Finite and Infinite Games

A Useful Reference Frame

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

There are at least two kinds of games: finite and infinite. 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. Finite games are theatrical, necessitating an audience; infinite ones are dramatic, involving participants…

Carse, James P. (1986). “Finite and Infinite Games”. Composite quote., accessed on 29 Mar 2021.

Complex Domain

I no longer recall where I first came across finite and infinite games. I’m pretty sure I did not read the book. I’m not sure the concept needs a book. The introduction of the concept of infinite game, where the purpose is to continue to play until one no longer can, reminds me of the Complex domain. In the Complex domain, constraints change due to agent actions, enabling new actions, changing constraints, enabling new actions, and so on…

Sports Metaphor

The framing of finite and infinite games points out that the use of a sports metaphor in business is inappropriate. The purpose of a business is not to win. The purpose of a business is to continue to play. For someone looking at business through a sports lens, they’re playing the wrong game.

Military Metaphor

A military metaphor for business is better than a sports one. Despite Carse somehow classifying military conflict into a finite game, it is anything but. The purpose of the military is not to win a war. The end of hostilities is but a step in setting conditions for the peace that hopefully follows (that’s the reason why wars have rules). 

Having said that, I am not a fan of using the military metaphor for business. As I pointed out in Metaphors We Live By, we ought to be sensitive to everything that the metaphor brings along with it. Military deals with death and killing. Typical business stakes are not that high. I will happily trade a “war room” and “fog of war” for an “operations center” and “uncertainty”. 

What Do You Think?

Did you notice some metaphors that didn’t seem to fit in a particular context? Did the finite/infinite game distinction clarify why that is the case? Let me know in the comments.

Next Up

Without sports or military metaphors what should we use? I did not have a great answer for this until I came across Wardley Maps, a reference frame for business that originated within business context: Wardley Mapping.



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