What are Finite and Infinite Games?

We have mixed up whether we are playing a finite or infinite game

The language we use about life and specifically about business is often playful. We talk about things in terms of games. But that language also indicates that we are often confused about whether we are playing a finite or infinite game.

What do you mean Finite and Infinite Games?

The concept of Finite and Infinite Games arose in the 1980s with the work of James Carse and the book he published in 1986. The definition of each goes something like this:

What are Finite Games?

A game in which the rules are fixed, players are known and objectives are agreed on prior to play. Sports often fall into this category. They are characterised by having a start (Kick-off in football), middle (where the action happens) and an end (the final whistle where a winner or draw is declared).

What are Infinite Games?

A game in which rules can be changed during the game, we can choose how we play, players can be known or unknown, and the objective is to keep the game going. Much of life falls into this category, whether it be business, geo-politics, education, relationships or actually life. We are all players in many infinite games.

Looking at the differences between those two definitions we can see that there is no winning in an infinite game. We can even see that it is clear whether we are in a finite game or infinite game. Nobody wins at geo-politics. Perhaps approaching our political discourse as if we are in a finite game is hurting us and forcing us into these ever more binary positions within our political dialogues?

I’m not so sure it is that clear…

I acknowledge there are areas where it can be confusing whether we are in a finite or infinite game. For example, education.

Nobody wins at education, you can succeed and there is a defined beginning and end in our statutory mandated education. But these are false beginnings and endings put in place by a system we have created, they are a story we have written. It can be argued, we all started our education in life in the womb and continue to the point of our eventual last breath. This means even if you came top of the class at school, you didn’t win the game of education because it did not end there. The game continues to perpetuate and exists to further the prospects of all not just a single person.

The same is true of our businesses and industries. We can not win as the game carries on. We might declare ourselves to have won, especially if a player leaves the game, but there is no winner when a game is infinite as it continues and new players may join.

What we may have done in both education and business is mistaken the idea that we were in a finite game when we were really in an infinite game.

So we’ve been focussing on the wrong type of game?

In a word, yes. In “being the best” and “beating our competition”, we are talking from a finite game POV and not the true situation.

  • What are we basing the idea of beating our competition on?
  • What time frame?
  • How are we measuring this?
  • What objective is our competition trying to achieve?

If we aren’t all attempting to achieve the same objective, then nobody will beat anyone, as that is not the game each player is focusing on.

So what happens if we start thinking of the game we are in as an infinite game?

What occurs when we approach an infinite game, such as business or interpersonal relationships as a finite game to be won, is a decline in collaboration, trust and innovation.

If we instead adopt an infinite game mindset then all those metrics become markers on the road that help us see where we have travelled so we can beat our true competition, ourselves and follow a purpose that goes beyond amassing a fortune and contributes to the perpetuation of the game. 

Some of the most innovative organisations are focused on improving what they do and what they offer the world. They see the bigger, infinite game they are in. Organisations such as W.L. Gore who we mentioned in a previous post are leading the way in a more purpose-driven world intent on perpetuating the game.

Get in touch with us and we can co-create new strategies that can help your organisation and teams be ready for whatever comes around the corner. Let’s play!

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