In a zero-sum game or situation, all the gains and losses sum to zero (that is, they add up to zero). The winners win things only because the losers lose things.

In other words, something zero-sum (like a game or a situation) involves people “winning,” or getting advantages, only when other people are “losing,” or getting disadvantages.


Part of speech:
Adjective: “this zero-sum game,” “that zero-sum attitude.”

Other forms:
The opposite is “non-zero-sum,” which describes games and situations that involve some amount of cooperation instead of pure competition.

How to use it:
Talk about zero-sum games, struggles, conflicts, competitions, scenarios, situations, circumstances, etc.

Or, talk about zero-sum thinking, notions, attitudes, assumptions, terms, etc.

Although “zero-sum” can simply be a factual description, it’s often a criticism. That is, we talk about refusing to accept something as a zero-sum game, or rejecting the idea that some situation is a zero-sum game. Or we ask, “When exactly did this become some zero-sum game? We ought to work together.”

That’s because zero-sum thinking is often simple, black-and-white, them-versus-us, lacking nuance and ignoring the fact that sometimes, our interests overlap, our resources can be shared, and our cooperation is possible, even if we’re competitors.

“Rachman shows how zero-sum logic is thwarting efforts to deal with global problems from Afghanistan to unemployment, climate change to nuclear proliferation.”
— Simon and Schuster, introducing Gideon Rachman’s book Zero-Sum Future: American Power in an Age of Anxiety, 2011

“In the zero-sum game where every student who is admitted negates one who is not, Reeves said college admissions beg the question of who the elite institutions exist to serve.”
— Andrew Keiper, Fox News, 14 March 2019