Are there limits? Limits to potential and possibility? This may be the defining question of this century. Our answer will likely determine our views on a broad range of other issues and our actions. As we head into a New Year, it may a good time to step back and reflect on our answer to that question.
A book worth reading
In deciding the answer to that question, one book has had a profound influence on me – James Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility.
I first read Carse’s book almost 25 years ago. It is one of those books that I keep returning to and finding new insight each time. I am amazed that this book hasn't received more attention over the years. It's provocative and full of paradox, something that pulls me in every time.
Like any good book, it's difficult to summarize. Carse makes the case that the world and our experience of it can be divided into at least two different types of games - finite and infinite games. “A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.” As its name suggests, a finite game has a definitive end and a defined number of players. Infinite games in contrast transcend time and invite anyone who is willing to play to join in.
The rules of a finite game are set in advance and cannot be changed. On the other hand, the rules of an infinite game can and must evolve to ensure the continuation and expansion of the game. “Finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play with boundaries.” Finite players seek predictability while infinite players embrace unpredictability. “Surprise causes finite play to end; it is the reason for infinite play to continue.”
Finite games are ultimately power games – acquiring power, expanding power and retaining power. Infinite games are not about power but strength. “Strength is paradoxical. I am not strong because I can force others to do what I wish as a result of my play with them, but because I can allow them to do what they wish in the course of my play with them.” Finite play requires perception of great power while infinite play encourages expression of vulnerability – “exposing one’s ceaseless growth, the dynamic self that has yet to be.”
Finite games are serious while an infinite game is playful.
Seriousness always has to do with an established script, an ordering of affairs completed somewhere outside the range of our influence. We are playful when we engage others at the level of choice, when there is no telling in advance where our relationship with them will come out . . . . seriousness is a dread of the unpredictable outcome of open possibility. To be serious is to press for a specified conclusion. To be playful is to allow for possibility, whatever the cost to oneself.
This is just a small taste of the distinction that Carse draws between these two forms of games. I urge you to read his book to see how he draws distinctions between society and culture, theatricality and drama, curing and healing, and machinery and nature by exploring the contrast between finite and infinite games.
I love this book for many reasons, but one stands out. It warns us of the dysfunctional behavior engendered by limits and at the same time it highlights the extraordinary opportunity that arises when we embrace potential and possibility. Much of my recent thinking has been exploring the contrast between these two approaches to the world.
How this book has shaped my perspective
Take push versus pull. While not a perfect match, finite games tend to be won by push strategies while an infinite game rewards those who pursue pull strategies. Push requires predictability and limits while pull draws out potential in unexpected ways without limit. In a similar vein, finite games are all about competing for stocks of knowledge and goods while an infinite game is all about participating effectively in flows to draw out potential and possibility. An infinite game is about fluidity and growth, motivating participants to seek flows while finite games treat resources as a given, shifting the focus to stocks.
My previous post was about the cognitive biases of uncertainty. Finite games are ways to cope with uncertainty – they impose boundaries and rules. In doing so, they also shorten one’s time horizons, set people in direct conflict with each other and erode trust. An infinite game counteracts these cognitive biases by focusing players on distant horizons and highlighting the potential to make greater progress by striking a productive balance between competition and collaboration. An infinite game promotes trust and therefore makes it easier to participate in flows while finite games, with their erosion of trust, drive players to focus on stocks that can be owned and controlled.
Similarly, I have written about a distinction between story and narrative – the former has a beginning, middle and end while the latter is open-ended and invites expanding participation by others. Carse devotes quite a bit of time to stories and myths and their role in both finite and infinite games. While he does not make the explicit distinction between story and narrative that I do, this distinction maps nicely with his distinction between finite and infinite games.
The finite/infinite game contrast illuminates a distinction I have drawn between two key types of passion – the passion of the true believer versus the passion of the explorer. The true believer knows exactly what the destination is and the path required to get there – think of adherents to fundamentalist religions and many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. This form of passion naturally tends to view life as a finite game – the game ends when the destination has been reached and there are clear rules or ways to proceed in order to reach the destination.
The explorer is passionately committed to making an increasing difference in a selected domain but has no destination in mind and certainly has no pre-determined pathway. The explorer is focused on drawing out potential and possibility and thus naturally drawn to viewing life as an infinite game. An infinite game nurtures both the questing and connecting dispositions that are the defining elements of the passion of the explorer.
On an even more fundamental level, I see an interesting parallel with my writing on masculine versus feminine archetypes and Western versus Eastern views of the world. The masculine archetype and Western view of the world tend to align much more readily with a finite game perspective while the feminine archetype and Eastern view of the world lead more naturally to an infinite game perspective.
How to play an infinite game in a world of finite games
Now, here’s a challenge. Our institutional architectures – everything from corporations and non-profits to schools and governments – are built on push-driven, finite game views of the world. If one wants to pursue an infinite game instead, what does one do? Do you take these institutional architectures head-on and seek to oppose and/or transform them?
This is an issue that Carse addresses only in passing. He provides a clue with this observation: “Infinite players do not oppose the actions of others, but initiate actions of their own in such a way that others will respond by initiating their own.”
Or, in my words, pull, don’t push. By going into opposition with finite game players, it is easy to get sucked into a finite game.
Far better, if possible, to avoid direct confrontation and find ways to pursue infinite game play on the margins or edges of finite game institutions or in the white spaces not yet occupied by finite game institutions. By drawing attention to horizons that have not yet been explored and demonstrating the ability to make progress in drawing out more potential and possibility, infinite game players have a greater chance of shifting the game and attracting other players. By building parallel institutions and practices that pull others into their game, infinite game players can attract enough critical mass so that they can pursue their quests with lower risk of intervention from the finite game players who view such actions as deeply subversive. At our research center, JSB and I are now exploring these kinds of approaches as a way of achieving organizational change within large institutions.
As I noted above, Carse insightfully points out that boundaries are necessary for finite games while infinite game players seek to undermine all boundaries. Given my preoccupation with the importance of edges, this might appear to be a contradiction. To be clear, I am drawn to edges (what Carse labels as horizons) precisely because they generate possibility, not because they define limits. Edges are fertile ground for an infinite game that draws out potential and possibility in part because finite game players tend to avoid them and they attract those who are more excited by infinite games.
The question before us
So, as we approach the New Year, it is time to ask, what game shall we play? In the face of growing uncertainty and the growing dysfunction of push-based institutions, shall we seek the shallow comfort of finite games or head out of our comfort zone to play an infinite game? And whom shall we seek out to play these games with? As Carse observes, “no one can play a game alone.” Game on.