Finite and Infinite games

As the meme goes, there are two groups of people, those who group people into two groups and those who don’t. I’ve found the people I come into contact with are generally approaching life through one of two game theory patterns. Understanding this has really saved me from a lot of heartache and wasted effort.

Having followed the reading list for the AltMBA, I found that one book really had an oversized impact on me. Finite and Infinite games by James Carse. It’s something that really helped me frame why I do what I do and make sense of why I love it.

Finite games

A finite game is one with fixed players and rules, known boundaries and resources, and the objective is to end the game with winners and losers. I see this a lot. People focussing on competition, and looking for opportunity to win on whatever metric the rules they play by equates to success for them. Often that’s things like money, power, glory and attention. I’m yet to personally encounter someone playing a finite game with their life that focusses on an altruistic metric. This may be because if you define your core philosophy to see a world where some losing is just ‘part of the game’, you might have less focus on social good.

Infinite games are different

In an infinite the rules are replaced with authentic interactions, where players agree to change the rules, boundaries, resources and who participates in order to keep the game moving forward. The objective is to keep the game play going for as long as possible. The metrics of success are more often found in enjoyment of participation and having good stories to tell about times you played. People that I believe see the world this way generally focus on altruistic outcomes, particularly in the third-sector that would be things like inequality, the environment, well being of others, and in tech that would be the open-source and community dynamics. You can’t ‘win’ at open-source, you just want your project and community to continue, and the game only stops when it’s not fun anymore.

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.

While in theory neither game shape is right or wrong. I’m definitely an infinite player. I’m biased toward that being better approach. I’m sure this systems thinking way to define approaches to the world might not solve every way of evaluating reality, but it’s really helped me make a lot of key decisions. Particularly when it comes to how I invest my time. I naturally found I’d be internally hesitant to help someone with a project if I felt they were only in it for them, and yet would never struggle to help a project with far less resource but seemed to be working toward sustainable social good.

Finite players Infinite players
Want to win Want to play
Resource is finite and to be captured Resource can be created and to be shared
Need to be observed to win Gratitude to other players
Seek resources and power Seek contribution and impact
Measures the players Measures the quality of play
Others are competition Others are potential players
Barriers to entry Diversity and Inclusion
Competitive advantage Sustainability
Deadlines & Windows Seasons & Rhythms
Zero-sum Infinite progression

Suddenly after reading the book, concepts like burn-out in open-source space made sense. “It’s just not fun anymore” seems to be the bottom line of every blog post on the subject. I see this in play out in community conferences and startups, where interactions start off for fun, then unintentional (or well intentioned) growth moves the play toward a very corporate shape, where the rules feel different. Suddenly people find there are now winners and losers (employee of the month, community rockstars). This is very different dynamic to ‘everyone having fun’, and can result in a negative impact.

Infinite games apply to other tricky concepts. It can be said that writing code is creating tech debt. Sometimes (and I know I’ll be in trouble for this) I feel it’s ok to leave it build when resources are tight. This is because there might be a better way to keep the game moving.

Instead of ignoring the debt build-up in favour of some other metric like profit, I’ve found that if that tech debt starts to decrease fun then I know that’s a signal to work on refactoring or better tooling. Then I react with bigger whole team investments into the problem when that balance tips. I imagine there are better patterns for doing tech debt management, but it feels right for me for now.

I have a couple of pet theories: one is that ‘Human Resource’ is a finite game label - infinite players would have named that team The Empathy Department, Diversity and Inclusion management or People Care. The other is that Retrospectives seem to be universally accepted as a good thing because they invite a discussion on changing the rules and goals to keep the game fun.

Infinite games are not easier

Games need challenges to be overcome. In infinite dynamics, there is a lot more energy spent on helping players play nicely together, resolving conflict and debating rules and approach. For this to works well, the infinite objective (or mission statement, community goal etc) leads a productive conversations. (Queue the books on getting your ‘why’ right). If finite thinking creeps in, the conversation moves from collaborative tension to competition and can become toxic. Often the attitude and demeanour of players in these discussions lead to best outcomes. You have to be in the mood to play…

At DEV infinite game thinking really helps me with strategic clarity. I didn’t like running a for-profit, because the goal was to ‘win’, and peers around me defined that as exiting with lo ts of money. Exit seemed a long way away, so I pushed it to the back of my mind, and just carried on playing. Having converted to a worker owned co-operative, however, I’ve never been happier. Exit would be very difficult to achieve now, and the focus is continued sustainability - ‘just enough to stay fun’.

It feels like I’ve found what I wanted all along. Yes, it’s called work for a reason, but deep down I know that I just want to play.

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