Leadership X.0
16 October 2019

A game is the way a player interacts with other players, according to certain rules and with certain consequences. The perspective of the game can be finite or infinite. With the first, the goal is to win; with the second, the goal is to prosper

“I am not strong because I can force others to do what I wish as a result of my play with them, but because I can allow them to do what they wish in the course of my play with them”

“Surprise causes finite play to end; it is the reason for infinite play to continue”

No question about it, reading James Carse book “Finite and infinite games: a vision of life as a game and possibilities” is a real pleasure. It inspires, illuminates, intrigues, and makes one think. A rich and stimulating read that entertains and exerts an immediate and powerful influence on the way in which we could read the situations we live, the emotions that these situations generate, the behaviors that these situations trigger and the results they give rise to. We know a lot about games where competitors, strategies, risks, and probabilities are studied with the purpose of winning. We have thought much less about games in which possibilities, expressiveness, creation, change and potential are combined with the goal of thriving.

For years, Carse was Professor Emeritus of History and Religious Literature as well as Director of Religious Studies at New York University. It is surprising that a professor of literature and religious studies writes a book about finite and infinite games. A book of this kind is typically written by professors of microeconomics and mathematics. In fact, when we talk about games it is inevitable to think of game theory, which denotes a set of mathematical contributions aimed at the study of strategic relationships between agents and the equilibria that strategies can determine.

A discipline born in the 1950s after the pioneering contributions of John Nash, Reinhard Selten and John Harsanyi, game theory has become a tool of widespread application in the field of economics, for example in the study of market equilibria, and in particular, of equilibria arising with the strategic interaction among competitors (as in the case of the oligopoly), or in the study of equilibria as a result of bargaining (as in the case of labour contracts). In 1994, the three pioneers were awarded the Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences.

Game theory, among other things, studies the equilibria that characterize finite and infinite games. However, such games are not entirely comparable to those Carse talks about. In fact, in his unconventional book, Carse proposes a definition and an analysis of games that offers an original and inspiring perspective of life and of the circumstances in which we find ourselves living it.

For game theorists, games are defined by players, strategies and payoffs. Each game, therefore, is defined by a specific group of players, by a set of strategies that can be adopted, and by payoffs earned when the strategies are chosen. Finite and infinite games differ only with respect to the temporal horizon of the game: finite games have a finite term while infinite games don’t. Once the game is specified, be it finite or infinite, the game theorist studies what kind of equilibrium emerges, namely, who wins, how much he wins and what is the winning strategy.

For Carse, finite games are those that have a limited time horizon, during which a given group of players adopts strategies with the objective of prevailing over other players. A player’s victory implies the defeat of the others. Infinite games, instead, are those whose time horizon is unlimited, which players are not known (as they can change over time), and the rules and boundaries of the game are chosen by the players themselves. Carse points out: ” who participates in a finite game plays within the boundaries of the game; who participates in an infinite game plays with the boundaries of the game”. Furthermore, and contrary to game theory, Carse does not study the equilibria arising in the two types of game but offers reflections and aphorisms on the implications for the various players, applicable to the realm of anthropology, sociality, business and everyday life.

Besides the differences on how the two approaches define and characterize games, which to those familiar with game theory may appear relevant and meaningful, the real scope of Carse’s perspective appears more fascinating when we pause on some of its implications. Let’s try to focus on some compelling aspects when we discuss games:

  • objective: in finite games the objective is to win the game, to prevail over the other players, to mark the end of the game as winners. In infinite games, the goal of the players is to preserve the game and themselves in the game.
  • Identity and role of the players: we do not relate to others as the people we are, but we are the people we are because we are in relation to others. Does the fact that our identity depends on the relationship with others mean that it is others who impose an identity on us? Or rather, does our identity depend on the role we assign to others and the relationship with others that follows from this assignment? In finite games, players are potential terminators of the game. In infinite games, players are game facilitators, a source of expression and prosperity rather than a threat to survival.
  • Value of the players: The finished games are essentially power games, that is, games about the acquisition of power, the expansion of power and the protection of power. Infinite games, on the other hand, have to do with strength. In an infinite game, a player is strong not because he can impose his will to others as a result of his game with them, but because he can allow others to do what they want during his game with them.
  • limits: taking part to a finite game implies accepting the existence of limits within which the game is played. This distorts players’ behaviour and highlights, by contrast, the extraordinary possibilities that emerge when we reject the limits, as happens by adopting an infinite game perspective.
  • change: in finite games, change is the only source of discontinuity. In a context in which players, playing time, rules of the game, playing field and possible outcomes are given, the change of these elements will change the game, the strategies and the results. In infinite games, on the other hand, change is the only source of continuity. In a context in which players, playing time, rules of the game, playing field and possible outcomes are not given, changing one of these elements does not change the game. The game remains open to the possible.
  • competition vs complementarity: in a finite game, each player wants to prevail over the others. The perspective is purely competitive. In an infinite game, each player promotes a universe of possibilities for himself and for others, adopting a purely complementary vision of his role with that of the other players. By showing the ability to create potential and possibilities, the players of an infinite game have more chances to attract other players in the infinite game and support the infinite game itself.
  • probability vs possibility: in finite games, possible outcomes are known, the game determines which outcome prevails. We are in the realm of probabilities and of the risk with which the outcome of the game may arise. In infinite games, possible outcomes are unknown and the game relentlessly gives rise to new possible outcomes. We are in the realm of uncertainty, in which one evaluates possibilities and scenarios.

From the discussion of these elements, it is clear why Carse analysis about games is relevant for VUCA contexts. To continue playing in an ever-changing environment, players will have to compete on themselves, not on others. This leads to a drastic change in perspective: infinite game will never give rise to a victory. The only success is to continue playing. It follows that, in order to preserve the game, each of its participants will interact with others to create the conditions to make the game infinite. The proliferation of possible actions creates a universe of possibilities, which is the requirement for making the game infinite.