Never Win the Infinite Game

By Al and David Blixt

In 1986 James Carse wrote a quirky little book called “Finite and Infinite Games”. It didn’t get the attention it deserves, as the concepts in his book provide a doorway to understanding the nature of several life activities, from sports and economics to politics.

The Basic Idea: Two Games

According to Carse, there are 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 to play.

Here are the rules of finite and infinite games:

1 · A finite game has a “playing field”, either physical or virtual, while infinite games have no boundaries.

2 · We cannot play a finite game alone. We must have an opponent to play against and usually teammates to play with.

3 · Only one person or team can win a finite game.

4 · Participation must be voluntary. If you must play a game, you cannot play a game.

5 · The rules of a finite game are the mutually-accepted terms that dertermine the winner. In an infinite game, the rules must change during the course of play to prevent anyone from winning, and to bring as many other persons as possible into play.

6 · Finite games can be played within an infinite game, but an infinite game cannot be played within a finite game.

Let’s look at three examples to see this idea in application: Football, Economics, and Politics.

Professional Football as Both a Finite and an Infinite Game

Every season, 32 professional NFL teams play a series of 16 games. These are finite games: there are weekly winners and losers (with the occasional tie to keep things interesting). Teams hire and fire coaches and players, develop schemes and innovate strategies, and do their best to win as many of those games as possible.

All teams play by agreed-upon rules, rules enforced with a high level of scrutiny, with multiple referees and video replay to ensure that players conform to the rules. Teams do everything they can, within the rules, to win. Enough victories in the regular season and a team is able to move on to the playoffs, another series of finite games. In the end, there is an annual Super Bowl Champion.

For teams and fans, each season is a finite game. But from the standpoint of the National Football League, football itself is an infinite game. Their objective isn’t wins or losses, but to make sure that all 32 teams have enough financial success to return next season. Using mechanisms like salary caps, TV revenue sharing, and the player draft system, the league tries to “level the playing field”. Because it is in no one’s best interest to have a team fail and go out of business.

In fact, players of an infinite game continually adjust the rules to prevent that result. Even a terrible franchise like the Detroit Lions (lifelong Lions fan here) is able to remain viable as a business despite not having won a championship since 1957. The Lions’ share of television revenue allows the team to continue despite what seems, at least up to now, to be woefully inadequate management. In that sense, the Detroit team is the beneficiary of the infinite game, while also benefiting every team it loses to. The overall game can continue.

It is in no one’s interest for one team to take a no-holds-barred approach, becoming so powerful and dominant that other teams are literally unable to compete. To allow that to happen would mean the end of the NFL.

Thus professional football is a perfect example of finite games being played within an infinite game. Each team wants to win their season, but no one wants the overall game to end.

Image for post
Image for post

Capitalism as a Finite and Infinite Game

Proponents of a market-based economy often decry government interference in the private sector, believing an unchecked market is the best way to effectively allocate resources.

Pure capitalism is a lovely ideal, but ironically shares the same fatal flaw that dooms communism as well: it doesn’t take human nature into account.

In its purest form, capitalist theory assumes unlimited informed buyers and motivated sellers entering the marketplace of their own free will. Buyers vote with their dollars to get their needs met, and sellers compete with each other to meet those needs. In a perfect world, competition leads to the lowest cost and greatest value for consumers.

In effect, each transaction is a finite game where sellers are competing with each other for the buyer’s business.

Unfortunately, the reality is that sellers are often a very small group (think auto makers or Facebook or Amazon or private health insurance companies) with the ability to crowd competitors out of the market. Left to its own devices, capitalism is a finite game leading to monopoly control of markets by a very few sellers. Individual buyers have little power to dictate terms.

It is especially problematic when buyers aren’t in the marketplace of their own free will. A cancer patient didn’t choose to enter that marketplace, and is unable to walk away if a deal isn’t equitable.

The question is how to ensure that competition is “fair”, preserving the relative choices and bargaining strength of buyers, with plenty of opportunity for new sellers to enter the market.

In the United States, the role of the local, state, and federal governments is to ensure that capitalism fulfills its promise while also accounting for the collective interests of the population. Some examples:

· The Constitution provides for copyright, trademark, and patent protections for sellers to encourage entrepreneurs to be creative. Yet copyrights and patents are designed to expire so that after a certain period, new inventions will pass into the public domain.

· Anti-trust laws seek to promote competition by preventing the concentration of power in a few companies.

· Relations between employers and employees are regulated (think health, safety, and collective bargaining laws) to level that playing field.

· Doctors, lawyers, and other professionals are subject to licensing laws to protect buyers from unqualified practitioners.

While there can be honest disputes over whether a particular regulation is appropriate, the need for government to adjust and enforce the rules is indisputable. Think about it in terms of the previous example. You may argue with a referee about a call, but you can’t deny the need for referees. If each player was allowed to abide by the rules only on the honor system, there would be rampant cheating. That’s what happens when there is too little government oversight — as we saw with the economic collapse of 2008.

This is where human nature comes in. Individuals are, by nature, self-interested. Without a check on that self-interest, wealth will end up concentrated in the hands of the few, and we all lose capitalism’s ability to efficiently allocate resources (think pharmaceutical drug prices). What follows is the collapse of economies, and political upheaval.

Think of the board game Monopoly. The Parker Brothers have been selling that game since the Depression, and it illustrates unchecked capitalism: there is one winner, who has all the money — a finite game. Whereas the Sim City games are designed to force the player to create a sustainable system — an infinite game.

The goal of any economy should be an infinite game. Unrestrained capitalism is a finite game, ending with all the wealth in the hands of the few.

Democracy: Finite or Infinite Game?

Democracy (including our representative democracy in the U.S.) is an advanced form of governance designed to allow finite games within an infinite game.

The fundamental notion of democracy is that government derives its powers from the will of the governed — a relatively new concept in human history. Previous models were based on authority coming from god (divine right of kings) or simply by virtue of force (fascism, communism, other forms of authoritarianism). If the object of government is to reflect the will of the people, then mechanisms must be in place to prevent the accumulation of power in the hands of the few.

Every election, from the local town council to the president of the United States, is intended to be a finite game, a contest of ideas and personalities, where candidates present their qualifications and policy ideas to serve the interests of voters. In principle, each person’s vote has equal weight, with safeguards to ensure the popular will is reflected.

Of course, this noble principle is not what happens. Democracy is a rough and tumble business. Still, in a two-party system where there are regular elections, competing ideas are continually evaluated, and office holders found wanting will be turned out (eventually). Broadly speaking, the two parties manage to balance individual and common interests, with the pendulum swinging back and forth depending on the satisfaction of the voting population with those in power.

The huge challenge of democracy is how to enforce the will of the people when so many forces work to undermine it. The U.S. Constitution was carefully designed to provide checks and balances, with three (theoretically) co-equal branches of government to avoid the concentration of power in the hands of the few. And over the last 200 years the voting franchise has been steadily expanded, giving more weight to the will of the people. Where once only free, white, male property owners were entitled to vote, we have seen all persons over 18 granted the legal right to vote, including the descendants of slaves, women, and persons of all economic classes.

Unfortunately, some segments of society seek to limit the franchise in order to acquire and maintain political power. From Jim Crow laws to today’s voter suppression strategies to outright tampering with elections, these forces oppose the idea of the consent of the governed. In fact, some politicians openly advocate permanent one-party rule.

In effect, these individuals want to turn the infinite game of governance into a finite game, a game decided once and for all by those in power.

While the result might still retain the forms of democracy (a dictator gets 98% of the “free election” vote), the reality is something very different. Caesar retained the office of the consul when he was named Dictator For Life, and there were still elections. But no one doubted who was in charge. The same can be said of Putin’s Russia today.

Image for post
Image for post

The Perils of Playing a Finite Game When It Shouldn’t Be a Game at All

In certain fields, acting as if you are playing a finite game can lead to disaster. Failure to honor the infinite game can lead to irreversible harm. Treating politics as a finite game leads to actions like ignoring the risks of climate change in pursuit of short-term self-interest.

The trouble is, if one side decides to play a finite game, the other side has no choice but to play one as well. But if one has to play, it is no longer a game. Climate change and its consequences, for example, are not something that humanity can opt out of. Neither is the demise of democratic institutions and the freedoms that come with them. Once gone, they are nigh-on impossible to restore. The infinite game has been lost.

The Future is not finite — we hope!

Finite games make up much of our lives. Whether it’s football games, the marketplace, or elections, it’s easy to get wrapped up on winning and losing.

But for those of us who want to be able to continue to play, it is equally essential to do what is necessary to make sure the infinite games continue. After all, the future is infinite — unless we treat it like it’s not.

Al Blixt, Senior Partner at Dannemiller-Tyson Associates and Managing Partner at New Campus Dynamics, is the co-author of LEADING INNOVATION AND CHANGE, WHOLE-SCALE CHANGE: UNLEASHING THE MAGIC IN ORGANIZATIONS, and THE WHOLE-SCALE TOOLKIT. He has been an organizational change consultant since 1994, after careers as an attorney, university professor, marketing executive and business owner. Based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, he is a long-suffering Detroit Lions fan, an auto-racing historian, devoted husband and proud father (and grandfather!).

David Blixt is an author, actor, and fight director based in Chicago, where he’s allowed to co-exist with an awesome woman and a pair of really cool kids. His new book, WHAT GIRLS ARE GOOD FOR: A Novel of Nellie Bly, is available now on Amazon Kindle and print. Follow David on Twitter @David_Blixt, on Facebook here, and on his website at Sign up for David’s Mailing List here and get free books and more!

Actor. Author. Father. Husband. In reverse order. Latest novel: WHAT GIRLS ARE GOOD FOR.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store