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Coronavirus and Collaboration: Cooperating in a Time of Crisis

CooperationThe Irish poet and playwright, Oscar Wilde, famously observed how “life imitates art far more than art imitates life.”

About a year ago, a colleague introduced me to the world of “cooperative” board games, which stress cooperation over competition. There are no individual losers or winners. Instead, players work together as a group to achieve the objective of the game. If the group succeeds in attaining their common goal, everyone wins, and if the group fails, everyone loses.

I was hooked, and discovered there are cooperative games for all ages. For my youngest daughter, I purchased The Dinosaur Escape Game and Race to the Treasure. And to play with my twenty five year-old daughter and son-in-law during a visit, I bought Pandemic — a cooperative game in which players are members of a team tasked with preventing outbreaks and developing cures before several deadly diseases wipe out humanity.

Given current events, you can now appreciate why I cited Oscar Wilde’s quote at the outset of this blog post. But as life imitates art, art — or in this case, cooperative games — can also teach us important lessons for life, especially in times of crisis.

Pandemic is a complicated game with a very complex set of rules. It took all three of us quite some time to figure it out. Each player assumes a role on the team, and each role has special capabilities. For example, in one game I served as a Quarantine Specialist, which gave me the ability to prevent outbreaks in the city in which I was located, and all cities connected to that city.

During a turn, each player can take certain cooperative actions such as driving or flying to different cities, building a research station, or sharing knowledge. Players also draw cards, which they need to deploy strategically in consultation with other team members.

As should now be evident, succeeding in Pandemic requires careful coordination between players. Easier said than done, and we lost the first game. But we gradually got the hang of things, and collaborated successfully to win the second game by discovering cures to all four diseases in the nick of time.

Playing Pandemic was an enjoyable, but also instructive experience. As kids, most of us probably grew up playing only competitive games in which there were always winners and losers. Unfortunately, for many of us, this paradigm carried over into our adult lives, and we are predisposed to see every confrontation through a competitive lens — a zero sum game in which your gain is my loss.

There is a name for that type of thinking — zero sum bias — which describes the human tendency to perceive situations as zero-sum, even when that is not the case. Such thinking often arises in resource-scarce environments, where zero sum bias reduces people’s willingness to assist others whom they perceive as competing with them for the same resources. Cooperative games seek to change that dynamic.

Fast forward to the present, and the world is confronting a global epidemic. I was speaking with my daughter recently, and we were astonished at how what had just been a game last year was now reality.

Yes, Pandemic is certainly no longer just a game. Lives are at stake. Certain resources are scarce. People’s livelihoods and savings are on the line. So what is required of each of us? I submit it is to resist our inclination to compete, and instead embrace cooperation. To realize that we are all in this together, and though we all fear what the future holds, to collaborate instead of confronting; to share instead of hoarding.

Cynics who only see the worst in humanity will argue this is a pipe dream, and predict that individuals will soon start looking out only for themselves and their families. Indeed, in a 2011 film about a global epidemic, Contagion, there are several scenes in which a mob mentality prevails as desperate residents fight over food and medicines.

But we are better than that. And a scene I witnessed yesterday at a local Walmart gave me reason for hope. A woman and her daughter had apparently found the last two bottles of anti-bacterial soap available in the store. While waiting in line, they were approached by another woman who asked them to direct her to the aisle where the bottles were located. They informed her that there were no more left, but offered to let her take one of the bottles they had planned to purchase. She was extremely grateful. A small gesture, but it proves that while certain physical resources are scarce, there’s no reason we can’t have an abundance of kindness. To paraphrase Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning:

Even under the most difficult circumstances, any man can still decide what shall become of him – mentally and spiritually. Whether he will remain brave, dignifi­ed and unselfi­sh. Or in the bitter fi­ght for self-preservation, forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal.

There is a Talmudic dictum, “either friendship or death.” It’s a dramatic statement, but an eternal truth. When we compete, even the winner is a loser because in vanquishing his opponent, he has lost a bit of his humanity. But when we cooperate, and invest in fellowship, we preserve our dignity, and gain much more than we gave up.

There are undoubtedly some difficult times ahead. But if we can all maintain a mindset of cooperation and collaboration, we will find that the crisis brought out the best in each of us.

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