Are you playing a finite game, or an infinite one?

Patrick Hollingworth
September 25, 2015

In his book Finite and Infinite Games: A vision of life as play and possibility, James Carse describes two ways in which we can look at our actions in life. Carse describes finite games as those which have a definite beginning and ending, and are bounded by specific rules. This weekend’s AFL and NRL semi-finals are great examples of finite games that we play (or watch). For many people, 9-5 work is also a finite game.

Carse then goes on to describe another type of game, one which he calls infinite. As compared to finite games, infinite games do not have specific beginning or end points, and rather than having boundaries that constrain its players, infinite games have horizons that move with its players.

The rules of a finite game cannot change, whereas the rules of an infinite game must change. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, whereas the infinite game is played for the purpose of continuing the play. Carse goes on to describe finite players as those who win titles, whereas infinite players play only for themselves, and finite players as those who play to become powerful, whereas infinite players simply play with their natural strengths.

You can see where we’re going here.

Whether you’re climbing a mountain using Expedition Style or you’re running an organisation using this approach, it’s a finite game. Expedition Style is all about identifying a mountain to climb, and then doing whatever it takes to ensure the summit is won. It has a ‘summit at all costs’ mentality. Once the summit has been attained, once the climbers have returned to base camp, they can go home, as the game has been won. Expedition Style is extrinsically motivated, focusing only on the goal, leading to problems with goaladicy (an unhealthy obsession with goals) and increased exposure to the fallibilities of cognitive bias and poor leadership.

The infinite game.

An Alpine Style approach on the other hand is an infinite game. Alpine Style is a much more committed ethos: it’s not only a commitment to the here and now, but also to an ongoing process of improvement. Alpine Style is intrinsically motivated, focusing on the act of climbing itself, with the reward being the learning from the journey as a whole, rather than just the moment of when the summit is reached.

I reckon in these VUCA times ahead we need to transition from playing finite games to playing infinite ones, and from going Expedition Style to going Alpine Style. Not just in our work and organisations, but in our lives too.

A benefit of playing the infinite game: there are always more mountains to climb.

Since I started playing around with this idea and seeing life itself as an infinite rather than finite game, it’s really changed my perspective on the world (for starters, I get way less stressed about things!). Of course, there are all finite games that we have to play at times, but I encourage you to play around with this idea and ask yourself how you see your work and your life.

Are you playing a finite game, or an infinite one?