In most negotiations, there is a fairly clear sense of what each of the parties sees as a reasonable outcome: some combination of benefits and responsibilities, a little give in one area in exchange for a little take in another, some move toward greater equity or control.

I have no sense of what the parties regard as reasonable in the negotiations beginning today in Geneva. I'm not sure the parties themselves have any clear idea, beyond the domestic political value of having negotiated some sort of agreement.

The problem is not that there is nothing to negotiate. With the stockpile of nuclear weapons already possessed by both sides a threat to world survival, it would make obvious sense to negotiate, first, a commitment to stop adding to the stockpile and, second, a mutual pledge toward its reduction, eventually to zero.

But while both sides would like such an outcome in theory, neither seems to want it in practice.

The intriguing question is: Why? The only answer that makes sense to me requires that I stop thinking of the nuclear arms race as preparation for war and/or defense and start thinking of it as a self-contained game of the sort that might be played on one of those quarter-eating, alien-zapping arcade machines, with one difference: you compete against another player rather than against the machine.

The game, then, is about numbers. Rack up more numbers than the other guy, and you win. Never mind the issues between you and the other guy that produced the conflict in the first place. You have to take the conflict as a given -- assume without question that the other guy will destroy you if given the opportunity, and assume that he makes the same assumption concerning you.

Ideally (in such a game) you'd like numbers so large that the other guy would concede without a struggle. Failing that, you want numbers large enough so that when the exchange occurs, you end up with something -- anything -- after the other guy has fired all he owns.

Arms reduction talks become, in the arcade analogy, a game-within-a-game, played not to achieve mutual reduction but advantage. One reasonable tactic might be to trick the other guy into overevaluating what you were giving up. Another might be to find a way to add to your stockpile before beginning the reduction game -- or even to negotiate your threat to add to your stockpile.

It all makes sense so long as I think of computerized games, where nobody really gets hurt. It's when I try to transfer my thinking to the real world that it becomes either pointless or insane.

If having one unit left after the other guy was depleted is enough to declare victory in the arcade, it makes no sense in U.S.-Soviet relations. No one is fool enough to suppose that we would have won a war if all the Soviet cities are in radioactive ruin while we've still got Chicago and Dallas.

If things got so bad between us that we were willing to incur that much damage in order to achieve victory, then it would be the issues between us -- not the means of settling them -- that would be the appropriate subject of negotiations.

I have no doubt that talking to the Soviets -- about arms control or anything else -- is better than not talking to them. Beyond that, however, I don't really expect George Shultz and Andrei Gromyko to accomplish much.

I suspect they don't either.