“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.”
There are few situations in life that are not improved through viewing from a bigger picture. A moment is a moment, but it is part of a larger narrative. What is critical is not just how we view it but how we then live it.
This is, of course, the application of James P. Carse’s short but challenging “Finite and Infinite Games”. The theory is partly semantic and partly perspective. It is an acknowledgment of the continuation of all things despite our innate ability to wrap borders around each portion of our life and actions.
But lets back up a minute. What is an infinite game?
Let’s start with a finite game, such as Scrabble. I sit with my wife and play Scrabble at a pie shop every few weeks. We talk, we battle over letters (nerds!), and ultimately we add points. The game has a beginning and an end. There are rules and boundaries that cannot be crossed. It is in effect a finite universe in which order is needed to balance the equation. I perform a deed, she performs a deed. Every action effects the other as we progress towards the end point, a place we both know is coming.
A few years ago I played a version of Uno with a little girl that Michal and I were close to and who was one of three children in our wedding. She and I devised a style of Uno in which the rules were temporary and changing, the boundaries quick to move, and the purpose was simply the continuance of play. In the end there was most often a winner or we simply gave up. What is striking to me is that we were, in effect, entertaining a small portion of an infinite game.
In an infinite game players do not try to control the game or predict outcomes. They do not look for what will happen and do not set an outcome at the beginning. Where finite players play with the rules, infinite players play with the rules.
This, of course, has got me thinking about the art of business and interaction. Am I viewing my projects as finite, bounded, and regulated or part of an infinite game? What is my perspective on the big picture? How am I playing the game? What game am I playing – finite, infinite, or finite within infinite? One critical aspect of a career is how you work with people. Do I change the rules so that all are invited to play a part or take the work and credit on my back? What would work look like if all players were playing the infinite game?