June 4, 2020

Playing finite vs infinite games

Sent by Jonathan Stark on June 4th, 2020

Every year, there’s a huge karate tournament held near where I live in Rhode Island. It’s called the Ocean State Grand Nationals and people bus in from hundreds of miles around to compete in the three day event. It’s a big thing and everyone involved takes it pretty seriously.

Last year, I entered the sparring competition. Each sparring division is broken down by age and belt rank. At the time, I was 50 years old and a red belt, which put me in the “Advanced 50+” category. One of the guys I was matched up against (I’ll call him “Tony”) was about 65 and a brown belt.

Tony was a very nice guy and we chatted a bit before our match. He told me that his karate school was having trouble attracting students. He was afraid that it was probably going to close down before he earned his black belt. Ouch. I asked if he would consider transferring to another school, but he said, “Nah, they’re like family. If they close I’ll probably just quit and do something more my age.” He said it with a chuckle, but it was clearly a sore subject for him.

A few minutes later, our names were called over the loudspeaker. Tony and I entered the ring and bowed to each other. We were surrounded by an audience and three officials: a main ref and two assistants. The main ref yelled “FIGHT!” and Tony and I went at it.

Tony immediately proved that he was strong and fearless. Unfortunately, those traits don’t help much in point fighting. He wasn’t very flexible and was having a hard time getting his kicks high enough to score points on me.

He could’ve given me a run for my money if he used his hands, but he was focused solely on kicking. About a third of the way into the fight, I recognized that Tony was almost definitely going to lose.

With two thirds of the fight remaining, I thought:

“I should let Tony win.”

What?! Why would I let someone beat me in a fight on purpose?

It’s a bit hard to explain, but at that moment I dreaded beating him. My thinking at the time went something like this:

“This could be Tony’s last fight ever. If it is, he’ll be thinking about this loss for a long time. And winning really REALLY matters to some of these fighters. If Tony is one of those types, wouldn’t it be so much nicer to let him go out with a win?“

We continued fighting. I considered my options. What would happen if I let him win? Thoughts swirled in my head as we circled around the ring...

“The refs would almost surely know I threw the fight. What would they do? Would that get me banned? What if Tony noticed that I threw the fight? Would that be worse for him emotionally? Would I tell my instructors back at the school that I let Tony win? Or would I just say I lost and leave it at that?”

Ultimately, I decided throwing the fight would be a bad idea. Even with honorable intensions, it seemed wrong. Like cheating somehow. So, a minute or two later, I won. Tony took it like a champ. But I still felt awful watching as he slowly packed up his stuff, maybe for the last time.

When I got back to my karate school, the instructors asked with anticipation how I did at the tournament. “I won,” I said. My tone must have been less than victorious, because the teacher appeared confused and asked, “Isn’t that what you wanted?”

I thought about it for a second and said:

“I like winning but I HATE having to beat someone.”

Okay, so why am I telling you all this?

To help illustrate the fundamental mismatch between finite games and infinite games.

What are finite games?

Sparring and basketball and Parcheesi and any other game that has winners and losers at the end are finite games. For this winner/loser thing to work, finite games have to have an extremely clear and rigid set of rules.

The boundaries of a finite game have to be well defined and the designated players operate within the given parameters with the intent of emerging victorious at the inevitable conclusion.

What are infinite games?

Games like catch and dress up and snowball fights are infinite games. There is no defined end… the only goal is to continue playing.

There are no winners or losers when you play catch with your kid. A group of children don’t end a game of dress up with a “sudden death” tiebreaker. Snowball fights end once everyone is sufficiently cold and tired.

An infinite game might have constraints and norms, but there are no strict rules about how to play correctly. There is no tightly defined domain or boundaries.

When an infinite game ceases to be fun for a given player, he or she can leave and the remaining players can continue. And other players can join the game in the middle. Infinite games are free and creative and fluid and cooperative.

Expectation mismatch

Finite games and infinite games both have their place. One is not better than the other, they’re just different. Where you can get into trouble is not knowing which type you’re playing and therefore operating under the wrong pretenses (e.g., a Dad trying to beat his son at playing catch by drilling fast balls at him).

I didn’t realize it consciously at the time, but Tony and I were playing a finite game. He and the officials and the audience and my instructors back at my school all had “finite game” expectations. My mid-fight impulse to let Tony win would have violated these expectations by pivoting (without permission) to an infinite game.

I have never enjoyed finite games. They stress me out. I don’t want to lose, but I don’t want to beat anyone either. It’s a dilemma. I have always preferred infinite games. Nothing has ever made this clearer to me than my match against Tony.

In retrospect, the “cheating” feeling that I experienced when considering throwing the fight came from the fact that I was thinking about applying an infinite game approach to a finite game.

The right thing for me to do is NOT to play finite games as if they’re infinite. The right thing for me to do is to not play finite games in the first place.

Here’s the thing…

Many people speak and act as if business is a finite game. There’s lots of talk like “winning a deal” or “dominating a market” or “beating the competition”. These phrases are consistent with an “us vs them” finite game mentality.

But running a business is not a finite game like Monopoly. Building a business is a creative act. There is no clearly defined rule book that is agreed upon by all players. It’s about playing for the sake of playing.

(Yes, we have laws and regulations that must be adhered to, but you can’t build a thriving business merely by following those kinds of rules.)

Bringing an “us vs them” or “winners and losers” mentality to an infinite game like building a business is a mismatch. If you think of business as a finite game, you will perceive other people’s success to be bad for you. Them “winning” means you are “losing”. Over time, this perspective will make you selfish and greedy and uncooperative and most of all, unhappy.

There is no reason to fight over “the pie” with “your competitors”. You can grow a big enough pie for everyone. Or bake a cake instead. You can let your imagination run wild. You can play however you want.

As long as you’re having fun* and are able to come back and play again tomorrow, you’re “winning” at business.

Bigger picture

If we zoom out from business to community or politics or culture, I hope you can see that these are infinite games, not finite. They don’t have clearly defined boundaries, or a detailed rule book that everyone follows. There is no defined end point. Players come and go at will.

Therefore, playing them with an “us vs them” mentality instead of a “we’re all in this together” mentality is a mismatch that won’t lead to a happy outcome for anyone.



*Your homework assignment, if you should choose to accept it, is to define what “having fun” looks like for you. It could mean having a cultural impact, or providing a stable environment for your family, or achieving deep personal fulfillment, or something else. It's totally up to you.