infinite 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.

Laws are the things that govern what we are and aren’t allowed to do.

They’re not voluntary.

Rules are conditions we agree to abide by when we opt into a game.

They are voluntary.

Sometimes, the rules we sign up for aren’t explained to us explicitly.

Some kids, for example, feel as though they must go to university once they finish high school. They’ve opted into this belief to such an extent that no other options feel valid.

Where there are rules, there are penalties for breaking them.

But unlike laws, we get to choose which rules we want to be governed by.

If the games you’re playing involve rules that don’t suit you, play another game.

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.

In his worthwhile book, The Hapiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt argues that the advantage optomists have over pessimists naturally compounds.

It’s true that the world is structured such that the rich tend to get richer as the poor get poorer, but it’s also true that the happy are likely to grow further happier than the sad.

When it comes to dealing with circumstances which are making them unhappy, “optimists expect their efforts to pay off, [so] they go right to work fixing the problem.”

Even when things fail, they have an inherent understanding that things tend to work out for the best.

When things go wrong, optimists naturally seek out the potential benefits buried within misfortune.

The narrative optimists write for themselves then, is one of constantly overcoming adversity.

Pessimists, on the other hand, live in a world with more apparent risk and less confidence to deal with it.

From the pessimist perspective it’s natural to feel trapped within a narrative wrought with hopelessness; one where bearing the consequences of injust circumstances seems more natural than attempting to change them.

Optimists and pessimists can be dealt the exact same adversity and each write opposing translations.

What’s frightening is that the way each retells the events in their own internal narrative has ripple effects on the remainder of their narrative.

Optimists are more likely to grow from adversity because they can antipate rewards for their efforts.

Pessimists are more likely to be enslaved by adversity because they spend more time managing their pain than resolving their adversity.

This doesn’t mean pessimists can’t grow from adversity. It just means they find it more difficult to do so on average.

“The key to growth is not optimism per se, it is the sense making which optimists find easy.”

Optimist, pessimist or anything inbetween, find a way to make sense of adversity. Come to terms with it. Relish it. Grow.

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.