finite games

“All finite play is play against itself.”

James P Carse

To play to win is to play with the hope that the game will be completed (and that you will emerge victorious.

But our likelihood of winning finite games is dependant upon how adept we are at playing infinite ones.

There’s no point winning a game in such dramatic fashion that your competitors will be unable to play again.

It isn’t worth fighting so hard that you injure a valuable training partner in the same way it isn’t worth hoarding so much that your neighbour cannot afford to play games with or alongside you.

While some competition keeps games lively, competitiveness at its extreme is counterproductive to play.

Strive to play for the sake of play. And, if you must seek victory, do so with a humility, respect and honour which ensures your play, and the pay of others, will carry on.

Failing feels terrible. It forces us to realise and acknowledge that perhaps we’re not quite as good as we imagined we were, and stings even worse when we know we could have done more to prevent it.

The art of cultivating meaningful pursuits will always involve some level of failure because failing is the most necessary step in getting good at anything. 

So if we need to fail to realise our goals, but the thought or act of failing makes us want to curl up and die, perhaps it’s time we develop a more sustainable relationship with it. 

How we feel at the completion of any finite game can be calculated with a reasonably simple (if not slightly convoluted) equation.

Imagine that the emotional outcome we experience as a result of the game can be measured on a scale from negative ten to positive ten. A score of negative ten involves dark, personal feelings of dissatisfaction and disappointment. A score at this end of the spectrum is the type of guttural feeling which could result in someone never attempting a similar game again. Whereas a score of positive ten represents a feeling of such intense, euphoric bliss that it almost overwhelms the body. Scores of positive ten are those once in a lifetime moments of accomplishment which fill us to the brim with joy and pride. Our score along this emotional outcome scale is called our emotional outcome value (O). 

Now imagine another scale, which now only ranges from negative five to positive five. This scale is called the Result Scale. Our result value (R) is determined by how well we performed in the game, where negative five represents the absolute worst, most embarrassing, humiliating failure possible and positive five is the best, most gratifying, outstanding success possible.

At first glance it might seem that these values should be directly correlated; that the result of our efforts should reflect how we feel about the outcomes they produce. But we know from experience that this is often not the case. Both our result value and our emotional outcome value exist only once the game has been completed. 

There is another value, which also exists somewhere along the result scale, that is determined before we even begin playing. Our expectation value (E) represents the result we imagine is most likely to occur, and it is the only aspect of this equation of which we have complete control. Our expectations are influenced by an array of internal and external factors. They’re shaped by what we’re hopeful for, tempered by our previous experience and solidified by the expectations others project onto us. Sometimes we take the time to set them consciously, other times we unconsciously drag them along as baggage into games we don’t yet know we’re expecting ourselves to win. 

Ultimately, the emotional outcome of any finite game is the difference between the result of the game and the result we were expecting.

Result (R) – Expectation (E) = Emotional Outcome (O)

If we’re playing scrabble with a friend and we don’t have a lot of skin in the game, our expectation value might be a neutral value of zero. We don’t expect to succeed or fail and sure, we’d like to win, but we aren’t that fussed either way. In this case, our R value and our O value will be exactly the same. 

Let’s say we win. It was a close enough game, but we had better tiles and won without too much hassle. Our R value is one and so is our emotional outcome. It feels good, but not too good. We say, “Ah! Bad luck. You’ll get me on the next one.”

Now instead, let’s imagine that we’re getting ready to play against a friend who we know possesses an annoyingly Brobdingnagian vocabulary. They’re competitive too, so we’re expecting a challenging game. While we’re sure that beating them is within the realm of possibility, we’re realists. We understand the odds are stacked in their favour. In this case, our E value might be set at negative two. Winning here will definitely be an upset, but stranger things have happened.  

Perhaps we scrape through and secure a modest victory for an R of two. While the success was nothing spectacular, it feels excellent! 

R (2) – E (-2) = O (4)

When you subtract a negative number, it becomes additive. So two minus negative two leaves us with an emotional outcome of four. We’re buzzing after this victory and decide to challenge them to a rematch.

This time around, we’re heading in confident that we can replicate the result of the last game. We know we got a little lucky, but if we were able to beat them first try, they can’t have been as good as we thought they were.

We head into the next game with an E value of positive one.

But we don’t replicate the result of the last game. We don’t even come close. It’s unclear whether or not they were just taking it easy on us in the first game, but after a brief debate as to whether or not ‘katzenjammers’ is a valid english word (which is promptly settled by Google), they annihilate us. R score of negative four.

In this case, there’s no negative subtraction trickery working in our favour.

R (-4) – E (1) = O (-5)

The cost of failure is compounded by the expectation of victory.

It only makes sense to expect success when success is certain (which it almost never is). By placing our E value on the result scale, we’re setting ourselves up for unnecessary suffering.

So let’s change the game.

What if, instead of placing our expectations on the same scale we use to measure results, we designed it its own scale altogether?

How much could we improve our emotional reaction to objective failure improve if we started to set expectations on our growth rather than our success?

Imagine one last scale with me. A basic scale from zero to five which represents how much was learned by playing the game in question.

If we set our R and E values not on the results scale, but on this growth scale instead, it’s far less likely that we’ll walk away dissatisfied. And the less we walk away dissatisfied, the more likely we are to continue to play.

When we aim not to succeed, but to grow, we’re far more likely to fall into success.

Expectation is healthy for as long as your expectations make sense.

The games we play always offer opportinites to grow and learn. The degree to which we embrace those opportunities and implement the lessons we learn is another story.

Usually, meaningful growth which has lifetime value is burried under a lot of hard work.

This work is hard because it tends to involve a lot of losing. Losing feels like crap, but it’s a necessary prerequisite to succeeding – to a point.

If the player’s experience involves too much losing, they stop playing altogether.

The trick then, is how do we play these games in a way which helps us enjoy the process of trying and failing?

I believe the answer is by reframing failure into feedback.

Feedback is information gathered from a negative source which offers positive change.

By taking the raw data in our losses, we can find ways to look at them which track the incremental steps we can take towards more frequent victory.

If you suck at tennis and you’re really focused on trying to win every match, you’re going to have a rough time.

But if you suck at tennis and you’re really focussed on returning more serves than you were able to last week, you might enjoy a victory even if you get crushed.

The match is no longer played just between you and your opponent; there’s a separate game being played between you and yourself, in which you have much greater chance at victory.

These micro victories compound on one another.

For one month your focus is on returning serves, the next it’s on your forehand, then you backhand, then all of a sudden you’re not so bad at tennis – which is a whole lot better than losing four out of five matches and then selling your racket on Gumtree.

When failure equals feedback, losing equals winning.

I was asked today whether I thought that Instagram, can be used in a way which fosters an infinite mindset.

My gut instinct was; of course not. Instagram is a game designed for short term gratification. It’s a battle royal for follower attention where shock and beauty reign supreme.

But I had missed the question.

The question wasn’t, “Do people treat Instagram as an infinite game?”

It was, “Can people treat Instagram as an infinite game?”

To which the answer is, of course, yes.

It’s possible to use Instagram in such a way that the gradual collection of images on your account generate meaning which isn’t governed by metrics of likability.

The truth is just that the systems in place do a pretty good job of keeping us focussed on those metrics.

It’s bizarre how focussed we’ve become with numbers alongside red hearts and blue thumbs.

When it comes to finite play, the way we approach games has much to do with how well prepared we are for surprise.

Speed, trickery and deception are all most difficult to deal with when they can’t be anticipated.

True mastery is being adept enough at the particular game that nothing comes as surprise.

“A true Master Player plays as though the game is already in the past, according to a script whose every detail is known prior to the play itself.”

James P Carse

Further, being prepared for surprise and bracing for surprise are entirely different things.

“To be prepared against surprise is to be trained. To be prepared for surprise is the be educated.”

The goal then, when playing any finite game, should not necessarily be to win; it should be to become so educated in the given game that you no longer experience surprises which result in loss.

In such a situation, surprise would not be met with any resistance, as it would only be a detail in script which already resulted in victory.

Play not to win; play to continue playing, all the way to mastery.

We experience flow when tackling a challenge in the sweet spot of our ability to overcome it without excess anxiety or boredom.

(Diagram accessed via Researchgate)

All games demand flow. When our experience becomes too challenging or too easy, we stop playing optimally (or altogether).

The secret to growth in infinite games is to only play finite games within your flow channel.

Don’t challenge a chess master to play and expect to win and don’t look for intimate connections at bus stops. These are games you’re not going to have fun playing.

If you find that your channel is too narrow to allow enough finite play, perhaps it needs expanding.

Our tolerance to failure and our ability to process it productively are directly linked to the range of flow experiences available to us.

Widen the channel far enough and no game is too boring or worrying to play.

Winning and losing ceases to matter – the point of playing becomes the continuation of the play.

If you find games you can play under any and all circumstances and still improve, you’ll live in flow forever.

Playing infinite games (those which aren’t played to win, but for the purpose of continuing to play) is only a good idea if the game offers long term fulfillment.

In contrast, there are some finite games worth playing even if they aren’t particularly enjoyable at the time.

Usually, these finite games are wrapped up within infinite games.

Framing them through the lens of the infinite games they inhabit can make it easier to overcome short term resistance for the sake of continuing infinite play.

Showing up to the gym even though you’re sore, writing on the days you want to do anything but and getting out of bed at 5am to do so are all finite games which don’t feel worthwhile in the moment but, over time, contribute to the infinte game of living a healthy, rewarding and productive life.

Sometimes finite discomfort is worth your while.

Finite games (winnable games with agreed constraints) and infinite games (games which surpass time and are played for the purpose of continuing to play) share only one thing;

Neither can be played by a party unwilling.

A game of chess is will never be played between two people uninterested in learning the rules, and nobody accidentally leads a healthy and active life throughout their 80’s.

Both games require active, willing participation.