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A zero-sum game is a type of competition where one player's gain or success is precisely balanced by the loss or failure of another player or players. The term "zero-sum" implies that the total sum of resources, points, or outcomes remains constant, and any advantage gained by one player directly corresponds to a disadvantage experienced by others. This design concept contrasts with non-zero-sum games, where collaborative or cooperative actions can result in collective gains.

In a zero-sum game, the design typically revolves around direct competition and conflict, emphasizing a finite pool of resources or opportunities. Examples of zero-sum mechanics include player-versus-player combat, where one player's victory results in another's defeat, or resource allocation scenarios where gaining control of a particular asset reduces its availability to other players.

For instance, in a traditional fighting game like "Street Fighter," each match is a zero-sum game. If one player wins, the other loses. The total health points in the match remain constant, and any damage inflicted by one player directly reduces the health of the opponent. There is no creation or sharing of resources; rather, success is achieved at the expense of an opponent's failure.

While zero-sum mechanics can create intense competition and strategic depth, they also pose challenges in fostering cooperative experiences or accommodating different playstyles.