"The only winning move is not to play" is a line from WOPR AI in the movie War Games. It's said after it's been set to play itself at tic-tac-toe and learned that tic-tac-toe is a stupid game which will always end in a draw between any competent players. WOPR then tries the same thing on Global Thermonuclear War and concludes that it has the same issue. While I have to wonder what the scoring criteria was it's clear that it didn't allow for a player to win with massive casualties. Hence the line. As a phrase it's probably better known and remembered than the whole rest of the movie and it's not hard to understand why.

There's a notion that most people have at least a passing familiarity with: zero-sum game. Zero sum games are the class of games where any gain made by one player comes with a proportional loss to the other player (or players). There are a finite number of points and when the number of points lost are subtracted from the number of points gained it always comes to zero. While I'm glad that this is a concept that I can reference with a lot of people it needs to be understood in the context that there are also negative-sum games, positive-sum games, and variable-sum games. Warfare is a negative-sum game in that it's really hard to conduct a war so that the world is better off in the direct aftermath. Trade is typically positive-sum since if Alice has doodads and needs widgets and Bob has widgets and needs doodads then they can just trade what they have for what they want and come out ahead. Variable-sum is anything where the net utility/points can be positive, negative, or zero. As a general rule society tries to discourage negative-sum activities like murder and arson and in the same fashion society should and usually does encourage positive-sum behaviors like starting a useful business or donating things you don't need.

It's a quirk of history that the formalization of decision making in conflict was called game theory. Games provide a clear starting place for decision making. The goal of the game is to win. It doesn't matter which game. Most games are competitive because that's compelling to humans. WOPR was built to play games. To be effective at the majority of games is to be effective at just about any task. But not every task is profitable and not every game worth playing. WOPR's learned this but even more it's shown that it has preferences about what makes a good game. That's a lesson worth remembering. It's not whether you win or lose, it's whether the games worth your time.


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