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A no-win situation, also called a “lose-lose situation”, is one where a person has choices, but no choice leads to a net gain. For example, if an executioner offers the condemned the choice of death by being hanged, shot, or poisoned, all choices lead to death; the condemned is in a no-win situation. This bleak situation gives the chooser no room: whichever choice is made the person making it will lose their life. Less drastic situations may also be considered no-win situations - if one has a choice for lunch between a ham sandwich and a roast beef sandwich, but is a vegetarian or has a wheat allergy, that might also be considered a no-win situation.
In game theory
In game theory, a "no-win" situation is one in which no player benefits from any outcome. This may be because of any or all of the following:
- Unavoidable or unforeseeable circumstances causing the situation to change after decisions have been made. This is common in text adventures.
- Zugzwang, as in chess, when any move a player chooses makes them worse off than before.
- A situation in which the player has to accomplish two mutually dependent tasks each of which must be completed before the other or that are mutually exclusive (a Catch-22).
- Ignorance of other players' actions, meaning the best decision for all differs from that for any one player (as in the prisoner's dilemma).
Carl von Clausewitz's advice (never to launch a war that one has not already won) characterizes war as a no-win situation. A similar example is the Pyrrhic victory, in which a military victory is so costly that the winning side actually ends up worse off than before it started. Looking at the victory as a part of a larger situation, the situation could either be no-win, or more of a win for the other side than the one that won the "victory", or victory at such cost that the gains are outweighed by the cost and are no longer a source of joy.
For example, the "victorious" side may have accomplished their objective, but the objective may have been worthless, or they may lose a strategic advantage in manpower or positioning. (One example is Great Britain in WWII, where Britain was one of the victorious powers, but found itself so exhausted in the process as to no longer be able to maintain its great power status in a world now dominated by the United States and the Soviet Union.) A related concept is sometimes described as winning the battle but losing the war, where a lesser (sub-) objective is won but the true objective beyond it is not well pursued and is lost.
In past Europe, those accused of being witches were sometimes bound and then thrown or dunked in water to test their innocence. A witch would float (by calling upon the Devil to save her from drowning), and then be executed; but a woman not a witch would drown (proving her innocence but causing her death).
In video games
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Unwinnable is a state in many text adventures, graphical adventure games and role-playing video games where it is impossible for the player to win the game (either due to a bug or by design), and where the only options are restarting the game, loading a previously saved game, wandering indefinitely, or a game over (negative game end, such as death). It is also known as a dead end situation or a softlock. Usually, this is the result of the player's previous choices, and not due to the game itself lacking a path to victory. For example, in games such as Goldeneye 007, Perfect Dark, and TimeSplitters, the level does not end once a player fails an objective short of being killed, but it is impossible to progress to the next level no matter what the player does afterwards. Other games take steps to avoid unwinnable situations; for example, a game may not allow players to drop items which are necessary to continue. Softlocks can be triggered by incorrect manipulation of game code or mechanics, as seen in speedrunning - should a certain sequence of tasks to perform a sequence break be carried out incorrectly, the game may become softlocked, forcing either a restart of the game or the console altogether.
Unwinnable should not be confused with unbeatable, which is used to describe a character, monster, or puzzle that is too powerful or difficult to be overcome by the player or character at a lower standing, and is normally found in role-playing video games. In many cases, "unbeatable" gamestates occur because of integer overflow or other errors programmers did not take into account, called a kill screen. In this situation, the game may also crash.
In other media
In the film WarGames, the supercomputer WOPR simulates all possible games of tic-tac-toe as a metaphor for all possible scenarios of a nuclear war, each of them ending in a nuclear holocaust (mutual assured destruction). The computer then exclaims, "A strange game; the only winning move is not to play."
In the Star Trek canon, the Kobayashi Maru simulation is a no-win scenario designed as a character test for command track cadets at Starfleet Academy. It first appears in the film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. In the film, Admiral James T. Kirk states that he does not believe in the no-win scenario.
In the TV show Quantico, the agents are put in a terrorist hijack flight simulation mission that is unbeatable.
- Catch-22 (logic)
- Cornelian dilemma
- Double bind
- Kobayashi Maru
- Morton's fork
- Pyrrhic victory
- Setting up to fail
- Two-body problem (career)
- Winner's curse
- Win-win game
- Leon F Seltzer Ph.D (2013) Two Ways to "Win" in a No-Win Situation