Made to Lose: the Red Green Game

I spend much of my time as a Buddhist Sunday School teacher trying to fit my lessons to the specific personalities of the class. For the three years I’ve been teaching each group of students has been so different that I seldom use a lesson twice. One exception, which I eventually try with any and every group is called the Red Green Game. I love it, and there is almost nothing on the internet about it, so I shall describe it for our lovely readership.

I first played the game in a Psychology class at a community college, and its magic works just as will with third graders as it does with back-to-school Moms: It is a game designed for you to lose, and to have no one to blame but yourself.

The rule are simple, and work best when they are provided with as little explanation as possible. I find it works best write them on the board for everyone to see:


1. The game is played in teams (five or more works best), and each team starts with 50 points.
2. To Win: Have the most points at the end of the game.
3. To Lose: Have less than 0 points at the end of the game.
4. Each round the teams can vote “red” or “green” via secret, but not anonymous ballot. After each round the ballots are called out and the scores adjusted:

If every team votes “green,” every team gains +10 points.
If only one team votes “red,” then the team that voted “red” gains +30 points, and the other scores remain the same.
If more than one team votes “red,” every team loses -30 points.

It usually takes the players one or two rounds to figure out what is going on: inevitably multiple teams will vote “red” to try to pull ahead of the others, ultimately losing points for everyone. By the time the mechanics are understood, most of the teams are in the hole. In all the times that I have played it, no one has ever “won” the game.

The impact of the game comes from the discussion had afterwards about what the rules mean, and why people voted the way they did. Most groups get the idea that “red” is being selfish, and “green” is being altruistic, but the players reasoning through their actions can be very interesting.

I’ve played the game with a number of different variants, all of which make the game interesting in different ways. Sometimes I ask the teams to designate a “diplomat” to go and speak to the other teams, or offer a plan for how everyone can work together, or how each should vote. In the long run, the pleas for green go unheard.

Another variant is to present to the class, after everyone is losing, the opportunity to vote on new or additional rules to make the game “more fair.” Ways to make the voting more or less secret, or individual teams more or less responsible for their actions. In my last class they all voted that they would destroy their red ballots, and did so publicly and with great aplomb. Three teams then secretly fashioned their own makeshift red votes with crayons and markers, each supposing they were uniquely clever and would be victorious.

As the teams’ score stray further into negative territory, sometimes I multiply the scores and raise the stakes to make it still possible to win in a given number of rounds; but sometimes not doing so is more interesting. The choices that the teams make when it is no longer possible to win seem heartfelt in a way that the other choices aren’t: They are now arguing on principle. I’ve heard students defend both sentiments passionately, that we may as well all vote green and be one happy family, or that there is no hope, so we should nuke the site from orbit.

Unless asked (and I have never been asked), I do not mention what the winning team will win. In the aftermath I then make the point that while, according to the rules, it was possible for everyone to win (it is sometimes an argument of semantics, but every team can have the “most” points if they have the same amount), that there was not necessarily any prize, and that the backstabbing of the previous half-hour occurred for the sake of winning alone.

But my favorite part about the Red Green Game is that while the students learn something, I also have the chance to learn a lot about my students. Last Sunday I heard something for the very first time– one of my students, I’ll call her Deborah, was her team’s diplomat. Everyone was down ten points, and she proposed the following solution:

“We should each vote red in turn, one team after the other. That way we’ll all be even in the end.”

Now, the math doesn’t really work out as being the most efficient route, and naturally the teams couldn’t agree on who would go first, but I really liked Deborah’s solution. Because I think that’s actually how we live, most of the time.

The scoring system of the game is supposed to model selfishness, and the funny thing about being selfish is that it only works to one’s benefit when others allow you to be selfish: the single red vote gets points because the other green votes allow it. Multiple red votes represent conflict, and that is when everyone suffers.

Most students come away with the idea that it would have been best to have voted only green from the beginning, and that is the way to win the game, but I think Deborah’s system is more true to life: We are each of us selfish on occasion, but our selfishness is supported by those who love and trust us with the hope that when they need to be selfish that we will give to them in turn.

The Red Green Game is designed for everyone to lose, and show us how we can make selfish choices, but I think the problem with the game in some ways isn’t in its ruleset, but in its duration. To win the Red Green Game isn’t to have high minded ideals and think through each vote, but to keep playing. The Red Green Game played for weeks on end would surely produce winners, because it would have produced that vital component that drives our own lives: relationships of trust.

Deborah is one of my more disruptive students, the kind that is a bit out of sorts and who needs to be frequently disciplined but who I am at the same time deeply thankful for. She and her fidgety-fingered ilk help me get out of bed on Sunday.

One Reply to “Made to Lose: the Red Green Game”

  1. Interesting. We have justed played the game in school. The prize was announced beforehand. The game was divided in two stages: in the first one no one could look at each other, in the second one it was allowed. Also, there weren’t teams but rather every student was his own “team”. We couldn’t speak to each other.

    I, as one of the students, chose Green 6 times out of 6. It is the only logical choice. Of course it turned out I got 0 points. Was one of my most interesting lessons so far. The discussion at the end was also very thought-provoking. Great idea!

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