The Red/Black Game

Warning, this is a long ethical discussion that has nothing to do with Steampunk 🙂 so you may want to skip today’s post if you’re not in the mood.


The Red/Black Game

Divide the room into 2 teams, team “A” and team “B”

Announce clearly and precisely that the object of the game is to accumulate the maximum number of positive points.

The game is played in a series of rounds. In each round, both teams must decide whether to play Red or Black. They can decide in any manner they want but the decision must be unanimous.

Scoring is as follows:

  • If team A plays black, and team B plays black, both teams get one point.
  • If team A plays black, and team B plays red, team A loses a point and team B gains a point.
  • The reverse is also true: if team A plays red to B’s black, then A gains a point and B loses one.
  • If both teams play red, both teams lose a point.

So as it turns out, there are only two possible choices each turn.

  • You can play black and hope the other team plays black, too. The result each turn is either both teams get a point, or you lose one and the other team gets one.
  • You can play red. When you play red, you either gain a point and the other team loses one, or you both lose a point, so neither side gains.

Every time I run this exercise—and I have been running it for over ten years—one of two results occurs. Either both teams play red from the beginning, or they both start black and one of them plays red two or three turns into it, and both sides play red from then on. I have never seen this game played out when either side ended with a positive total.

Of course, if you go back to the beginning, the object was to accumulate the maximum number of positive points. It was never stated that it was a competition between the two teams. By seeing it that way, they both ended up in the negative.

Every day we face this decision, in our interactions with other people. We live our life the way we play the Red/Black game. Some people bully the rest of the team into playing red. Others want to play black but keep quiet in the interest of not rocking the boat. Others determine that they will only play black with those who play black first.

Game theorists have studied this extensively (in another form known as the Prisoner’s Dilemma). They have determined that for a person to act in their own best interests, they must play “tit for tat”—play black until someone double crosses you, then play red until they have demonstrated they are willing to play black again. And isn’t that how we play it in real life?

The lesson the spiritual and the mystics try to teach is, play black—all black, all the time. Turn the other cheek. Love your neighbor. Do unto others as you would have done unto you. Pay it forward. It’s the same message, with religious dogma sprinkled on it, different flavors depending on who raised you.

So we tend to see the world in terms of black and white, good and evil. We’ve seen the Red/Black game models life, but there are three, not two, distinct patterns of behavior represented here:

The first, which I like to call “Good”, is to play black all the time in an altruistic effort to bring everyone eventually up to that level, and constantly increase the total amount of available points, so that everyone benefits as a group. That process is frequently called “Enlightenment.”

The second, which I call “Evil”, games the system to maximize self-interest by either playing red all the time, or playing black until the opportune moment to switch to red. Evil sees points as a scarce commodity and wants to make sure to “win” or gain at the very least their “fair share.”

The third behavior, “Neutral”, is the tit for tat group. Neutrals realize that neither black or red alone are winning strategies. Black get taken advantage of, and red eventually gets persecuted. So they play black as long as it works, and shift into red whenever it is necessary to maintain their game.

It’s my belief that the vast majority of people in the world are playing Neutral and spend a great deal of time convincing ourselves they are Good to avoid having to make the sacrifices that real Good players make. We place people like Mother Teresa on a pedestal and rationalize that they are a one in a million person who could live up to an impossible standard.

People often vilify organized religion, pointing out that with all these churches, synagogues, mosques and temples, the world doesn’t seem to be any more “good” than it was 2,000 years ago. The problem isn’t organized religion, it’s the people who join. I know Christians who have dedicated their lives to helping aids-stricken people in the gay and lesbian communities, and I know other Christians who have dedicated their lives to persecuting those same people. Not all Muslims are suicide bombers. And I know lots of wonderfully spiritual people who won’t step foot into a church.

What I believe happens is that we have a root belief structure, and it’s one of the three mentioned above: Good, Evil or Neutral. When we join a religion or a group, we look for one that is compatible with our root beliefs. And religions tend to have such complicated scriptural and dogmatic systems that it is possible to justify nearly any position by highlighting the verses you like and ignoring the ones you don’t.

The most common example is Colossians 3:18-19 from the Bible.

3:18 reads

Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.

Married men love to throw that one around. But it’s funny how they seem to miss the very next line:

Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.

At the end of it all, what really matters is the root belief structure. As long as we look at things like race, creed, religion, political party or sexual orientation as a person’s “label”, and let them mask the more important realities, we will never develop the trust and cooperation to move as a society from Neutral to Good.

Published in: on March 26, 2007 at 10:10 am  Comments (46)  

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  1. In college, I was in a class that played this game, and the example set was profound. The gameplay was organized around a diplomacy style, where people could stab you in the back at the last minute, and they would. Every. Damn. Time. In the end, the professor showed everyone up, and that exercise has stayed with me. Glad to have a name to put to that activity.

    BTW Madison, I’m seeing this:

    Divide the room into 2 teams, team “A” and team “B”

    Just so you know. Thanks!

    • Could you explain further on how the diplomacy was incorporated.

      • If you have the directions that would be great.

  2. When I played Red/Black many years ago there was a specific format drawn on a flip chart to play the game — I’d like to use it for a Teambuilding session — do you know where I can find the form? Thanks!

  3. I played this recently at a personal seminar and it has changed my outlook on life and the people around me, It is mind blowing and breaks down so many walls that we put up in our lifes

  4. Brian Klemmer uses red/black in his team building seminar. Awesome revelation, even when you know where it’s going. It hits you in the face and you wonder “why can’t everyone just get along”.

    Between red/black and Klemmer, combined with Pay it Forward and now “Rachel’s Challenge”, I have finally committed to challenging my own, small community to understand red/black and hopefully make it the staying course of our residents, ultimately benefiting the community in the very long term.

    • I played R&B in 2009 at Klemmer Personal Mastery Seminar in Auckland NZ. Profound insights gained though our facilitator, Dan Dorr. I often reflect on that Saturday afternoon…

  5. Hi, I played this game in a seminar as well and it was amazing. I want to play this in an economics class at my school. I was hoping if anyone had a copy of the scoreboard with the game score specifics.

  6. I played this amazing game at a seminar this winter and the results were amazing. I too would like to bring this game into my workplace to work on team building. Could you possibly send me a copy of the scoreboard and any other information about the game?

  7. To those who wrote they played this game in college or many years ago, please tell me how long ago that is exactly. I’m trying to trace the origins of this game. Thank you.

    • I played it at a Lifespring seminar in 1994.

      • Me too – LifeSpring- 1991
        Life – leadership – cooperation – compassion

    • LIfespring…1978

  8. A famous singer John Denver played this game and as soon as he get home wrote this following song… I wish you the best it’s such a life teaching game…

    It’s about time-John Denver

  9. I first played this game in a very confrontive est type setting, in April 1975. We were totally attacked after the game for voting red. I mid game began to see the “right” and “spiritual” way to play it, but still wanted to vote red. I remember wanting to express the anger I felt in that moment by voting red, by owning the non spiritual aspect of me in that moment. mmmm. There’s another link to this game that I just found, 5oct09, . These instructions are much kinder than the ones I experienced, first as a student, and later as a teacher of a slightly less confrontive version of the game. The class was Mind Dynamics in Saginaw, Michigan, later renamed Creative Mind Expansion. The class changed me from an agnostic to a mystic in one short weekend!

    I googled this today because I awakened 3 times last night trying to remember the rules of this game. I hadn’t thought about it in decades. And I have no intention of teaching it ever again. And I can see how useful it is to people still. I recall being awed by my husband voting black from the beginning of playing this game. I moved to another level of appreciating his loving soul nature through that observation. 🙂

    • I played this game this evening. It was downright cultic.

      The scenario was similar: It was presented as a game where there would be two teams, and the objective was to achieve the maximum number of “plus points”. The careful, repeated phrasing should have been a clue that we’d be held accountable for that phrasing later — it’s a common tactic of people engaging in deception to use very precise language, so they can later rationalize that they were telling the truth and you were at fault for the misunderstanding. Every single person on each team conceptualized it as a competition between two teams. And as in your case, it was followed by a sustained attack on the moral fiber of the participants.

      This was followed by a pressure-play, wherein previous players of the game (who didn’t participate) were asked to stand if it had had a ‘life-changing impact’ on them. “These are people you’ve shared secrets with,” etc., from the leader. The message: Won’t you be _ashamed_ if you don’t decide to buy this as a legitimate mode of persuasion?

      Afterward, I decided that if it’s played as a listening exercise, I might not have a problem with it. But in that setting, it wouldn’t be used as a ploy to weaken the participants and bend them to your will. As it is I’ve been left feeling unclean and manipulated. I still have another day left in the workshop and the fallout for me in my workplace will be severe if I don’t finish, and one of the instructors is a close personal friend of one of my prospective job references, but I’m nevertheless seriously considering just not going back in the morning. It’s really hard for me to go back in good conscience; it would be an endorsement of this kind of creepy, cultic persuasion tactics.

      • I think you missed the point!

      • No, ‘voteblack for the win-win’, I didn’t miss the point. I understand what the point is supposed to be.

        I also understand that he people running the workshop violated the principles they were claiming to espouse by tricking their students and then not owning the fact that they’d done so.

        I know that this is true because they told us they were doing it, but not directly. They told us ‘people tell us they feel like they got conned’; that means they knew going in people would feel like they got conned.

        If your teaching method EVER leaves the students feeling like they got conned, IT’S AN UNETHICAL METHOD. And that’s ESPECIALLY true if you’re claiming to teach Emotional Intelligence.

      • WOW Eric! You are STILL bitter over a month later over a game designed to bring about self reflection, understanding of human nature and filters that impact our thoughts and actions, and how we can make a change for the positive in ourselves and others by pursuing the win-win! Super glad I don’t work or live with you!

      • I really enjoyed the game’s lessons and just stumbled upon this blog trying to find the instructions to do with a group. I was trying to vote black on your comment suggesting you may have missed the point of it. Sorry to hear you still have bitter feelings about the intentions of those who led the game. You and you alone have control over your feelings and your decisions on how to react to the actions and intentions of others. Hope you can get past the bitterness and take something positive from your experience.

      • voteblack, you have the option to not reply to any of these — why is it so important to you to conceptualize me as “bitter”?

        But I’ll bite: This is important, and you’re illustrating why. In this framework, EVERYTHING is “owned” by the person feeling the emotion — no one is ever implicated for “making” anyone else feel a certain way, even when they know going into a scenario that someone else is going to come out of it feeling bad.

        You persist in missing my point through this entire exchange, which is that I DID in fact learn a lesson from the game: Don’t trust those people. They don’t merit trust. They haven’t earned it.

      • Not important at all Eric … “bitter” is just the word that comes to mind and the perception I’m getting (and possibly others are in your world) from your verbiage. Not seeing your tone or facial expressions of course so who knows for sure. And so my thoughts are just that one gives a lot of their power away when they allow a game or words said to them to impact them negatively. And if something so elicits such a bad feeling, maybe its worth investigating why I would feel so bad about words said to me or the team I was on. And does this feeling arise other places in my life? Maybe I can free myself from such a silly, self inflicted burden. Or maybe it calls me to a mission to help others not be victims of such abuse if it truly is abuse. Or maybe it just shows me that I’m allowing myself to be a victim rather than taking charge of my life or the situation. No matter, there’s lots of lessons.

        Perhaps the people who facilitated your game were different than those who facilitated mine but no matter who the facilitators, you seem very angry. I hear your take home as ‘distrust’ although I suspect that was not the intended take home of the facilitators. Clearly it was not the intent of our facilitators nor that of the writers of the game! For your joy in life, I hope you will find the positive lessons intended and not dwell on the negative feelings elicited by your experience. Look forward. Sorry I brought up the past!

        Best to you Eric.

  10. we played this game today in a seminar …. I was not fully clear on what we were doing but soon it was evident to me that my heart and soul were focused much more on outsmarting the others( who were my buddies and friends) to get the winning score.. My competitive nature prevailed and in the end we all lost.. no one got points we were all in the negative…. I feel ashamed and so dissapointed in myself showing up in life as so cut throat and un giving, where have my values gone? I know changes need to be made… i am ready to open my heart and make needed changes….

    • Same thing happened to me today at a leadership conf. after playing the game…profound…

  11. Thanks for the comments and links–

    I did a practice run of this game last night with a group of close friends in preparation for an upcoming youth leadership program. Team A tried to negotiate in the first round, but Team B did not trust them. The game sparked a two hour discussion about how we are wired and how our perceptions lead us to play the game. Even amongst friends, we could not achieve a level of trust needed to “achieve the maximum number of positive points”.

    In the end, I began to wonder what is it going to take to live in a society and world where people are willing to choose black every time? When we solve that, I believe we will achieve a paradigm shift in how the human race operates.

    Thanks Madison for posting this blog!

  12. I played this game at a personal development seminar as well. I actually figured it out because of the fact that we had been repeatedly told from Thursday night on that a central point of the seminar was “Win-Win.” There was a big banner up on the wall all weekend which said precisely that. “Win-Win”, so my mind saw it as a logic puzzle, and I was able to convince my team members that the whole point of the game was to turn it into a *Win-Win”, that no where in the instructions did it say that we had to compete.

    Unfortunately I *missed* the point that no where in the instructions did it say that we could not communicate our strategy to the other team! So we did not do so, thinking that it was against the rules, and of course they ended up going for the throat. So when it came time to be deconstructed (i.e., criticized for our approach to playing), the criticism I got was that I didn’t think outside the box *enough* – that I let an assumed rule stop me from achieving what would have been the first time that they had ever seen anyone play the game for the maximum score.

    You want to bet I took *That* lesson to heart 🙂

    Thanks for posting the rules! I was trying to remember them so that I could share the experience, and this is the only place that I found the full explanation. Appreciate it!

    • The old newton Learning Center in San Diego

    • The “lesson” i’d take to heart from that would be that the people giving that workshop were not to be trusted.

      • again, you miss the point Eric! Why are you so bitter? I suspect you missed a lot of valuable insights during the whole seminar. The people running most workshops like this are interested in you discovering how you play the game of life and giving you tools to live your life is a way that brings you more success and happiness. I hope you went back on the last day and discovered this!

  13. Euggh Ur all faghts lolz lets hve sex now someone

  14. Having played Red/Black once and helped to facilitate it over a dozen times, I have come to see that there are only two positions in the game: win-win or don’t play. If we’re not playing black-black, we are betraying our basic nature and effectively refusing to play the game of life. I hated the way I showed up the first time I played this game; fortunately I have had other opportunities to redeem myself, and each day – despite the constant challenges of the world pulling me in the other direction, I remind myself that the only world worth living in is one that works “for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.” (distillation of Bucky Fuller’s World Game philosophy.)

    Incidentally, if you’re looking for the game board, the one we used is here:

  15. As “Team B”, we said screw “Team A” completely and created an entirely new “Team A” from the existing players in “Team B” so that we could have ‘a’ team to play in the room with us. A sort of “Mock Team A”. Wow, was this ever enlightening.The facilitators couldn’t keep a straight face. And when we finally were clued in we got the opportunity to learn some valuable lessons. We absolutely did!

  16. Played game in 1988 with Art Theison.

  17. I have used this game often, but we play it to demonstrate trust in the environment, and the name of the game is called “Win as Much as You Can”. I actually use x and y for the votes, and I use actual money instead of points. It’s pretty powerful to hand out dollar bills, and to see that every single time people would rather “lose LESS” than the other “team” rather than leave with some money. It’s always very interesting to add bonus rounds, where the score is 5x or 10x, which even makes the competition more intense. I also add a round where person is chosen as the negotiator, and they are used to speak for the team and create collaboration between tables, they never stick to, so it’s even more of a trust issue. I have the rules for this spin on the exercise if anyone wants them, or you can likely find it on line.
    Thanks for a great question….I had not thought about using the exercise in this way.

    • I am interested in your game rules where you are using money in the game, “Win as much as you can.” I facilitate leadership seminars and would be interested in seeing if this could be a fit.

  18. Lifespring, 1987, is my thinking right now. LP 30

    • I was a coach on LP 30 NYC. Wonder if we know each other?

      • My bad. I was in LP29 NYC and coached LP33 NYC. But if you were in NYC, we might know each other. My nickname from the Advanced was “ET”.
        God bless.

  19. Thanks for the excellent blog and everybody else who communicated your experiences. I played this game as part of a self-awareness seminar, an off-shoot of life dynamics,in Japan in 1995. I got the black-black idea from the beginning, but hadn’t the motivation to try and convince my team members that was the way to go. That was the lesson took out of it – a little more faith in myself, a little more willingness to share. Now I am being given the opportunity to lead a leadership training for a group of young Afghanis coming to Japan for some OJT. I’m going to incorporate this game and two links provided by Old Wolf and Marcia Bailey really helped me out! Cheers.

  20. We played this in a seminar last year (and I was just searching the instructions again because I wanted to play it with my class, and came upon your blog). When we played it, the discussion leader made a mistake by giving me the marker and telling me I could choose red/black each time. I told my team that I’d be picking black every time, and I didn’t care what they said (zero democracy for me–I’m a tyrant!). The other team actually played black to whole way through as well, until the second last hand when they went red–we both finished positive, but with them two points ahead. And I think they felt kind of crappy about it after ward.

  21. It’s really good to know that Red/Black is in fact an international game. This game was shown to me in a Microeconomics III class and i was blown away when i realized what was about, at first it was a Game’s Theory example, but in the end, it really made me think. Although i lost trying to be the good one, it was bloody red.
    Well, someone as to start, right? Giving the example is the most important thing to do, not being agressive and explaining by force, we’ll just have to let people get it.
    Maybe someday good will prevail.

    • Amazing – reading the whole discussion above, made me shiver and brought my mind back to 2001 where I played this game on a 5 days workshop called “MAHUT” (“The assence of life”), in Israel.

      It was played on the end of the 3rd day. After we experienced new ways of approaching life and relationships – and we still played RED! losing the game but earning a great lesson.

      In real life People are playing RED not just on money – but with lives!
      People get kiiled – and their responce – let’s kill some on the other side … losing not just points – but losing LIFE.

      People are getting a divorce – and playing red – where there kids are paying the emotional price for life.

      I wish this game would be played in schools – and every boy and girl on this planet would learn this lesson. PLAY BLACK ! we might all win. Play red – we are always losing.

      Last year I was a coach for a workshop and I delivered this game to the group. I got so angry – even after I showed the results (of RED choise), and the discussion we had – the RED leaders in both groups were still debating and agruing with me.

      Love to all !

  22. Played this game today at the very end of Day 2…it’s a 3 day conference on leadership and personal growth. Our speaker/facilitator was so upset after seeing both teams score in the negative that he was on the verge of tears. It had a VERY profound effect on me; one I am still trying to dissect. It’s troubling, but full of potential for growth.

    • It’s an act on the,facilitator’s part…the ending is predictable. The facilitator cries to yank the room into a kinesthetic state so they can reflect on what happened and our role.

  23. Sounds like the Newton Course.

  24. here’s how you play the game with the game board

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