Finite and Infinite Games


“The actor who will accept anything that happens seems supernatural; it’s the most marvelous thing about improvisation: you are suddenly in contact with people who are unbounded, whose imagination seems to function without limit.” – Keith Johnstone, Impro: Improvisation and the Theater

Our last post examined life as a series of boxes. We learned that each box can both define and constrain our life. We can grow by examining and changing boxes or we can stagnate by staying in our existing ones.

In that post, I highlighted a talk given by Tobi Lutke. He referred to the process of moving from box to box as “an infinite game.” This phrase reminded me of the book Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility by James Carse.

Carse describes two mindsets: infinite and finite. Infinite players approach the world aware of their ultimate freedom to make choices and accept surprise as the norm. Finite players feel like they have little freedom to choose and compete for the recognition of past accomplishments.

We’ll explore why the infinite mindset is able to handle surprise and change better than the finite mindset. The goal is for you to be able to add these ideas to your toolkit for developing psychological freedom.

Life: An Infinite Game
In his talk, Tobi Lutke described life as:

this really, really interesting series of entering a box, seeing what it is sort of made of, probing at it, analyzing it, seeing how things work, seeing what way gravity is pushing you, and then sort of understanding it and feeling familiar. This is the nice part. Every time you reach there it becomes very comfortable. And then you might learn something that isn’t reconcilable with this world you think exists. That is the very thing that cracks it and you get into the next box. And you start it again. Again and again and again.

He refers to this process as an infinite game.

What does it mean to think of life as an infinite game?

James Carse, author of Finite and Infinite Games, has a definition for an infinite game:

  • An infinite game has no beginning or an end.
  • An infinite game has no boundaries, either temporal or spatial.
  • It is played for the purpose of continuing play.
  • The rules of an infinite game are changed to prevent anyone from winning the game to bring as many persons as possible into the play.

We can think of life itself as an infinite game even if it ends for each individual. No one says when life starts, it just starts. It continues after we die. No one can win life and more people over time have been able to participate as human societies have restructured.

Within life, humans have created complex social and economic structures. These things are completely made up by humans and only humans really care about them. These are our boxes or finite games.

Boxes = Finite Games
Carse contrasts an infinite game with a finite game:

  • A finite game has a definite beginning and end.
  • A finite game has temporal, spacial, and numerical boundaries.
  • Unlike an infinite game, a finite game “is played for the purpose of winning.” i.e. Finite games end with titles or rewards.
  • A finite game must be resolved in the context of its rules.
  • Those rules are set by people and everyone who plays must agree to those rules.
  • Finite games cannot be played alone. There must be an opponent and/or teammates.

We can see that Carse’s definition for a finite game is similar to a box. Take the example of a high school student. The student will enter high school and graduate, so there is a definite beginning and end. There are spacial, temporal, and numerical boundaries to being in that school. The student will end as a graduate and have a “score card” to potentially enter college. Many people agree to the rules of going to high school and there are even truancy laws that society uses to reinforce the social norm. Thus, high school is not played alone.

We can conduct a similar analysis for jobs, university, athletics, and politics.

Society itself is a finite game. Carse even claims that the “principal function of a society is to validate titles and ensure their continued recognition.” Thus, societies can easily get stuck in the past.

The Differences Between Infinite and Finite Players
In the previous post, I talked about how people can get stuck in their boxes, while others can examine their boxes and move to new ones.

We can think of people who get stuck in boxes as finite players and people who examine and move between boxes as infinite players.

Carse describes some differences between these players:

  • Finite players play within boundaries. Infinite players play with boundaries.
  • Finite play is limited by external factors (rules that people make up, expected scripts, social norms), but players choose to follow the rules so finite play is self-limiting.
  • Finite players win titles and then enjoy life. Their reward is life (you could say their recognition and titles are a form of immortality). If you lose, then you don’t get immortality. Therefore, you die.
  • Infinite players die while playing the game. They do not play for life, they live for play.

However, there is one similarity between finite and infinite players: Both players are free to play. If either player must play, then they cannot play.

Like the person who gets stuck in their boxes, finite players often feel like they don’t have a choice. They feel like they must play.

Carse says that “it is often the case that finite players will be unaware of this absolute freedom and will come to think that whatever they do they must do.” In extreme examples, like slavery, this can be true. But most people, especially in Western democracies, have a choice.

A Playful Life

Self-Veiling & Seriousness
One of the tenets of Permissionless Life is that people have a lot of control over their life and if they don’t realize it, they can rewire their mind. But why are some people unaware of their ultimate freedom to choose?

According to Carse, to account for the difference between perceived freedom and actual freedom, players of finite games (boxes) must be “veiling” their actual freedom from themselves.

This veiling occurs because a person must have a sufficient desire to win the finite game (Otherwise they wouldn’t play). To have sufficient desire, the finite player must take his/her role seriously.

What causes a person to take their role seriously?

It may be that we often care too much about what other people will think of our decision to not play (often that means quitting something).

Think about the times you have assumed things like “If I don’t play this role of student or teammate, then I’ll be ostracized or seem like a loser.” Or “If I quit my job, I’ll be jobless and then people will look down on me.” It was totally normal for you to feel that way because society created a set of expectations to literally make you feel that way.

Carse describes exactly this phenomena when he says:

As finite players we will not enter the game with sufficient desire to win unless we are ourselves convinced by the very audience we intend to convince. That is, unless we believe we actually are the losers the audience sees us to be, we will not have the necessary desire to win.

We can say that finite players veil themselves because of a belief that they will be seen as losers if they do not play. They give too many fucks.

At this point you may be feeling a little anxious. Maybe you have kept going with a job, friend group, or lifestyle even when deep down you didn’t want to. But as we discussed, you have tremendous power to change the way you think.

Let’s learn what infinite players do differently.

Carse says, “the issue here is not whether self-veiling can be avoided, or even should be avoided. Indeed, no finite play is possible without it. The issue is whether we are ever willing to drop the veil and openly acknowledge, if only to ourselves, that we have freely chosen to chase the world through a mask.”

So the difference is infinite players acknowledge that they play finite games (boxes) with a mask. They know deep down that they can always quit. The mindset they operate with is similar to Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck.

Infinite players “enter into finite games with all the appropriate energy and self-veiling, but they do so without the seriousness of finite players. They embrace the abstractness of finite games as abstractness (Carse defines abstract as being a part of the whole and concrete as the whole), and therefore take them up not seriously, but playfully.”

Living life playfully is not the same as nihilism or assuming finite games are trivial:

To be playful is not to be trivial or frivolous, or to act as though nothing of consequence will happen. On the contrary, when we are playful with each other we relate as free persons, and the relationship is open to surprise; everything that happens is of consequence. It is, in fact, seriousness that closes itself to consequence, for seriousness is a dread of the predictable outcome of open possibility. To be serious is to press for a specified conclusion. To be playful is to allow for possibility whatever the cost to oneself.

We can make a simple distinction between finite and infinite players here. We can say that finite players live life theatrically. They accept roles and scripts. They alleviate anxiety of an uncertain future by focusing on winning titles, awards, and games set up by other people.

On the other hand we can say Infinite players live life dramatically. They choose themselves. Like improv actors, they accept uncertainty as the norm. Thus, they embrace surprises, “no matter the cost to themselves.”

If you’re below the age of 35, then you probably were raised by people who grew up in a world that tried to create lots of order. Call it a symptom of industrialization and mass production. From the day Gutenberg invented the printing press to the dawn of the internet, the linear ordering of society has been a foundation of Western culture.

The internet, software eating the world, the digitization of everything, and free movement of information are disruptive because they result in non-linear outcomes. Human society is returning to a tribal-like global village that is more organic and interconnected than the linear world of assembly lines and snail mail.

The result is that uncertainty and surprise are the new norm. The irony of Donald Trump being elected is that a group of marginalized people who typically didn’t vote went out and voted because of technology. We’re going to continue to see technology unlock the energy of underserved populations.

So if surprise is the norm, playing with an infinite strategy, a fluidity of personality and skills, is the best way to navigate in an ambiguous and uncertain world. Because “surprise causes finite play to end, but it’s the reason for infinite play to continue.”

Infinite players live by the principle that “only that which can change can continue.” They realize that the only way to keep the game going is to keep changing it.

[They] prepare themselves to be surprised by the future, they play in complete openness. It is not an openness as in candor, but an openness as in vulnerability. It is not a matter of exposing one’s unchanging identity, the true self that has always been, but a way of exposing one’s ceaseless growth, the dynamic self that has yet to be. The infinite player does not expect only to be amused by surprise, but to be transformed by it, for surprise does not alter some abstract past, but one’s own personal past.

Finite players live in the past: rules are set in the past and titles are attributed to past effort. They build walls and try to make things great again.

The power of the infinite player to be amused by surprise is what helps him/her escape boxes.

Towards The Future
We no longer live in a world where you learn one thing and do that thing your whole life. Governments around the world aren’t providing us a vision for the future. Most of them are trying to retreat to the past.

Rapid change is now our reality. We’re watching, in real-time, the development and convergence of several exponentially, game-changing technologies (Machine Learning, CRISPR, Blockchain, 3D Printing, Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality, Space Travel). A lot of weird shit is going to happen and there will be many surprises.

Those surprises are already changing our political, social, and economic infrastructure and relationships. Using that as a starting point, doesn’t it make sense to be actively aware of what boxes you’re in and be able to fluidly enter and exit them as quickly as possible?

If rapid change is the constant, then we should assume that we’ll be surprised. Thus, going forward, people who play with an infinite mindset/strategy will thrive. As Carse says, “To be prepared against surprise is to be trained. To be prepared for surprise is to be educated.”

We can distill this wisdom into a simple mental algorithm: Take change seriously. Adapt to it playfully. Repeat.

Do so and you’ll see that “the joyfulness of infinite play, its laughter, lies in learning to start something we cannot finish.”

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