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Finite And Infinite Games

Finite and Infinite Games inform your decision making as you consider the long- and short-term implications of decisions and actions. In complex systems, it is crucial that you know whether you are making a decision, finding a solution, or taking action in a short-term, win-lose Finite Game, or if your actions and decisions are part of the longer-term, more sustainable Infinite Game.

Finite and Infinite Games


Some games are bounded and predictable, like baseball or basketball or bridge. You see the short-term immediate implications, and you play them to WIN. Other games, like marriage, productivity, and health, are unbounded. You see the long-term sustainability issues, and you play them to KEEP PLAYING. James P. Carse, in his book Finite and Infinite Games, offers a perspective that names the two and helps you know when, how, and why to play each kind of game. At HSD, we value both games equally, and help people know what it means to play each one well.

Finite Games have rules and timeframes. There are players, and there are observers in an established field of play. The rules for the games are set, and generally known by the players. Someone is designated as referee to judge how well you play by the rules. It is easy to see who wins. After the game, no one argues about the score. The object of the game is to get the highest score so you win.

Infinite Games, on the other hand, are more open and less defined. Everyone plays in an Infinite Game, and the field is not clearly defined. The rules of the game are not constant. They change all the time, and there are no external judges or referees. The players are accountable to themselves and each other for their behavior in the game. Ultimately, the rules of the game are devised to keep the game goinginfinitely.

While many models, methods, and approaches teach you how to play Finite Games,HSD focuses on strategies to thrive in the uncertainty of the Infinite Game. In 2013, Eoyang and Holladay described the nature of complex systems as being open to multiple forces, high dimension, and nonlinear. Those very characteristics make systems complex and call for the open, responsive, iterative nature of Infinite Games to set conditions for resilience and sustainability.

People, teams, and organizations engage in Finite Games to establish processes and procedures when certainty is necessary and possible. In uncertainty and chaos, people have to plan for and play Infinite Games. In fact, all Finite Games are played within the context of the Infinite Games.

In a finite game, there is a clearly defined end point and there are winners and losers. In an infinite game, all parties are working to keep the game in play. There are no winners or losers, but rather those that drop out of the game due to a lack of will or resources to continue playing.

Playing the infinite and finite game is the difference between being obsessed with your journey and vision versus your competition. Sinek also described that the key difference between finite and infinite players, is that one is playing to win and one is playing to continue the game. While infinite players act according to their vision, finite players act in favor of their interests.

Playing the game as an infinite player means making value-based decisions before evaluating interests. In order to play the infinite game, vulnerability and empathy have to take center stage and you must be ok with the fact that in the long game, some players will perform better than you at certain points in time.

Infinite games are less obvious and more complex: they have ever-changing sets of players and even rules. The goal of an infinite game is to keep on playing forever, rather than to stop by declaring a winner. Players in an infinite game are just trying to keep the authentic interactions rolling.

Finite games have a definite beginning and ending. They are played with the goal of winning. A finite game is resolved within the context of its rules, with a winner of the contest being declared and receiving a victory. The rules exist to ensure the game is finite. Examples are debates, sports, receiving a degree from an educational institution, culture, language, or war. Beginning to participate in a finite game requires conscious thought, and is voluntary; continued participation in a round of the game is involuntary. Even exiting the game early must be provided for by the rules. This may be likened to a zero sum game (though not all finite games are literally zero sum, in that the sum of positive outcomes can vary).

Infinite games, on the other hand, do not have a knowable beginning or ending. They are played with the goal of continuing play. An infinite game continues play, for sake of play. If the game is approaching resolution because of the rules of play, the rules must be changed to allow continued play. The rules exist to ensure the game is infinite. The only known example is life. Beginning to participate in an infinite game is involuntary, in that it doesn't require conscious thought. Continuing participation in the current round of game-play is voluntary. "It is an invariable principle of all play, finite and infinite, that whoever plays, plays freely" (p. 4)."( _and_Infinite_Games)

"There are two kinds of games in the universe: finite games and infinite games. A finite game is played to win. Card games, poker rounds, games of chance, bets, sports such as football, board games such as Monopoly, races, marathons, puzzles, Tetris, Rubik's Cube, Scrabble, sudoku, online games such as World of Warcraft, and Halo -- all are finite games. The game ends when someone wins.

Finite games require rules that remain constant. The game fails if the rules change during the game. Altering rules during play is unforgivable, the very definition of unfairness. Great effort, then, is taken in a finite game to spell out the rules beforehand and enforce them during the game.

An infinite game has no boundaries. James Carse, the theologian who developed these ideas in his brilliant treatise Finite and Infinite Games, says, "Finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play with boundaries."

Evolution, life, mind, and the technium are infinite games. Their game is to keep the game going. To keep all participants playing as long as possible. They do that, as all infinite games do, by playing around with the rules of play. The evolution of evolution is just that kind of play.

Unreformed weapon technologies generate finite games. They produce winners (and losers) and cut off options. Finite games are dramatic; think sports and war. We can think of hundreds of more exciting stories about two guys fighting than we can about two guys at peace. But the problem with those exciting 100 stories about two guys fighting is that they all lead to the same end -- the demise of one or both of them -- unless at some point they turn and cooperate. However, the one boring story about peace has no end. It can lead to a thousand unexpected stories -- maybe the two guys become partners and build a new town or discover a new element or write an amazing opera. They create something that will become a platform for future stories. They are playing an infinite game. Peace is summoned all over the world because it births increasing opportunities and, unlike a finite game, contains infinite potential.

The things in life we love most -- including life itself -- are infinite games. When we play the game of life, or the game of the technium, goals are not fixed, the rules are unknown and shifting. How do we proceed? A good choice is to increase choices. As individuals and as a society we can invent methods that will generate as many new good possibilities as possible. A good possibility is one that will generate more good possibilities . . . and so on in the paradoxical infinite game. The best "open-ended" choice is one that leads to the most subsequent "openended" choices. That recursive tree is the infinite game of technology.

The goal of the infinite game is to keep playing -- to explore every way to play the game, to include all games, all possible players, to widen what is meant by playing, to spend all, to hoard nothing, to seed the universe with improbable plays, and if possible to surpass everything that has come before."( _infinite_game)

Finite games are characterized by externally defined rules. These limits are predefined and players can compete to win within these limits. An example of a finite game is a chess game, a football match, or a job interview.

In contrast, infinite games follow internally defined rules. While a job interview is a finite game, our career is an infinite game. We make the rules we want to follow and the goal of a career does not end with getting or not getting a job.

Finite games are played for titles and ranks. But the titles and ranks are for others, they are a sign to others that we are the winners of the game. Ranks need an audience, without them they are worthless.

In contrast, the player of the infinite game lives the game. For him the game does not end in death, he merely offers his life in order to continue the game. The infinite player does not play for his life but lives to play.

The finite game generally focuses on the past. What has it achieved, where did it come from, what are its titles? In contrast, the infinite game is future-focused. New possibilities open up as the game continues, independent of the past.

Death in the endless game is the end of the game. The player no longer competes, no longer fights for titles, accepts the role of the defeated. In the infinite game, death is an achievement, a spiritual victory. The Sufi "Die before you die" (or even the Stoic memento mori) fits well into the philosophy of the infinite game player.

Finite games are the familiar contests of everyday life; they are played in order to be won, which is when they end. But infinite games are more mysterious. Their object is not winning but ensuring the continuation of play. The rules may change, the boundaries may change, even the participants may change - as long as the game is never allowed to come to an end. 041b061a72


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