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In some competitive environments, the zero-sum comparison may not be explicitly measurable by the community at large. For example, imagine a community of players ranked according to performance. Participants are only shown a leaderboard of the top 10 players. In a large community, where the bottom end of the range is essentially unknown, many ranks lack context. (Is 4,557 a good rank?)
Yet it's naïve to assume that just because the zero-sum is not clearly expressed, it doesn't exist. Players will fill in the blanks by estimating their success, and often not accurately. Imagine in this community there is only one measure of success: being on the leaderboard or off the leaderboard. If the actual size of the community is 10,000 players and only 10 players appear on the leaderboard, there is a strong implication to 9990 of the players that they are losers.
The takeaway is players have a tendency to seek out the zero-sum, whether you make it explicit or not.
A competition which is not zero-sum is not truly a competition against other players but actually a competition against a system. Although players' progress may be compared, they are measured against universal thresholds and not relatively.
An example is a college course that does not grade on a curve. The advantage of non zero-sum is that it does not require losers. A possible disadvantage is that some of the thrill might be removed from winning if it is possible for everyone to win.
Not all competitions are "fair" -- meaning not all competitors start the competition with an equal opportunity to win. But games, as a form of entertainment, almost always strive to be fair, meaning all players start with a roughly equal opportunity of victory. The only unfairness in games should be the player's innate natural ability (i.e. physical skill, mental talent, etc).
An alternate means of breaking fairness that has been turning up lately, is buying an advantage. While this can be profitable for the game's maker, it is potentially dangerous to the integrity of the game if it weakens the significance of the other forms of competition (tactics, skill, etc).
The profitability of most social games is based on buying advantages. In most cases, money seems to be most acceptable as a replacement for time and this may not be unusual; in a world of hourly wages, we are already conditioned to perceive time and money as analogous.
Almost everybody likes to win and very few enjoy losing. The very reason that competition is so appealing -- the thrill of victory -- creates an equal opportunity for being unappealing -- the shame of defeat.
Some social games have managed to create the illusion of a zero-sum situation in what is actually an "everyone wins" situation. Bluntly, this means hiding failures by "paying off" defeats from the game system itself. For example, if this technique was used in Monopoly, the bank would help players by paying the majority of their debt every time they landed on a rival's property.
One consequence of this technique is an inflating game economy, another is a game that will never end (the latter being desirable in a social game).
Probably more than any other topic covered in this series, competition is the aspect of fun most strongly associated with games. If there is one thing competition does to a non-game activity, it's make it feel like a game.
It's also incredibly easy to accomplish -- simply measuring a behavior and comparing it between participants implies a competition -- so it may be perceived as an easy gamification win. But as I mentioned at the start of this discussion, competition can be highly emotional and therefore cause stress.
It's one thing to include competition as an expected part of a game, it's entirely something else to have competition appear in a non-competitive activity, such as running errands, or donating your time.
For better or worse, competition changes the entire context of a behavior or activity and this change should not be taken lightly.
A study of the desire for autonomy:American Psychological Association
Brenda Brathwaite's GDC talk on Train