New newsletter: Are you playing the finite or the infinite game?

This is the first edition of my new newsletter. I decided to post it here again so people who have not seen my last post have another chance to sign up for the newsletter and get it delivered right to your inbox every week.

Are you playing the finite or the infinite game?

James P. Carse wrote:

There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite; the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play. If a finite game is to be won by someone, it must come to a definite end. It will come to an end when someone has won …

Carse goes on to define what it means to win: winning means that the players agree that the game is over and agree who is the winner. In general, it is clearly defined in advance how ‘winning’ looks like. Also, a finite game needs clear boundaries, in time, in space, and in who can play.

In an infinite game, there is no ‘winning’, since there is no end. Playing is infinite, without clear boundaries, since, following Carse, “each play of an infinite game eliminates boundaries, it opens to players a new horizon of time.” Also, in an infinite game, everyone who wants to play, can play. There is no need to be selected and there is no way for other players to take your right to play away.

I need to dig deeper into Carse’s book. But it seems to me that life is an infinite game, yet we often play it as if we want to win. We define clear temporal and often spatial boundaries around our projects, and we define what it looks like to ‘win’, to bring the project to an end successfully. 

Yet, over time we often realise that the way we imagined winning would look like is not all that clear. The metaphorical goal posts seem to shift (what an apt metaphor). People we did not want to be part of the game play a bigger role than we thought and we cannot exclude them from playing. Or, if we make it to the defined objective successfully – if we win – we might not feel like winning. It is more the feeling of reaching another ridge just to see that we haven’t reached the end yet. Because there is no end.

What does it mean for you to play life as an infinite game? Do you? Feel free to reply to this message and share your thoughts with me.

The Book:

Carse, James. 1986. Finite and Infinite Games. Free Press.

More for you to enjoy:

The Moral Imaginations Journey

Featured photo by Riho Kroll on Unsplash

2 thoughts on “New newsletter: Are you playing the finite or the infinite game?

  1. graypb

    I really like the finite/infinite idea here. Just thinking about this in relation to a large project in digital education, just at the proposal stage, where we could use ‘infinite’ rather than ‘sustainable’ to clarify how we intend to continue it after the official project period. And also worth referring to the discussion of ‘infinity’ in “Where mathematics comes from” by George Lakoff and Rafael Nunez, where the metaphor is shown to be an embodied concept…maybe off at a tangent!
    I will get the Carse book, seems like we are often scared of ‘infinity’ due to Star Trek, so good to tame it!

    1. Marcus Post author

      Hi graypb, thanks for your comment. Sustainable is indeed a tricky term as it is (mis-) used so often these days. Enjoy reading the book and make sure you sign up to my newsletter in order to catch further thinking! I will stop posting them on the blog.


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