking of that recently?).  Orion was the son of Darkseid and was raised on New Genesis.