Thursday, October 30, 2008

Winning the Game (Finite and Infinite Games, pt. 2)

"A finite game has a precise beginning and end, and has clear spatial and numerical boundaries. There must be at least one opponent. In a finite game there can be only one winner, but other players may be ranked at the end of play." (James Carse, 'Finite and Infinite Games')
Many play the game of life as if it had a “precise beginning and end.” This applies a finite rule, making all games conform to a finite outcome of winning. You may not win a career game, however, you may generate enough points to facilitate a higher position within the boundaries of the game.

You may play the game of "simple country doctor" and improve the lives of many or play the game of "famous surgeon" inventing an artificial heart that saves lives. The country doctor may receive little public accolade, while the surgeon is awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. However, if the country doctor plays an infinite game there is no need for external rewards because he/she internally values the continuation of play. While the surgeon may play to win and go on to greater external rewards. A problem may arise should the surgeon lose his skills.

To be a doctor requires obedience to time parameters as far as education, internship, licensing, practice, etc, etc. Spatially, such games must be played within the society or country that sets the rules for winning. These rules are often predetermined by winners of past doctor games. You may win the prestige of being called a doctor by those who are not doctors, however, doctors play other games through which to voluntarily compete amongst themselves. Often times this may include monetary games. To play a finite game of "cosmetic surgeon" may have higher monetary value than the game of "podiatrist" even though both are "doctors."

Since there can only be one winner (or winning team) we play many different games to increase our chances of winning. Academic games, played in colleges and universities, have numerous finite games through which to compete for ranking and even possibly win. To win demands you attain the highest prestige in your specified intellectual domain. Universities are often rated on the accumulation of academic winners, thereby improving the universities chances of winning.

Infinite games have no boundaries, such as space and time, and although we all play games within space and time, infinite games are not determined by those boundaries. Religious and spiritual games may be played within space/time boundaries but may not necessarily be limited by those boundaries.

For instance there are many who play the "enlightenment game" and become regarded as enlightened gurus and saints within space/time. However, if their “enlightenment” transcends space/time boundaries and thus, they are not restricted by those rules, they can continue to play "enlightenment" infinitely, with no predetermined rules and no winners.

Enlightenment is as much a game as being a doctor. However, doctors must conform to the predetermined rules as a requirement of play. Gurus and saints play infinite games by setting their own rules, which must allow that rules can be changed as they go along. However, once rules are demanded, the game is finite and a winner is required. Many gurus and saints play finite games and if your particular spiritual teacher plays by specific rules of "enlightenment" you may wish to seek out another teacher. Or else, play the required finite game within an infinite game. But this may require much internal skill and fortitude, especially when taught to follow the rules.

Finite games can engender competing through a team or alone in which the body is stretched to its limits. Although many go beyond what was done before, we all agree that there are limits to what one can do. You may break records in running a 3 minute mile, but never in less than 2 minutes. We all have agreed on that being a rule. Until, of course, someone refuses to agree and runs a 2 minute mile and then the rules must change.
"Other than the principle of voluntarism, infinite games are the opposite of finite games in every way. Infinite games have no spatial, temporal, or numerical boundaries, and no winners or rankings. Finite games are externally defined; infinite games are internally defined."
We all choose to play. Denying that we choose is often a rule of finite games so that the game will be taken seriously and thus the rules strictly followed. On the other hand, infinite games lack seriousness simply because they are internally defined and cannot be won, but allow for voluntary, continued play.

Deepak Chopra is trained in the finite rules of playing a doctor and must have externally exhibited a seriousness for the rules in order to win that finite game and attain the prestige of being called "doctor." However, he has gone beyond those rules internally and thus changed the rules of play thereby developing new rules through which to play “doctor” by not remaining bound to the rules of that finite game. As long as he continues to change the rules, and is not bound by any rules, the game will remain infinite. Yet, at anytime the play is defined as demanding certain rules, the game is then defined as finite, meaning someone must win.

Visionaries and radicals often play infinite games. However, they can eventually become predisposed to a specific set of rules (often their own) requiring the game be finite and a winner determined.

Hitler went beyond finite rules, but demanded rigid conformance to his own finite rules of conquest. His game was terminated by others who refused to play by his rules, thereby desiring that an infinite game be played which included freedom and democracy. Unfortunately, the new players imposed their own external rules and so, infinite play could only be accessed internally while finite geopolitical games continue on, even today.

Infinite games are often hard to recognize in our postmodern advanced society, even by those who look to play infinitely and this is because of the internal nature of infinite games. Many modern spiritual games seem infinite on face value, but it soon becomes apparent that often one must do it this way or that way in order to play and potentially win.

Infinite games can have no winner, but only never-ending play. For most, this seems virtually impossible as all games are usually played with space/time boundaries. A winner is expected and losers are ranked according to how close they come to winning. Many live in complete disregard for the finite games we expect all participants of society to play and we often refer to non-players as "losers."

This finite social conditioning tends to make infinite games incredibly difficult to envision and require leaps of consciousness from which to break from finite rules. Yet, many do experience that freedom on a daily basis.
"The time of an infinite game is determined in the game itself. Finite games can be played within an infinite game, but no infinite game can be played within a finite game. The rules of a finite game are predetermined and fixed. The rules of an infinite game must change in the course of play, to avoid a finite outcome. The rules of an infinite game are changed to prevent anyone from winning and to bring as many persons as possible into the play."
Playing a finite game within an infinite game necessarily changes the finite rules thereby altering the game itself, but only internally. I can play at being a doctor and conform to fixed rules, while at the same time anticipating infinite play within that finite game. This can only be done internally and often must be veiled externally from those who demand finite rules so that winners and losers can be determined. Eventually, infinite players are identified and loved or hated.

Infinite games can adhere to time restrictions but only in order to continue playing and not to end the game by announcing a winner. Infinite players do not take winners very seriously simply because they continue to play internally and have no expectation of outcome other than continued play.

A priest or minister may externally demonstrate adherence to finite rules, while internally playing an infinite game, thereby taking his congregation beyond the predetermined dogma. Such a visionary individual may eventually be barred from continuing, but by then it may be too late and the congregation will take on a life of its own outside church walls. Such "churches" are open to all denominations and religions allowing no restrictions based on sex, gender, or anything else for that matter.

Clearly, a doctor who delights in saving lives, or a politician who revels in going against his party to end suffering, would be playing a finite game within an infinite game. This would be true as long as the rules never become rigidly determined. These individuals then become models for saving more lives, by encouraging more participants to play the game in ending more suffering in more creative ways. This abundance has no end (hence, the term infinite), but only within infinite games can this process occur since there are no winners to end the game and no rules to bar other ways of playing the 'more' game.

Abraham Lincoln’s campaign platform demanded the continuation of slavery. However, internally he did not adhere to those rules and merely waited for the correct time to externally declare an “emancipation proclamation.” This is an example of an infinite game in which time “is determined in the game itself.” Ending the institution of slavery was a finite game that has never ended and is therefore, infinite.

Currently, Barack Obama has refused to comply with the rules of campaign finance and has been severely criticized by the opposing party for breaking those rules. However, his refusing to abide by predetermined rules changes the rules forever. Yet, if he is elected and demands other rules regarding campaign finance, he would thereby alter an infinite game back into a finite game with strict rules.

Of course, visionaries will be condemned for ignoring finite boundaries and rules (loss of license or party affiliation, or even assassination) by those who play finite games. But they will be seen as visionary by those who play infinite games and will be remembered long after they are gone.

History teaches about those who refused to be bound by the rules of finite games. The fact that there are so few models, per capita, illustrates our pressing need to have defined boundaries and rigid rules so that we can evaluate who the winners and losers are and thus, possibly win ourselves.

A finite game must have a winner. What games do you play to win?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Game of Life ("Finite and Infinite Games," pt 1).

Everybody has considered at one time or another, the idea that “life is a game." Well, James Carse has written a book about such considerations called Finite and Infinite Games. This is one of those profound little books that I return to frequently (my paperback is old tattered and devoid of margins due to my consistent editing and markings) in trying to make sense of the absurdities of living.

This next series of blog posts will examine that book’s general thesis and main points. Of course, this is only my interpretation and I would hope that you read the book yourself in order to get the full value of the ideas.

“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. There is no game, finite or infinite, unless the players freely agree to play it. No one can play who is forced to play. This is an invariable principle of all play. Whoever must play, cannot play. If a finite game is to be won by someone, it must come to a definitive end. It will come to an end when someone has won. Winning is determined by agreement of the players.” (italics the authors)

It's interesting how we believe there are so many things we must do in life. Like death and taxes, we feel we have no choice in the matter. Of course, this denies the nature of “play” and that we have chosen to play by the rules of a particular game.

I have freely chosen to participate in the game of paying taxes since I could just as easily refuse to play. Certainly, there would be consequences based on the rules of that game, but the fact is, many choose NOT to pay taxes and thus not to play by the collectively agreed upon rules. You may feel you must play the game of paying taxes, but clearly ‘choice’ is built into the game and, make no mistake, you have chosen to play by the rules. Complaints about the game of paying taxes, is part of the rules of that game.

Our games tend to be interwoven. In paying taxes we also play the game of "United States citizen," which is a much broader game and tends to include within it’s rules various other games, including taxes. For instance, "Patriot" is a game many play and therefore, not paying taxes would be unpatriotic and would be essentially not to play by the rules of the game of patriot. We choose to play by the rules of the game of patriotism, because we wish to win. To win at being a patriot means to acquire the titles that we all agree are indicative of winning the game of patriotism (we will review the concept of “titles” in another post).

Presidential candidate John McCain has won the game of patriotism and most agree that he has won, so he is free to use his title of patriot in the game of presidential candidate. His winning the game of patriotism makes the game finite since his winning is NOT to be questioned. To question his title to 'patriotism' and thus, his winning, would be to keep the game in play and thus alter the game from finite, or having a definitive end, to infinite with the continuation of play.

If McCain were to win the game of presidential election, we would agree that the game of “presidential election” has concluded by reaching a definitive end and all further need to play has ended. However, many may attempt to alter this finite game by questioning the designated winner and the rules that resulted in that game being won, seeking to create an infinite game serving to continue the play. In fact, many may choose not to play the game of paying taxes, since they refuse to recognize the game of presidential election as being won.


Many people feel that the game of 'life' is a finite game, since it does reach a definitive end which we agree to call “death.” Thus, life has finite rules which serve to allow play until death ends the game and we go to heaven or whatever 'place' we determine within the rules as we choose to play. Therefore, all the rules we play by in life include the belief that the game does end. Because of that definitive ending, life games take on an air of sophistication and seriousness, that tend to cause us to deny that we have freely chosen to play.

Often, due to the seriousness of life games, many choose not to take it serious and some, through suicide, choose not to play at all (unfortunately suicide is also a game that can be either finite or infinite). Many believe that if they can acquire a great deal of property, financial resources and game titles (like president, chairman, chief, CEO, retired, grandfather, etc) they have played the game of life well and have therefore won the game. But of course, winning stops play for that particular player within the boundaries of the finite nature of the game of life. This is because the life game includes all lesser games, such as work, career, marriage, citizenship, money, real estate, friendship, old age, religion, parenting, etc, etc, within its boundaries. There are infinite games that can be played in life, but most choose to play only specific finite games since they play life as though it were finite and had a definitive end to all play. Any game that can be won and thus ended, becomes a serious endeavor often with tragic costs. Yet, tragedy is also a game.

Many discard the rules of death and choose to continue play after death. This obviously changes the rules of the game of life because death is no longer considered an end to play and therefore, the game of life has no end and is open-ended. Life is then engaged as a game with no winners or losers, but as simply the ongoing continuation of play. In other words, many alter the rules of death to include continued play therefore essentially negating the game of death and infinitely extending the game of life.

Spiritual/religious paths are often such rule-benders by requiring that the spiritual game be played by choice just as the finite game of life is played by choice. I can freely choose to discard the seriousness of life by conceptually negating death as a finite conclusion to life. Now I am open to play by different rules, which may or may not include the acquisition of titles and property to signify my winning the game of life. This is because as an infinite game, life has no winners or rules other than that all players must continue play indefinitely. This is why many who live in abject poverty are often happier than millionaires.

We cannot deny the freedom inherent to infinite games in that the only rule is to continue play. Thus, lesser games within an infinite game of life no longer take on profound significance through the rules of winning, simply because there can be NO winners or losers and that rule is agreed upon by all who choose to play infinitely.

The next installment of this exposition of Infinite and Finite games will continue the current theme with additional quotes from the book and further discussion.