Finite and Infinite Games

Patterns Language

In Finite and Infinite Games: : A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility, James P. Carse says there are at least two kinds of games — he calls one finite, the other infinite. The difference between the two is that we play a finite game for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing to play.

Play or game symbolizes how we show up in life. Of particular interest is the part on storytelling. He says:

“Storytellers do not convert their listeners; they do not move them into the territory of a superior truth. Ignoring the issue of truth and falsehood altogether, they offer only vision. Storytelling is therefore not combative; it does not succeed or fail.

A story cannot be obeyed. Instead of placing one body of knowledge against another, storytellers invite us to return from knowledge to thinking, from a bounding way of looking to an horizontal way of seeing.

For example, companies that want to know what to do with the reams of data they collect first need to make clarity around goals, what they are trying to accomplish and what constitutes success, and from that know what to measure.

What's the difference in mindset to go from a finite to an infinite game? As Carse says:

  • A finite game is played for the purpose of winning; an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play
  • The rules of the finite game may not change; the rules of the infinite game must change
  • Finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play with boundaries
  • Finite players are serious; infinite games are playful
  • A finite player plays to be powerful; an infinite player generates time
  • The finite player aims for eternal life; the infinite player aims for eternal birth

Many books attempt to prove or disprove a thesis and exhaust you by asking you to expend energy in going through the reasons why / why not. Carse shares his vision of how to reinterpret the world and lets the reader free to draw personal insights. 

This is a book about patterns. For another fascinating read on patters, pair with Christopher Alexander's The Timeless Way of Building where a pattern is a way to solve a specific problem, by bringing two conflicting forces into balance. In architecture, patterns are ways to arrange materials to facilitate access and enjoyment of focal points. For example, if window where people can enjoy a view creates a focal point, you will want to arrange the furniture inside that room to harmonize with that goal.

The same happens with other situations in life. When a situation makes us unhappy, it is usually because we have two conflicting goals, and we aren't balancing them well. Alexander's idea is to identify those conflicting forces, and then find a solution to bring them into harmony. He says:

… every pattern we define must be formulated in the form of a rule which establishes a relationship between a context, a system of forces which arises in that context, and a configuration which allows these forces to resolve themselves in that context. It has the following generic form: Context, System of forces, Configuration.

Whether to develop a system, a taxonomy, or a structure, the book is a useful resource.


[image from A Pattern Language]

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