Be successful, but not too successful. This is the lesson of the zero-sum game. The moment that the success of one threatens the existence of the others all bets are off. When the chips are down, states will do what it takes to survive.

It’s old-school, I know, but I have been an avid player of Sid Meier’s Civilization strategy games for over two decades. The fourth, fifth, and sixth instalments have never quite, with their more cartoonish elements, tickled my fancy. The 1991 original, as dated as it is, is excellent if all you’re looking for is a game of chess, but two and three have integrated the necessity of natural and strategic resources, and have developed the idea of diplomacy. Okay, it’s hardly a qualification in political science or conflict studies, but, all the same – as far as games go – they are useful for honing one’s strategic thinking.

At the beginning of the game, at the year 4000 BC, with a settler unit and a worker, an unexplored world and a vast area for expansion, the player’s world is rich with natural resources for a growing civilisation. Eventually, as your culture spreads over the map, you collide with other players and your world becomes limited with international borders. Ultimately the realisation dawns that you are stuck with the resources you have, and what you don’t have – as your technological advancement progresses – you will either have to do without or find a way to trade for them (war is a possibility, but too many enemies make for a short game).


At this stage of the game the player finds him or herself in a more realistic modern geopolitical landscape; with some nations doing better than others. Once everyone has gone past the Stone Age and the breech loading rifle forms of defence into the industrial and modern age, certain resources become the be-all and end-all of survival – oil, rubber, uranium, and such like. These are limited resources, and not everyone will have them. When their usefulness becomes apparent a race to acquire them begins, and the losers will soon find themselves wiped from the map and from history.

As limited and essential resources they become the proof of Thomas Piketty’s thesis that the net result of all international trade is zero; once all trade and asset gains and losses have been calculated the result is a perfectly balanced zero – what one player gains is gained at the expense of every other player. This is then a simulation of the present geopolitical zero-sum game. Resources secured by Europe or the United States, in the Middle East for example, are gained at Russia and China’s loss. Russia has oil and gas resources, but – as in the game – such resources are money in the bank; superpower states are made of nations with stored assets and access to the use of foreign resources. Exclusion from this club is fatal in the project of winning the game.

By controlling the lion’s share of global oil resources one state forces those states that have oil to use their own, thus making them less likely to offer it in trade. It forces those without oil to buy at the price it sets. We see this right now with the US, Europe, and OPEC driving the price of oil south; on the one hand the US and the EU are trying to undermine the Russian economy and on the other OPEC is working to regain its price-setting monopoly. Here at least the game is not so far from reality – it is a rather basic mathematical principle.

This zero-sum game has an even darker side. These winner-takes-all games, like poker, in the end lead only to a show-down. As the geographical expansion of states has come to an end, the only avenues now available for expansion are consumption and finance. Rising population dictates increased use of oil, therefore increasing demand. Financial markets too are heavily dependent on global oil prices to ensure the economic stability of the state. The result of this is that the necessity of oil tends to the absolute, and, with its scarcity, states must behave increasingly more aggressively in their competition for it. Again, this is undeniably the case in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Syria and Libya.

In a particularly successful eight-hour game of Civilization III, playing as the Byzantine Empire, my strategy was total domination; playing the power game. Having secured a whole third of the playable map before being hemmed in, I worked for the remainder of the game to control all of the map’s oil resources. This, I had thought, would ensure victory – with only my civilization able to produce modern weaponry and city improvement. I was wrong, and this too is something that we are seeing in the real world: The very moment I secured the complete monopoly over oil every AI player declared war on me – all fifteen of them.

In that moment I had forced the end result of the geopolitical zero-sum game, the moment when everyone at the table has to go “all in” or die. Computer programmes are purely logical algorithms, and the AI knew that from the moment one player had all the oil the winner was decided. Before I could consolidate my holdings and protect my assets my empire was overrun from all sides. It’s not a qualification in international relations, but it is an illuminating insight into the logical behaviour of real state powers today. Oil is not running out soon, and so long as a few continue to increase their share of the whole we will see increasing violence over black gold.

OPEC vs Russia vs N.America shale sector oil war: ‘More pain in near term’

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