Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse

You may have heard of Game Theory, or viewed Simon Sinek’s google talk, “The Finite and Infinite Games of Leadership”. But most likely, you haven’t read this decades old piece from James Carse (1984). On the jacket, it’s called a “literary event” and rightly so, Finite and Infinite Games is an aphoristic, imaginative take on what has become known as Game Theory. As a researcher at heart, beginning with the beginning, the most original or novel source is always my preference. Carse’s thinking on this is quite a philosophical leadership journey. It’s a short read, you can think of it as being organized by game “theorems” or truths that play out as principles of purpose and play in any pursuit. Whether leaders know it or not, they are operating within a gaming system. Systems considered to be finite games are set either by fixed rules, set timelines, competition with another entity, and known participants (e.g. market share, baseball, newspaper publishing). Systems considered to be infinite games have known players but make accommodation for those yet unknown, change the rules or allow the rules to change, set some objectives but iterate on them without ceasing, and seek not to measure or compete for static success, but to keep the game in play (e.g. business, learning, parenting, culture). I find it useful to use these two (somewhat arbitrary but well defined) categories to describe our own leadership “games.” I see the developmental angle on them and use this lens to coach elite leaders.
From an infinite games stance leaders begin to:

  • seek to compete against our own best efforts beyond rivaling others,
  • pursue measured responsiveness to unknown variables beyond a reaction to deficient measures,
  • practice taking on a longer time horizon that provides for a continuance, and is sustainable beyond the loss of resources or players.

As a vision of life as play and possibility, it is a philosophical, read-that-over-again text but if you’re up for a wacky, interpretive challenge, this is it.

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