Finite and infinite games, and their relevance to radicalism…

This entry is about games. Not games in the sense of entertainment, but in the more general sense of any system that has participants, rules regulating their interactions, and an objective. Playing Monopoly is a game, and so is a job opening, a corporation, an election, a family, and so on. Most of our interactions with people exist within some game, even if we’re not conscious of it.

In his seminal book on the subject, James Carse states that we can differentiate between two general kinds of games: finite and infinite (hence the title of his book, Finite and Infinite Games). They are so named because they have different kinds of objectives. Finite games must end in the victory of one of the participants or groups of participants, and the participants generally seek to win. Participants in infinite games, on the other hand, have as their objective to continue the game for as long as they can.

Hierarchical societies drive such a wedge between the personal and the political, between work and play, between “idealistic values” and “realistic pragmatism,” that it seems strange to use the term “game” to describe parts of social institutions. To us, a “game” is something individual, personal, trivial, that can have no connection to “real life.” This prevents us from understanding the similarities between games of the same kind simply because one is “personal” and the other is “serious.”

Finite and infinite games have a number of important differences:

* The ultimate objective of the participants in a finite game is to win (and earn a reward, whatever that may be), that is to say, to end the game. The ultimate objective of the participants in an infinite game is the perpetuation and expansion of the game (not of their interests, or of their team, but of the game as a whole).

* In a finite game, the rules, which rarely change, are determined by an authority set apart from the participants. In an infinite games, the rules are agreed upon by the participants and change when adaptation is required (such as when new people enter the game, when external conditions become more hostile to the game, and so on).

* Because participants to a finite game must overcome others, their usual orientation is competitive. Because participants to an infinite game must support each other’s work in order to keep the game flourishing, their usual orientation is cooperative.

This means that finite games have all the attributes of competitive systems (such as a strong tendency towards conformity, greater hostility towards others, low motivation, low efficiency) and infinite games have all the attributes of cooperative systems.

Furthermore, it also means that new people entering a finite game generally make it harder for others, while new people entering an infinite game generally make it better for others.

* Participants in a finite game must take their assigned roles seriously in order to be good competitors. Participants in an infinite game cannot take their roles too seriously if they want to be good cooperators. As Carse states, “seriousness is a dread of the unpredictable outcome of open possibility.”

* Being rewarded with power is the ultimate goal of finite play. For participants in finite games, power is what sets the rules and one’s reward for winning. For participants in infinite games, power (applied by the outside world) is usually an obstacle, a source of hardship, and something they must adapt to in order to keep going.

To this list I would add the perspective of conceptual metaphors. The primary conceptual metaphor we use to discuss finite games is war (attack/defense/destruction). I don’t think there’s one primary metaphor for infinite games, but sometimes we use biological life (growth/flourishing/death) and journey (progress, regress, leaps and bounds).

A game is not either completely finite or completely infinite: most games are some admixture of the two. For example, most artistic endeavors in a capitalist society are both infinite games (in that the participants combine their creativity and talents in order to keep producing art) and a finite game (in that they must compete for popularity and money within a capitalist society), so it will have elements from both sides to varying degrees.

What made me connect this concept of finite and infinite games to radicalism was the realization that hierarchies are more likely to produce finite games, while egalitarian structures are more likely to produce infinite games (if they are successful). Hierarchies produce finite games because the elite in a hierarchy generally sets the rules for everyone else. They also generally have rigid roles depending on one’s place in the hierarchy, and those roles must be taken seriously. Competitive systems (which are usually hierarchies) provide incentive by giving rewards.

Equally importantly, if you think about it, every radical anti-capitalist game that we know is much closer to infinite games than finite games. And on the flip side, all social constructs are the subject of finite games.

The latter point is easier to explain. The nature of our social constructs determines which attributes are signs of superiority and which are not. People strive to be the most masculine or the most feminine (and to be attractive within those limitations), to possess the best mate and best children, to have the best proofs of intelligence, to have the most money, to be in the “right” religion and political ideology, to have the highest social status, to root for the winning team or play for the winning team. There lies the bulk of our finite games. And they are all pro-status quo and profoundly alienating.

Infinite games are the kind of games that give people Slack (to use a Subgenius term). Every property of infinite games indicates that they can make people freer, happier and less stressed, while finite games, as we know, usually do the opposite.

The family, not in the sense of a breeding unit but in the sense of people coming together in intimate relationships, is the simplest and purest example of an infinite game. Everything about finite games (authoritarianism, competition, power, seriousness) is the enemy of love.

Systems like open source programs and Wikipedia are examples of infinite games which are well known to people. They are by and large cooperative, seek to remain as democratic and egalitarian as possible, and their objective is the flourishing of the system itself (generating as many useful open source programs and data as possible).

In general, self-government systems fulfill all the main criteria for infinite games. By definition their rules are set by the participants, not by an authority. They are set up to be egalitarian and cooperative. And power, either within the system or outside of it, is an obstacle to the continued existence of the system. It seems to be a fair generalization that the more radical a system is, the closer it is to the ideal of an infinite game.

I think the two main elements that a game analysis brings to our concept of hierarchy and radicalism are, first, in connecting the personal with the political and, second, the importance of seriousness in maintaining finite games in existence.

Unfortunately I think people can misuse this concept of playfulness. What we’re talking about here is the realization that the roles we play in finite games have no bearing on who we are, and that they are just masks we wear because they are imposed on us by society, that they are not as important as infinite games, which are the real substance of our lives because they are the only places where we’re really free.

Take the issue of gender. Queer theory states that by “playing with gender” (which they call “genderfucking”), meaning positioning oneself at any point between the two genders (as described by Western culture at any point in time) or beyond, we can deconstruct it and thereby oppose it.

But this process does not actually “play with gender” because gender is a social hierarchy, not just two roles disconnected from any greater social context. All it does is reinforce the importance of gender by building a myth that changing our position relative to those two roles, which themselves remain unquestioned, is somehow a rebellious activity. It does nothing to put into question the hierarchy itself.

The main problem with finite games is not their existence, but that we take them (and the roles we play in them) seriously, and force other people to take them seriously. The game of gender consists of people taking gender roles, with one (man) established as superior to the other (woman), where the objective is to attain the highest status within those roles (i.e. for women to identify with the male establishment, and for men to exploit women).

Despite their pretenses, queer and transgender theorists still take that game very seriously indeed. In fact, they sometimes brag about how good they are at it. An infinite player (one who finds infinite games more important than finite games) would not give such reverence to gender roles as they do. And that’s what makes queer and transgender theorists dangerous to themselves and society.

Religion is another good example, because Carse has opined that religion is an infinite game because it’s lasted for so long. I certainly disagree on that account: while I would say some religions are closer to that ideal (the most modern religions, like paganism and Subgenius), most religions are very much finite.

There’s two aspects to that. One is that every sect of a religion wants to become the most recognized, representative sect (as we see with Protestants vs Catholics and Sunnis vs Shiites, that usually involves anything up to outright genocide), and another is that many religions seek to marginalize, demonize (often literally) and overthrow all other religions.

From what I’ve seen, Carse tries to get around this by claiming there’s a fundamental difference between “religion” (which is infinite) and “belief” (which is finite). I have not read his book “The Religious Case Against Belief,” so I don’t know what his argument is, but I find the concept dubious to say the least. I think religious thinkers tend to idealize religion into a kind of abstract, transcendent mush.

The Christian religion without any of its beliefs is only empty buildings and a bit of poetry. A religion like Buddhism, on the other hand, does quite a lot better without beliefs, even though, again, it’s questionable whether many people would be Buddhists if it had no beliefs. Beliefs are what connects the abstract, transcendent mush to a culture of believers. “Religion” as defined by Carse may be a beautiful, fulfilling thing, but there’s little reason for anyone to care about it.

The status quo is good for finite games because the power and permanence of their rewards depends on the power and permanence of the society that acknowledges the validity of those rewards. The status quo is bad for infinite games because the power structures of society are a constant obstacle against the perpetuation and flourishing of these games. You can probably have an idea of where a game (or a system that is also a game) lies on the scale of finite to infinite by how much the power structures in society are for or against it.

2 thoughts on “Finite and infinite games, and their relevance to radicalism…

  1. […] problem is that you can’t have a competitive win-lose kind of game (a finite game) without having some way to win, since the whole point of finite games is to decide on who the […]

  2. […] Life in human societies is full of games, but life itself is not a game. Ian Welsh discusses the concept of games within life, and life itself (I’ve written about open and close games here). […]

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