Summary[ edit ] Finite vs. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play. Finite games are those instrumental activities - from sports to politics to wars - in which the participants obey rules, recognize boundaries and announce winners and losers. The infinite game - there is only one - includes any authentic interaction, from touching to culture, that changes rules, plays with boundaries and exists solely for the purpose of continuing the game. A finite player seeks power; the infinite one displays self-sufficient strength.
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Zartman was in Political Science. Math and the sciences were well represented, as were the social sciences. I was to be the philosopher. Game theory, it became clear at once, is a maddeningly subtle subject, especially in its mathematical and scientific expressions. As the weekly discussions—and the presented papers—made clear, game theory had chiefly to do with winning conflicts, or minimizing losses where winning was impossible.
Without advanced mathematical skills, I found myself reflecting on the nature of play itself, especially play that saw no value in winning, or even play that actively avoided winning. The result was a page book initially published in by The Free Press. Still in print and published in a dozen or more languages, the entire first chapter reads: 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. Corporations, for example, not only compete with each other but are in themselves populations of strivers, each trying to supplant another, each struggling for higher incomes and titles.
The same applies to schools and colleges where attaining superior grade averages, degrees, and honors absorb the lives of students.
Sexuality and marriage are often finite battle grounds with winners and losers. In fact, the features of play—finite and infinite—are essentially the same whether we are children playing jacks or soldiers caught up in a war between nations.
As this rather simple idea developed there were unexpected features of play—especially competitive or finite play—that came into sudden view. If the purpose of a finite game is to conclude play as a winner, then play itself acquires distinctly negative quality. Since your opponents seek only to make you a loser, the play actually stands in the way of their desired result. Winning ends the game at once. Finite players find themselves in a strange situation: they are playing against play itself.
This contradiction has a number of consequences. For one, a combatant will appraise the strengths and weakness of the opponent so as to have a faultless strategy. If this is done perfectly, there is basically no game at all, merely the appearance of one. The combatant has become what I call in the text, a Master Player.
A true Master Player completes a game only for the theater of it. The outcome was determined in advance. Master Players are rare, of course, but it is somewhere in the fantasy of every serious competitor to be one. We saw in the previous century how a self-identified Master Race collectively believed they had won the contest for superiority over all other races even before the contest began; they were winners at birth.
History stopped with them. It also stopped them. A second insight yielded by this simple distinction is that finite play in itself has any number of desirable values.
A group of friends meets every Thursday at a club to play poker. They have been doing it for years and almost never does one of them miss the occasion. The rules are precise and never broken; the competition is fierce; each one of them obsesses over being the Master Player among the four of them. Suddenly the playing is over and they leave for home, delighted to have had such a lively evening with friends. To use the language of the book, they were playing a finite game poker within an infinite game life-long friendships.
A finite game begins to have ugly consequences when it is played within another finite game. That is, Master Players. Poker is only part of it. How often it happens that open hostility emerges; friendship turns to hatred; alcohol is involved; then fists; occasionally guns. The question gets very complicated. Did President Putin bomb Syrian civilians out a long friendship with Assad, or was it a move to be the Master Player over his corner of the world?
What was the longer game in the American invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan? Our simple distinction now makes us look directly at the nature of an infinite game.
If the purpose of such human engagement with the world is to continue the play, it would mean there are no winners—and no losers.
The essential strategy would be to keep everyone in play. Finite players play within strict rules, else they cannot say who has won or who has lost; infinite players play with rules, because they must be constantly adjusted in response to changing circumstances.
Master Players do what they can to prevent surprise; infinite players expect to be surprised. History did not end with their birth; neither will it end with their dying.
The future is open and unpredictable. It is not a scripted repetition of the past but the creative labor of imagining an open future, a future that stays open. As noted, the distinction between these two kinds of games has wide application.
As an example, I will excerpt a discussion of our intended mastery over nature by way of machinery that is, technology to expose a contradictory feature of finite play. The text will be slightly redacted. I will leave out the elisions. Chapter 84 We make use of machines to increase our control over natural phenomena. By nothing more than fingertip controls, a team of workers can cut a six-lane highway through mountains, or fill in wetlands to build shopping malls.
While a machine greatly aids the operator in such tasks, it also disciplines its operator. To operate a machine one must operate like a machine. Using a machine to do what we cannot do, we find we must do what the machine does. Machinery does not steal our spontaneity from us; we set it aside ourselves, we deny our originality. Chapter 85 Machinery is contradictory in another way. A machine is not a way of doing something; it stands in the way of doing something.
The goal of technology is eliminate itself, to become silent, invisible, forgotten. We do not purchase an automobile, for example, merely to own some machinery. Similarly, a radio must cease to exist as equipment and become sound.
Neither do we watch a movie screen nor look at television. When machinery functions perfectly it ceases to be there—but so do we. Radios and films allow us to be where we are not, and not be where we are. We persuade ourselves that, comfortably seated behind the wheels of our autos, shielded from every unpleasant change of weather, and raising or lowering our foot an inch or two, we have actually traveled somewhere, while never leaving home. We do not go somewhere in a car, but arrive somewhere in a car.
Automobiles do not make travel possible, but make it possible for us to move locations without traveling. When it is most effective, machinery will have no effect at all. I cannot use machinery without using with another. I do not talk on the telephone; I talk with someone on the telephone. I listen to someone on the radio, drive to visit a friend, compute business transactions. If your business activities cannot translate into data recognizable by my computer, I can have no business with you.
And if a machine is most effective when it has no effect, then we operate each other in such a way that we reach the outcome desired—in such a way that nothing happens. The inherent hostility of machine-mediated relatedness is nowhere more obvious than in the instruments of war. All weapons are designed to affect others without affecting ourselves, to make others answerable to the technology in our control.
They are used not to maximize the play but eliminate it. Killers are not victors; they are unopposed competitors, players without a game, living contradictions. The fact that the technology of slaughter at vast distances has become extremely sophisticated does not culturally advance its highly trained operators over club-swinging primitives; it makes complete our blindness to the other that was but rudimentary in the primitive.
We are the unseeing killing the unseen. The first chapter of the book consisted of three sentences. Here is the final chapter in its entirety. There is but one infinite game. All Rights Reserved.
Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility
It definitely needs to be re-read times. 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. We cannot play alone, in finite games, we must have an opponent to play against and usually teammates to play with. Not everyone can be a CEO, but there are other positions. Finite games can be played within an infinite game, but an infinite game cannot be played within a finite game.
Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse