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Finite and Infinite Games

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One of my favorite quasi-philosophical books is James P. Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility. If you haven’t read it, you must. It’s an easy read, but it’s powerful. In this little aphoristic volume, Carse elucidates and explores the distinction between games/activities that are finite/closed systems and ones that are infinite/open systems.

To quote the basic premise of the book:

“There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.”

The (admittedly imperfect) examples I picture in my mind: 1) a football game, with its agreed-upon time limits, scorekeeping and delineated field, is a classic finite game; and 2) a rock music performance, with its potentially loose structure, vaguely defined duration, and no clear objective evaluation criteria, is something of an infinite game. In the first, there is a final score; in the second, there is not. In the first, there is an agreed-upon winner and finite outcome; in the second, such terms make little sense.

So, taking this out to a macro scale, in our globalized capitalist market society, of course, there is a whole heck of a lot of finite game bias and even more winning and losing rhetoric. Even the smallest child can see it, as we’re conditioned from birth to play finite games and inevitably “gamify” life. A result of this finite game bias is that we also tend to sort people and groups of people into ever-shifting contextualized segments of winners and losers. Winning businesses are ones that dominate markets. Winning people are ones who have more money, have more fans on Facebook, whatever. Winning countries are ones that have the highest GDP.

It may seem innocent and natural enough, but the bias toward finite games is more than cheery sportsmanship or harmless temporary profiling (“sometimes you win and sometimes you lose”). Beneath the pervasive discourse of winning and losing is the slow but steady transformation of all spheres of human activity into finite games. Activities that are overly structured, overly quantitative, and often poorly scored. Our bias toward quantitative metrics is partially to blame, so also is our poor state of mass education, as we lose the skills to qualitatively evaluate things that are difficult to measure quantitatively.

Even more than that, perhaps, I think we as a society are developing a reluctance to play in or enjoy infinite-game type activities such as the arts or certain kinds of R&D, perhaps because they have no easy success metrics, and thus no easy rewards, or because we are addicted to winner/loser judgments and can’t deal with scenarios where the play is just play.

I would suggest that better future outcomes for our world depend upon reversing this trend toward viewing everything as a finite game. Or put another way, we have to begin to define success differently, as some have attempted to do with “eco-capitalism.” The sustainability of our natural resources depends upon breaking the finite game bias. Our ability to develop new solutions for our existing problems depends upon it as well. We simply have to begin to play to keep on playing, or we will not be able to innovate quickly enough to support our growing global resource needs, and our collective game will indeed become finite.

Please note that I’m not trying to be unscientific here. We do have to understand data and the quantitative dimensions of life, the universe, and everything, but then we have to get beyond them to creativity and true innovation.

To quote Carse again:

“Finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play with boundaries.”

That’s the rub: in order to build a good future, we will have to become infinite players.

Author: Eric Kingsbury

Technology Futurism Creative Marketing Strategy Art Music Writing Thinking Ideas

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