Finite and Infinite Games

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Some years ago I encountered the book “Finite and Infinite Games” by James P. Carse and subsequently watched his Long Now talk.

War is the ultimate finite game.
Religion is the ultimate infinite game.

— James P. Carse (Religious War In Light of the Infinite Game, SALT talk)

I no longer believe his those exact words that religion is the ultimate infinite game. I believe it would be more accurate to say that life as a phenomenon itself is the ultimate infinite game.

I’ve found some uses of thinking in terms of finite and infinite games, which I’ve sometimes found insightful. I was surprised to see, that in June 2017 a Simon Sinek talk was uploaded by Talks at Google. The talk was really about leadership and not very like what James P. Carse writes about in the book, but it can serve as a fun exploration of the “finite vs infinite players” idea when applied to business.

When reading about prototype theory I stumbled upon this brilliant quote:

Consider for example the proceedings that we call ‘games’. I mean board games, card games, ball games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? Don’t say, “There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games’”–but look and see whether there is anything common to all. For if you look at them you will not see something common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don’t think, but look! Look for example at board games, with their multifarious relationships. Now pass to card games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear. When we pass next to ball games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost. Are they all ‘amusing’? Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience. In ball games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared. Look at the parts played by skill and luck; and at the difference between skill in chess and skill in tennis. Think now of games like ring-a-ring-a-roses; here is the element of amusement, but how many other characteristic features have disappeared! And we can go through the many, many other groups of games in the same way; can see how similarities crop up and disappear. And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail.

Since I wasn’t able to stop thinking about how similar it seemed to Carse, I found this illuminating review of the source which was a great read.

Simon Sinek’s view

Sinek’s way of viewing businesses as finite and infinite games is based on whether the company is based around temporary goals or a value system that leads them forward indefinitely. In company run as finite games, the focus lies on short term metrics, but others that are run as an infinite games instead focus on what their long-term goals are, which in turn have a firm grounding in the company values.

He claims (he appears to at least, not entirely clear) to have found the concept of finite and infinite games in game theory. But I can find no reference to it by search and he doesn’t mention any other game theoretic ideas so if that’s indeed what he meant he either doesn’t mean the game theory, or it’s just marketing speech. The closest thing that does exist is an infinitely repeated game but that isn’t quite the same as what he presents it as.