Competitive vs. Collaborative:

Game Theory and Communication Games



Eddie McKenna

Male Female Communications East and West

Dr. Professor Franklin Southworth



People play games with one another.  Not just Scrabble, but real life communication games, with unwritten rules.  Both sides are making certain moves in order to elicit certain moves from others, winning if and when they get what they want.  But what do they want?  How do they go about getting what they want?  And what are the rules of the game?  These are issues that are divided along gender lines, and are also connected to game theory.  The following paper will discuss common communication games, as well as goals of the games. It will discuss strategies for “winning” these games, as well as rules of the games.  The focus will be on how all of these issues differ between males and females, as well as on possible solutions to some of the conflicts that have arisen as a result of these differences.  Everything game related begins with a mathematical term known as game theory... 

What’s in a Game, Anyway?

Game theory is a branch of applied mathematics fashioned to analyze certain situations in which there is an interplay between parties that may have similar, opposed, or mixed interests. In a typical game, decision-making "players," who each have their own goals, try to outsmart one another by anticipating each other's decisions; the game is finally resolved as a consequence of the players' decisions. A solution to a game prescribes the decisions the players should make and describes the game's appropriate outcome. Game theory serves as a guide for players and as a tool for predicting the outcome of a game. Although game theory may be used to analyze ordinary parlor games, its range of application is much wider.                                                                         -Encyclopedia Britannica

When a parent tells a child to “come here,” and the child obliges, the parent has played (and won) a game.  The reason this is a game is that the parent has a desired outcome and has made a certain strategic decision, anticipating a decision by the child which will bring about that outcome.  It all goes back to game theory, and it works the same way with roles reversed.  When a child misbehaves, and the parent pays attention, the child has played (and won) a game.  This is in fact even more of a game, because it requires more than one move in order to win what the child wants.  The child has a desired outcome, attention, and has made a move with the knowledge that it will elicit a reactionary move that will bring about that desired outcome.  This game playing is everywhere: in the media, in a business, in a marriage. 

Dr. David Berne’s Games People Play goes into detail about what exactly constitutes a game in communication.  First come rituals, which are automatic, trained responses.  For example, when one person says “Hi,” the other will say “Hi” back, and it is not so much a game as a ritual (16).  Pastimes are “semiritualistic  topical conversation,” such as talking about the weather.  Beyond these two types of “social programming,” however, “individual programming” (17) takes over, and all interaction may be analyzed in terms of game theory. 

Many games are contests in which players compete against each other, and each side desires a different outcome.  These are the situations that lead to fighting problems among married couples.  I interviewed Sue Walker, MFCC (Marriage, Family, and Child Counselor) about the patients she sees.  I asked if he had ever encountered situations where each side wants something, and they think that only one of them can have what they want.  She said, “All the time.” 

                                                Desired Outcomes

Males and females have a different understanding of what constitutes winning, because in terms of game theory, to win is to achieve the desired outcome, to get what one wants.  And males and females often want different things.  We have two different threads here, with regard to GENERAL gender differences in game playing goals.  The first difference is that men are more competitive, and women are more collaborative.  Ms. Walker agrees.  From what she has observed, males do measure their success on how close they are to getting their way, and women for the most part do measure theirs on how successfully they reach a mutually beneficial solution.  Barbara Tannen’s stance supports this view.  It is her belief that males “try to achieve and maintain the upper hand if they can, and protect themselves from others’ attempts to put them down.” (25, Different Worlds, Different Words) Females, by contrast, believe that “conversations are negotiations for closeness in which people try to seek and give confirmation and support, and to reach consensus.”

       On the small scale, the competition in these kinds of situations is over who gets to be in the driver’s seat of the car or, to use the business world equivalent, over whose idea is chosen by the company to be put into practice.  Dr. Steve Weiner, the second MFCC that I interviewed, has observed similar competition among the couples he’s worked with, particularly over who gets to be in control of money, and also over who’s going to make up the rules for the children.  On the grand scale, this kind of competition is over power. 

Both Dr. Weiner and Ms. Walker made reference to and went into detail about a game known as the great “power struggle.”  Females are competing for more power than they have currently, and males are battling a) not to relinquish that power and b) to take more power whenever possible.   This classification of game is known in Dr. Berne terms as “crossed transaction… the one which causes, and has always caused, most of the social difficulties in the world, whether in marriage, love, friendship, or work…(30).”  Dr. Berne likes to make the female the stupid one and the male the slightly less stupid one in his examples, but it is still possible to get beyond the sexism of decades past to some valuable knowledge.  For example, by reading about a game called “frigid woman,” we may better understand the term “existential advantage,” (56) the one gained when one’s original ideas are validated. The woman begins with the preconceived notion that either all men are beasts, her husband only loves her for sex and not for herself.  The goal of this game is proving herself right, and the gaining of this existential advantage is her victory. (98)

But there is a second difference.  Even when males and females are playing a collaborative game, when the grand scale desired goals are more similar, there is still a general difference in understanding of what constitutes achievement of that goal.  As a result problems can arise here too.  Ms. Walker observed that “Men talk to solve problems, and women want to resolve issues.”  John Gray, he of the Mr. Fix-It theory, agrees with her wholeheartedly.  “She wants empathy, he thinks she wants solutions,” is a view similar to the point Ms. Walker has conveyed.  (15, Men Are From Mars, Women are from Venus) Dr. Weiner takes a similar position as well: “Men are looking for information, and women are looking for feelings.”   Whether the desired outcome of the collaborative games soon to be discussed has more to do with either successful communication of ideas or solutions to problems will depend on the gender of the participant. 

As each specialist was quick to stress, generalizations are very often not the case.  However, when numerous published authorities and two specialists of different genders have made similar observations from their work, a certain amount of validity is added.  Their examples will describe the accompanying difference in technique that supports their theory. One can only hope that the observations of the professionals are indeed what have led to their beliefs, and that it is not the other way around.


            Let us assume that observations of gender differences in strategy and technique are what the MFCCs  have used as the basis for their beliefs about the differences in goals.  It is therefore only natural for one to reflect the other.  These techniques are detailed examples of some of the types of games mentioned earlier, with the focus on the differences in how the genders play the same game.

To elaborate on her observation regarding the difference between male and female goals, Ms. Walker put forth a hypothetical scenario in which a wife comes home livid, and she starts to complain about her boss. She then acted out the scenario first with another female, and then with the husband.   Her female responds to this expression of unhappiness by saying something like, “That’s terrible.  You shouldn’t have to be treated like that.”  The female has made this move anticipating that these words will make the other woman feel better, which is her desired outcome.  The wife’s husband, on the other hand, responded to her unhappiness by saying “Well, why don’t you quit?”  The male has made this move anticipating that these words will solve his wife’s problem.  The male and the female each think they are doing the right thing for the wife.  In both cases, the goal is altruistic; there is no power struggle afoot here.  But there is a difference in these altruistic goals.  This difference is mirrored by the difference in technique.  The female’s technique was to try to allow the wife to get the problem off her chest, thereby resolving the issue, and the male’s technique was to try to solve the problem.  The problem with using the male’s technique to achieve the female’s desired outcome, or vice-versa, is that it doesn’t work.

Dr. Weiner elaborated on his facts-versus-feelings observation with the example of a new car.  If a person gets a new car, a female will want to talk more about whether the owner likes it or not, because her goal is to let the owner talk about what she thinks the owner would like to discuss.  A male will try to find out how much it was, how many CDs the changer in the trunk holds, and what the horsepower is, because this is what he thinks the owner wishes to discuss.


Several techniques are used during driving.  Dr. James did a study on male driving issues.  The doctor’s conclusions are based on a yellow light running test, a street crossing test, and a survey on driving habits.  What he found was that “the (dangerous) driver sees risky vehicle use as a way off showing power, a method of claiming superiority over "slower" drivers, and so the activity of driving becomes a subtle but more dangerous form of competition.” Dr. James found that males practiced more frequent “risky vehicle use.” 

Dr. James is saying that males treat driving as, in addition to merely a form of transportation, a technique for playing “power struggle.” The outcome they desire is to get ahead of the other drivers, and the subsequent establishment of higher status.  Risky vehicle use is a means to this end.

There is a second technique that males employ to win this game, and it can be perceived either in competitive or collaborative terms.  Put in Barbara Tannen’s terms, “The chivalrous man who … signals a woman to go ahead of him when he’s driving is negotiating both status and connection.” (34, You Just Don’t Understand)  Thus in allowing a female driver to enter ahead of him, a male is making a tactical decision which will simultaneously win himself favor with the woman and establish his own higher status, both of which are desirable outcomes.  The female will react, as the male anticipates, by accepting the offer, and very likely, also as he anticipates, with a gesture of appreciation.  However, he will at the same time know that “the woman gets to proceed not because it is her right but because he has granted her permission.” Thus, he will have gained power over her.  Furthermore, his preconceived notion that he is the more powerful one will be reinforced, and so the male will feel he has gained an existential advantage as well.

 Many games in the office make for fine illustrations of competition over power.  Diane Compagno’s “Gender Communications – Entering the Lion’s Den” observes that females are often “ignored at a meeting… frequently interrupted during a presentation… left out of conversations…” It is clear that the outcome of these actions is that females will be heard less.  These actions result in females having less power.  Happily, this is the game that never ends.  Females will make a countermove, and this female’s essay is all about guidance as to just what that move should be. “One, you can feel completely overwhelmed… two, you can initiate a new topic and hope it catches their interest.  Or three, you can learn about some basic interests of your male counterparts…” These are tactics!  These are ways of achieving a desired goal.  Ms. Compagno favors the third option.  If males play it like that, then females will play it back.  “There are times when you will want to get your professional point of view across- and they are your audience.”  Even if women want to collaborate, and would prefer not to compete with their coworkers, they have to.  If they want respect, they have to make a few moves in order to get it, if only to counter the status lowering effects of moves made by the males.

          In a similar vein, the Associated Press’s “Who’s Rude at Work?” study found that 70% of communication that resulted in decreased work effort, loss of work time due to worrying, or quitting was initiated by males.  This is the same technique at work.  It is clear that these actions will result in the females’ working less effectively, thereby dropping them down further in the power struggle positioning, and that is the desired outcome.  Have the females prepared a countermove? Absolutely.  “ ‘Our goal is to make organizations more aware of this,’ said study coauthor Christine Pearson.” (1, Associated Press, “Who’s Rude at Work?”)  The technique of spreading awareness would result, presumably, in a decrease in male rudeness, which would allow the females to gain the power that was being taken from them, and as we already established, that is the desired outcome.

            My mother, a lawyer, has a special strategy to be used only in cases where she is dealing with a male lawyer on the other side, particularly the kind whose technique is to refuse to yield or admit that any idea is better than his own.  In order to circumvent this strategy, Ms. Perlman gets the terms she wants by cleverly leading the male to think that he is the one who thought of them.  That way, the male will still think he has the upper hand… even though he doesn’t.  For in reality, Ms. Perlman will have won the game of “negotiate.” Her desired outcome is clear to her, she makes certain tactical decisions anticipating the reactionary decisions of the other, and she reaches the contractual terms she desires.

            The general trend, so far, is that the male technique to competitive game playing seems to involve making moves more directly at females, and the female technique seems to involve more indirect techniques.  Dr. Weiner’s simplification (and he stresses that it is a simplification) is that where technique is concerned, “the male is more overt.  The female is more covert.”  Hence, he says, if a male spends a great deal of money one day, and his desired goal is to have this not be a problem for his wife, he begins by saying “I spent $500 today.”  If a female spends a great deal of money, and her desired goal is to have this not be a problem for her husband, she says, “…………(nothing).”  This example of differing techniques is consistent with the others.  In all cases, the males go right at the females; they interrupt them, they exclude them, they ignore them, and at their most megalomaniacal, they may even harass them.  The females go around the males; they do not respond by shouting louder.  Rather, they counter stealthily, either by adopting a disguise, in which they talk about topics they are not interested in, or by reporting their problems to outside organizations.  Each of these techniques is bound and shaped by the rules, a gray area which, when crossed, will cause the other side protest.


The rules have a great deal to do with David Berne’s “established rituals.”  The paramount condition is what Dr. Berne calls “local acceptability,” (17) meaning that much of this ritual communication is part of politeness.  Games are bound by rules of politeness.

The differences in rules are the primary cause of both the differences in communication goals and communication techniques.  For the genders are not only aware of but also conditioned by these rules.  Thus, the ways they play and the prizes they play for are bound and guided.  When the old rules are broken frequently, causing a shift in the balance of power, the aforementioned protestations begin.  The last-ditch effort made by the other side to stop this gain/loss in power is to create a negative stereotype.

For example, females have “learned to cajole and please.” (Sarah Cook. Women in Higher Education, “Pilot Course Teaches the Gender Difference in Communication”) This is a rule they have been taught, and it has influenced them.  It is also a serious impediment to their competitive game playing.  Cajoling and pleasing is the opposite of competing.  Due to the fact that this rule has been broken frequently and is being changed, a stereotype has formed in which competitive women are viewed as unwomanly (even though they aren’t).  Because they do not want to be perceived this way, many competitive women do other things to compensate.

            One such compensation is disrobing.  As The Times Picayune’s Mark O’Keefe points out in “ Skin Games,” a plethora of famous female athletes have appeared publicly in various states of undress.  Swimmer Jenny Thompson appeared topless but covering herself with her arms, Canadian water polo player Waneek Horn-Miller posed nearly nude, the Australian soccer team has a nude calendar out, and there are many more.  These decisions come far more frequently from female athletes than they do from male athletes.  From a game theory standpoint, the strategy is to make an extra effort to cajole and please, and the desired outcome is that the female athletes will be perceived as being more womanly.  The reason female competitors employ this technique far more frequently than male competitors do is that males do not have this stereotype attached to competitiveness.  “Boys are trained to compete and win,” says Sara Cook.  If anything, society views their competitiveness as making them even manlier.  This is a perfect example of what I like to call “differential treatment.” Differential treatment means that the stereotype is different for each gender, and so even if the rules seem to be the same, they aren’t.  Differential treatment is the main reason males and females desire different things and employ different techniques to fulfill their desires.

Women playing games of a business nature face similar pressures, because they too are competitive females.   They too don’t want to be perceived as unwomanly, and they are influenced by the rules that have shaped them and the stereotype they wish to eradicate, deciding to use a more appeasing technique as compensation.  But then females run into problems from the other side of the spectrum.  First of all, they will most certainly, as Ms. Cook puts it, “make unwise promises or fail to take a hard line when necessary.”  Second, they will run right into a second stereotype!  Females who appease too much fall victim to just as undesirable a stereotype.  “[I]f women favor their nurturing side, they feel perceived as weak.” (1, Burton Nelson and S. Selinger, “Communication Skills are Women’s Competitive Edge,” About Women and Marketing)  This is what I like to call the “double standard,” the one in which women are bound by rules on either side into a tight little spot.  It is very difficult to develop a technique that is both effective in achieving desired outcomes and within these extremely narrow boundaries. 

            The current uneven distribution of power explains a lot of why the techniques and desires are different.  For if men are winning the game “power struggle,” they can push whatever stereotypes they please, and these will be the stereotypes that go into effect. That explains why women abide by the rules, and why the rules seems so weighted in favor of the male.  No woman would make up rules that put her at such a disadvantage.


                                                Dealing With the Problems

How do specialists attempt to resolve such problems?  By trying to change couple’s style of communication.  They’ll try to minimize the competition, to have people work together, not against each other.  Dr. Weiner says that couples use either “symmetrical communication” or “complimentary communication.”  The good part about symmetrical communication is that both sides are equal, and they “can stimulate each other mentally.”  The bad part is that each side feels entitled to everything, and this heightens competition. Complimentary communication has its merits as well, because at least “each side accepts their role,” but on the negative end one person, usually the male, dominates the other.  In the case of the husband who openly declares having spent $500, and the woman whose strategy is to say nothing when she does the same thing, “the reason is because she doesn’t have as much power.”  It is the specialist’s goal to develop a kind of communication between couples which has neither drawback.

            Ms. Walker too desires this outcome for her patients.  The technique she recommends is “active listening.”  While in her office, one person may never interrupt the other.  Each is encouraged to ask for clarification at the appropriate time, if necessary.  That way, each side will begin to understand the perspective of the other, and through this increase in working together, the desired outcome will draw nearer.  Dr. Berne’s “I’m okay, you’re okay” theory is the idea Ms. Walker uses to give this understanding a name.  Dr. Weiner expresses something similar.  “No matter what the problem is, there’s always shared responsibility.  Get them to acknowledge it.  That’s progress.”

If we view the developments in this game playing from one perspective, Ms. Pac Man makes an apt metaphor for the power struggle between males and females.  Pac Man is an electronic game in which a small yellow creature, the player, is pursued by ghosts with harmful intentions, and if the ghosts catch Ms. Pac Man, then Ms. Pac Man is taken out of commission.  Now for the metaphor: the ghost is the male counterpart.  Ms. Pac Man is the female counterpart.  For proof that the party with the pursuit technique is most often the male, see University of Pennsylvania Professor Franklin Southworth’s recent survey on the “dating” game.  0% of respondents of either gender prefer that the female call first, 0% prefer that the female ask for the first date, and 0% prefer that the female pay for dates.  Though admittedly a large number also had no preference, NONE of the respondents felt that the female should do the pursuing.

There is, however, a second stage, both in the game of Ms. Pac Man and in the game of life.  When Ms. Pac Man eats a special circle, the balance of power shifts.  Roles are reversed.  The hunter becomes the hunted.  The point is, the great female revolution, the one taking place now, is, like this aspect of Ms. Pac Man, a shift in the balance of power.  Women are gaining power, and men are losing it.  “Recall that in the case of a predator/prey relationship, one population enjoys an increased growth rate at the expense of another population.”  (Michael Best, Models For Interacting Populations of Memes: Competition and Niche Behavior) From the kill or be killed perspective, if there is to be a winner, then there must also be a loser.

On the other hand, if we view this power struggle from a different perspective, a new metaphor is needed.  From this perspective, the aspect of communication emphasized most is collaboration.  For purposes of marriage counseling, all practitioners interviewed favor emphasis on collaboration.  Dr. Weiner likens the difference in approaches to communication to the difference between singles tennis, where one participant tries to outperform the other, and doubles tennis, where the participants are on the same side.  It isn’t that the male way is bad and the female way is good, only that the “I’m trying to be better than you” way is bad.  If we stop seeing these two approaches as typically male or female, we will cease to understand changes as one gender’s gain and the other’s loss.  Which brings me to the final solution.


Mr. Wright Says: Non-Zero-Sumness


Non-zero-sumness is the game theory equivalent of what the specialists have been saying.  Robert Wright wrote in Time, “In zero-sum games, the fortunes of the players are inversely related…in highly non-zero-sum games the players interests overlap entirely.”  (1, “Games Species Play) His example is the game played by the three astronauts aboard Apollo 13, where “the outcome would be either equally good for all of them or equally bad.”  What this means is, this type of game is perfect for male female relationships. From the game theory perspective, ie logic, the reason this is the best course of action is that it satisfies the most wants simultaneously.  It has competition of the doubles tennis nature and collaboration of the problem solving nature AT THE SAME TIME.  None of the outcomes are undesirable, as they would be in the case of the children who choose to misbehave because they want attention, even though they do not enjoy getting in trouble.  Non-zero-sumness  represents a marriage of desired outcomes, a marriage of techniques, and a marriage of understandings of what constitutes winning.

Mr. Wright goes on to sing the praises of non-zero-sumness by highlighting the many arenas in our world where it is already proving effective, on the small scale.  “The very existence of communication—among cells via hormones, among ants via pheromones, among people via words – is owing to the non-zero-sumness that pervades life (2).” It pervades on the grand scale too, of course; the World Trade organization and the United Nations make economies and governments more and more interdependent, where the fate of one greatly affects the others. 

It is disadvantageous for the advancement of our species and for the advancement of male female communications to pit men and women against one another.  I think all sides can agree on that.




Wright, Robert. “Games Species Play.”  Time. Published 1/24/00.


Berne, David.  Games People Play.  Grove Press, Inc. 1954


Tannen, Barbara.  Different Words, Different Worlds


Gray, John.  Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus


Pearson, Christine.  “Who’s Rude at Work?  Men are, study finds.” Associated Press.


O’Keefe, Mark.  “Skin Games.” Times Picayune (New Orleans). Published September 24, 2000


Compagno, Diane.  “Gender Communications- Entering the Lion’s Den.” Women as Managers.  June 8, 1998.


Cook, Sarah.  “Pilot Course Teaches ‘The Gender Difference’ in Communication.  Women in Higher Education.  September 1997.


Selinger, S, Burton, Nelson.  “Communication Skills Are Women’s Competitive Edge.” About Women and Marketing.  Publisher: About Women, Inc.  July 1998.