A beginner's guide to the infinite game
The infinite game is a way to think about our lives together and the kind of player you'd like to be. Welcome! Everyone is invited, but as with any game, it’s up to you whether or not you’d like to play.
The basic premise is that in life there are at least two kinds of games: the infinite game and finite games. The purpose of the infinite game is to keep our deepest values in play and the aim of finite games is to win. Finite games can forward the infinite game, or they can spin on themselves creating whirlpools of distrust and close-mindedness that wound the players and stymie social progress. The trick is to figure out what game you – or we – are playing and fix it when required. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, the infinite game is one of those cooperative games in which we all move forward, or fall back, together.
So what do people most deeply value? Think for a moment. What do you consider precious, special and of value for its own sake? What do you feel makes the world truly alive? Things of infinite value can be in any dimension - emotions, relationships, part of the natural world, objects or qualities. Try to think of at least three things – they can be as general or as personal as you like. When you are ready, click here for a word cloud showing what over 1,000 people said when asked to share their infinite values in a research project.
If you are playing the infinite game then, you are acting to encourage connections between people and with the natural world, human expression and creativity, new life and vitality. It is as simple and as difficult as that! The Infinite Game book outlines 15 principles for infinite play that concern people, setting, knowledge and time.
Finite games include social structures with goals and rules that encourage compliance or success – like laws, road rules, school curriculum, building standards, and international agreements. Many such games promote infinite values by directing our play toward that which encourages human and ecological flourishing. But, as I warned earlier, sometimes finite games drift away from the infinite ethos and put the game itself ahead of its deeper purpose. In contemporary societies this often happens through the competitive nature of such games - there are a limited number of winners and many losers. Obvious examples are political elections, the free market economy, wars, and the battle to control the world's energy supply. More personal examples include the wealth required to own a home, the popularity contest that accompanies social media, and the competition to gain entry to a professional qualification.
Because winning competitive finite games requires effort, players tend to become focused on the rules of the game to the exclusion, potentially, of the more fundamental values the game is supposed to serve. Simultaneously, the winners of today's game often get to decide the rules of tomorrow's game - and their impulse, as winners, is usually to keep the rules just as they are. In this way, most finite games are conservative, replicating the status-quo even when it is patently obvious they need a major overhaul. I mean, if a friendly all-seeing alien was to hover over Earth, do you think they would suggest we continue to play the oil game, pluck fish out of the sea faster than those fish can reproduce, and have large groups of people without much stuff produce tons of stuff for those with far too much already? Well no.
So finite games are necessary, but from an infinite game perspective, they are always on probation. To keep the infinite game in play we need to ask ourselves, what is this or that finite game doing to our lives together on this magnificent planet? Has the time come to adjust it? What new games are available that might serve us better?
The truth is you are probably an infinite player all ready. The infinite game is something we yearn for as soon as we are born. It’s call vibrates through us in the impulse to be fully alive and share our excitement and wonder with others. We may describe it by another name, lose sight of it from time to time, and wonder if we are the only person who gets it. But don’t worry. Bottom line, we are in this together.
Welcome to the infinite game.