About two decades ago James Carse, a religious scholar and historian, wrote a philosophical text titled Finite and Infinite Games. As he explained, there are 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.
This simple distinction invites some profound thought. War is a finite game, as is the Superbowl. Peace is an infinite game, as is the game of love. Finite games end with a winner(s) and loser(s), while infinite games seek perpetual play. Politics is a finite game; democracy, liberty, and justice are infinite games.
Life itself, then, could be considered a finite or infinite game depending on which perspective one takes. If ‘he who dies with the most toys wins,’ one is living in a finite game that ends with death. If one chooses to create an entity that lives beyond the grave, a legacy that perpetuates through time, then one is playing an infinite game.
One can imagine that we often play a number of finite games within an infinite game. This supports the idea of waging war in order to attain peace (though I wouldn’t go so far as saying it validates destroying the village in order to save it). The taxonomy also relates to the time horizon of one’s perspective in engaging in the game. In other words, are we playing for the short term gain or the long term payoff?
I find Carse’s arguments compelling when I relate them to the new digital economy and how the digital world is transforming how we play certain games, especially those of social interaction and the monetization of value. That sounds a bit hard to follow, but what I’m referring to is the value of the information network (the Internet) as an infinite game.
I would value the internet according to its power to help people connect and share ideas. (I recently wrote a short book on this power called The Ultimate Killer App: The Power to Create and Connect.) The more an idea is shared, the more powerful and valuable it can be. In this sense, the internet is far more valuable than the sum of its various parts, and for it to end as the victim of a finite game would be a tragedy for all. So, I see playing on the information network as an infinite game.
The paradox is that most of the big players on the internet – the Googles, Facebooks, Amazons, etc – are playing finite games on and with the network. In fact, they are using the natural monopoly of network dynamics to win finite games for themselves, reaping enormous value in the process. But while they are winning, many others are losing. Yes, we do gain in certain ways, but the redistribution of information data power is leading to the redistribution of monetary gains and losses across the population of users. In many cases those gains and losses are redistributed quite arbitrarily.
For instance, let us take the disruption of the music industry, or the travel industry, or the publishing industry. One need not lament the fate of obsolete business models to recognize that for play to continue, players must have the possibility of adapting to change in order to keep the infinite game on course. Most musicians and authors believe their professions are DOA. What does that say for the future of culture?
Unfortunately, this disruption across the global economy wrought by digitization is being reflected in the chaotic politics of our times, mostly across previously stable developed democracies.
These economic and political developments don’t seem particularly farsighted and one can only speculate how the game plays out. But to relate it to current events, many of us are playing electoral politics in a finite game that has profound implications for the more important infinite game we should be playing.