Most likely, you are playing a finite game. And if you are, you are short sighted.
Finite games are about beating the competition. They want to end with a clear winner. Infinite games want to continue forever. They are inclusive and collaborative. They are win-win.
Finite games have clear rules. You play within strict boundaries. Infinite games change the rules over time. They are more creative. The goal is to continue the game forever.
The idea comes from game theory. And it has the potential to inform business, politics and your personal life as well. Philosopher and theologian James P. Carse extended the idea to include all aspects of life in his book, “Finite and Infinite Games, A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility.”
Wikipedia describes the theory and practice:
“Finite games have a definite beginning and ending. They are performed with the goal of winning. A finite game is resolved within the context of its rules, with a winner of the contest being declared and receiving a victory. The rules exist to ensure the game is finite. Examples are debates, sports, receiving a degree from an educational institution, belonging to a society, or engaging in war. Beginning to participate in a finite game requires conscious thought, and is voluntary; continued participation in a round of the game is involuntary. Even exiting the game early must be provided for by the rules. This may be likened to a zero-sum game (though not all finite games are zero sum, in that the sum of positive outcomes can vary).
“Infinite games, on the other hand, do not have a knowable beginning or ending. They are played with the goal of continuing play and sometimes with a purpose of bringing more players into the game. An infinite game continues to play, for the sake of play. If the game is approaching resolution because of the rules of play, the rules must be changed to allow continued play. The rules exist to ensure the game is infinite. The only known example is life. Beginning to participate in an infinite game may be involuntary, in that it doesn’t require conscious thought. Continuing participation in the current round of game-play is voluntary. “It is an invariable principle of all play, finite and infinite, that whoever plays, plays freely” If you think about it, most businesses and individuals are playing a finite game. You achieve a goal and then move on to the next. You want to beat the competition and win the game. But life isn’t like that. We are involved in an ongoing series of events that arguably, continue even when we aren’t “playing the game.”
An example might be the “War on Terror.” Most wars have a beginning, a middle and an end. But with the war on terror, there is no nation or person to either completely subdue or surrender to. It’s not a finite game. It’s an infinite game. And once you reframe this game, you begin to look for multiple solutions, instead of just a handful.
Let’s look at the business world; Amazon is playing an infinite game. The rest of the world is only now catching up to the idea that Amazon wishes to control all of commerce — not just to sell books. The difference between Microsoft and Apple is a study in infinite and finite games. One is playing the infinite game, and one is not. I’m sure you have figured out which is which.
Once you begin thinking about this concept, it opens a new door to the world. One of infinite possibility. Where you can rewrite the rules as you go. And contribute to the ongoing story of our existence.
I don’t know about you, but I’d rather play in the infinite game.