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The Infinite Game

Reflecting on "a vision of life as play and possibility." Plus Tanya Rabourn on research, and other things worth your attention.
Jorge ArangoJorge Arango
October 4, 2020

Welcome to INFORMA(C)TION, a biweekly newsletter about systems thinking, responsible design, information architecture, and other topics relevant to humans who create digital things.

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The Yuba River

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.

Also worth your attention:

  • “There is abundant evidence that we human beings have far greater ability and desire to overcome our divisions than we realize.” We Are Not Divided, a project that explores “the many ways we bridge our divides.”
  • “In software, good design is not intended to be gazed upon and admired and appreciated. It is most successful when it recedes in to the background.” From a short interview with Irene Au on what UX design is. (Via Kenny Chen’s UX Design Weekly newsletter.)
  • “UX needs to get its shit together because there are many products out there like Twitter and Facebook that have amplified the worst parts of society. If UX can’t solve those problems, we have no business doing UX.” From an interview with Dan Brown.
  • A list of UX clichés.
  • As Brian Eno has said, you can focus on the work or you can focus on the frame around the work. Focusing on the frame can be quite powerful.
  • Microsoft released its now Xbox gaming console. Alas, its name may be confusing some buyers, including me.
  • My students often want to know if they’re doing things the “right” way. Recently I thought of a good analog to teach the role of rules in creative work.
  • An interview with Marc Andreessen about how he keeps on top of things these days.
  • A new paper that proposes blending foresight and design for strategic decision-making.
  • A Twitter thread on lessons for software designers from Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn.
The Informed Life Episode 45: Tanya Rabourn

Episode 45 of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with design strategist and researcher Tanya Rabourn. Tanya’s focus is on service innovation for social impact. She’s currently based in Dubai, but she’s also lived and worked in several other countries. In this conversation, we discuss the role of research in understanding the people and cultures served by design.

The Informed Life Episode 45: Tanya Rabourn on Ethnography

Thanks for reading!

-- Jorge

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Jorge Arango
Boot Studio LLC
P.O. Box 29002
Oakland, CA 94604

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