James P. Carse died on September 29. Carse, a religious scholar at New York University, wrote one of the books that has most influenced my life: Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility.
It opens with a duality:
There are at least 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.
Carse explores this idea as it applies to religion, patriotism, culture, sexuality, politics, etc. Seeing through this lens allows us to understand them differently and consider our agency in the world.
When we understand the difference between play-to-win and play-to-keep-playing, it becomes clear that many of our problems are based on zero-sum thinking. By casting others as foes to be defeated rather than partners with whom we share broader goals, we close off possibilities for positive action. It’s a losing game — one we see play out time and again in board rooms and the evening news.
Acting skillfully under challenging conditions requires that we think of ourselves as infinite players: people who aim to keep the game going. This calls for a different way of relating. Rather than aiming to “win” at all costs, we must keep our egos in check so we can empathize with the other. What motivates them? What goals do we share? How might we help articulate those shared goals?
I can’t say I approach all challenging situations with such a positive framing. Sometimes, the drive to compete overtakes me. But while they may satisfy in the short-term, emotional pushes to “win” often lead to complications down the line. People who aspire to make a difference in the long-term must keep a broader perspective in mind.
Finite and Infinite Games is a great lens to focus on the bigger picture. It offers an especially useful perspective in these times of pervasive zero-sum thinking.