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Understand the game you're playing | Just Reflections - Issue #38
In game theory, there are two kinds of games. There are finite games and there are infinite games. These were first formerly described in James P. Carse's book "Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility" in 1986.
A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play. — James P. Carse, Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility
Finite games are what we typically think of when we think of games; board games, sports games. For our purposes here, we'll consider a less obvious finite game; applying for a job. The company wants to hire for a particular position. There are more candidates than there are jobs and candidates go through the process preparing CVs, going through interviews, etc. all to win the job.
Then there are infinite games. These are less obvious. If a job interview is a finite game, then having a successful and fulfilling long-term career is an infinite game.
Let's consider a few more things that make these games different.
Finite games have externally defined boundaries. Known dates, known players, fixed rules and a defined, agreed-upon aim, either to win or to rank high in the game.
When we play golf, we don't start by defining the rules of the game. They're already setup before the game. Now, we can decide to change the rules before we play, but we really can't change the rules of the game during play, especially if all parties don't agree to the rule changes. It would defeat the purpose of playing to win.
In our job interview example, there are pre-defined rules. The company will say send your CVs to this specific email and it should be formatted specifically. The interview is on a specific date and there's a probably a list of questions that will be asked to all candidates. They're not up to you and you can't say, during the interview, let's change the list of questions. And there's an ultimate point at the end of the game where a winner is declared. Someone will be called and told that they got the job.
When you play a finite game, winning often results in a title. In the job interview you win a job and that's the prize. In sport, you might win a prize and that's part of the title.
The title could be an actual prize or it could be something more abstract, like the acknowledgement of other players or the audience that you're the winner. Titles are public, they're for others to notice. If no one knows that you have won the game or that you have ranked well, then there's really no purpose in playing the game because the purpose is to win. And in order to win, there needs to be a recognition of some sort that you've won.
Infinite games are internally defined. There are known and unknown players. The rules are changeable and any of the players can change them at any time without informing anyone. Because the goal is to keep playing or to perpetuate the game.
In these types of games, there are no winners or losers. Players simply drop out when they run out of the will or the resources to play. Then they're replaced by other players.
Maybe as I'm building my career, I realise I don't really love civil engineering, even though that's what I got formally trained for, and I'd be better off changing to something I enjoy. I can informally and tacitly decide that I'm changing my career path and going into software engineering. I'm not changing my strategy in order to win, like in a finite game. I'm changing so that I can have a more enjoyable, more fulfilling career.
Unlike a job interview, where there are certain rules and practices that people can recommend so that you ace the interview. There are no set rules for building a career. It really depends on your current context and circumstance. As you learn new things about the market and about your own desires, you're free at any point to shift strategies.
Every moment of an infinite game therefore presents a new vision or new range of possibilities. While finite games have boundaries, infinite games have horizons. Instead of there being an endpoint where you know how you rank in the game, an infinite game simply just keeps going and each endpoint is a new beginning point.
If you get to a point in your career where you think you've completed something, there are always ways to restart or pivot your career elsewhere. It doesn't mean you're going to do it but it means that every time you get to a certain point, there are always new possibilities for where the game can progress to unlike a finite game. Just like how the horizon keeps going, every time you think you've reached the horizon, you've merely reached the end of your frame of vision. There's never a start or an end to the horizon.
Finite games are played to be won. Players make every move in the game in order to win it. Whatever is not in the interest of winning is not a desirable strategy.
In the job interview, you gear all your actions and words towards the goal of winning. You might have some witty phrases that you could use, but if you think they will harm your chances of winning the job, you won't use them regardless of how clever they are.
Infinite games are played with the goal of continuing to play or merely to enjoy playing. Therefore, whatever strategy is chosen should always be one that allows for possibility, whatever the cost.
In our example of having a great career. If at some point you feel like taking on a certain job or taking on a certain project will be counterproductive to your long-term success in having a great career, you might turn that project down in a way that you would never do in a finite game where the goal is just to win the project. You will also sacrifice things if you believe that will allow you to stay in the game for longer.
The last difference between the two games has to do with the function of time in the game.
Finite games, by definition, are finite. They have a have a finite endpoint and everyone who plays knows the rules about when the endpoint is drawing near.
For the finite player in us, freedom is a function of time. We must have time to be free. — James P. Carse, Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility
Therefore, in a finite game, the more time you have, the more freedom you have. Things have to be done by a particular period for them to count or amount to something.
An easy way to understand this is to think of it in terms of a sport. The more time you have left in the game, the more freedom you have to make mistakes, the greater the margin for error. But as that time elapses and then end draws closer, the pressure mounts. And if you're down by a certain number of points, less time means a slimmer opportunity for recovery, so you can't be trying novel plays at that point.
The infinite player in us does not consume time but generates it. — James P. Carse, Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility
With infinite games, the goal is to keep the game going. Therefore, it is beneficial to keep generating more time to keep playing the game.
Understand the game you're playing
It's important to understand that neither the finite nor the infinite game is good or bad. Each has its place. And whether or not we like it, at every point we are playing multiple finite and infinite games at the same time.
So the most important skill is to the ability to distinguish which things are infinite games and which ones are finite. Then you can decide what strategy to employ in each case. It will help you assess what is valuable and what is not and be better able to prioritise.
If you understand when you're in an infinite game, you understand you can't make strategic decisions by studying your competition. Rules are unknown in infinite games and known rules can change. The players are also unknown, so when you've studied who you believe is the competition and you've come to the best decision, a new player could come in and play by different rules. Then all your decisions become invalid.
In an infinite, you need to understand that sometimes you're going to be ahead and sometimes you're going to be behind. It doesn't mean much in the greater scheme. Rankings don't matter because rankings are temporary and they can change drastically in the long term. Rankings are for finite games. A good strategy in infinite games does not seek to the best every day, it does not aim to beat the competition every day. It is, instead, to aim to be a better version of yourself today than you were yesterday. Persistent incremental improvements are key in infinite games.
The second thing to understand is:
Finite games can be played within an infinite game, but infinite games cannot be played within a finite game. — James P. Carse, Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility
When you're having an argument with your partner and you get focused on speaking the loudest and getting yourself heard, you're failing to understand the game you're playing. The argument is a finite game and is a small part of a bigger infinite game, i.e. your relationship.
In order to have career satisfaction—an infinite game—you will have to play many finite games. There are certain jobs that you will need to win. You will need to win business from certain clients. You'll need to win promotions. But that doesn't mean you will win career satisfaction. Career satisfaction involves those, but it also involves much more. You likely won't have a happy career if your entire goal is to win a particular finite game.
Life can also be viewed as an infinite game with many finite games in it. It is a game that has pre-existed every single person alive today and it will outlast every single person. Unfortunately, many of treat everything in life as a finite game to our detriment. We're playing to win, to be number one, to beat the competition. Then we're confused and frustrated when we've won the title but have no fulfilment. We constantly struggle with the infinite game of life where the goal is not to win, there won't be a first place and there's no competition to beat.
Understand the game you're playing.