Finite and Infinite Games

Finite                -                 Infinite
Bounded           -                 Unbounded
Extrinsic            -                 Intrinsic
State                  -                 Process
Zero-sum           -                 Non-zero-sum
Short term          -                 Long term

Infinite and finite games can be roughly mapped to McGilchrist's conception of the left and right hemispheres. 

The idea that "finite games can be played within an infinite game, but an infinite game cannot be played within a finite game" mirrors McGilchrist's suggestion that the relationship between the hemispheres is asymmetrical, with the left contained within, or subordinate to, the right (the left acting as the 'emissary' to the right's 'master').

There are at least two kinds of games: finite and infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.

Finite games are those instrumental activities - from sports to politics to wars - in which the participants obey rules, recognize boundaries and announce winners and losers. The infinite game - there is only one - includes any authentic interaction, from touching to culture, that changes rules, plays with boundaries and exists solely for the purpose of continuing the game.

A finite player seeks power; the infinite one displays self-sufficient strength. Finite games are theatrical, necessitating an audience; infinite ones are dramatic, involving participants […]

‘Finite and Infinite Games’, Wikipedia

Here are the rules of finite and infinite games:

  1. A finite game has a “playing field”, either physical or virtual, while infinite games have no boundaries.

  2. We cannot play a finite game alone. We must have an opponent to play against and usually teammates to play with.

  3. Only one person or team can win a finite game.

  4. Participation must be voluntary. If you must play a game, you cannot play a game.

  5. The rules of a finite game are the mutually-accepted terms that dertermine the winner. In an infinite game, the rules must change during the course of play to prevent anyone from winning, and to bring as many other persons as possible into play.

  6. Finite games can be played within an infinite game, but an infinite game cannot be played within a finite game.

[Al and David Blixt]
‘Never Win the Infinite Game’

James Carse has a distinction between finite games and infinite games. A finite game is a game that’s played because there is a goal to this game, which is as it were to pot all the billiard balls and win.

But there are other games in life which are absolutely not pointless or purposeless, but don’t have any interior purpose.

What is the purpose of playing music? What is the purpose of a play? It’s not something external that it has utilitarian value in reaching. It’s that the process itself is the purpose and the continuing of it infinitely would be a fulfilment of that purpose.

So it’s quite different from the finite situation in which you’re closing down on one particular outcome.

[…] the infinite games have intrinsic purpose, whereas the finite games have extrinsic purpose. They have a goal that’s definable. The purpose of the system is only fulfilled once it reaches that particular goal, whereas many purposes are not of that nature. They don’t have to have reached a certain point or certain goal, but their purpose lies within them.

When you come to think of animals, I think this is rather important, because the tendency is to think that somehow the purpose of living is to pass on life. Well, it depends how you think of that. If you think of life as a celebratory entity that we don’t understand, that we are part of and wish to continue being in and to continue making, then yes, but not in the sense that its purpose of life is to propagate your genes by copulation.

This is to reduce things to an almost absurd level.

[Iain McGilchrist]
‘EP 155 Iain McGilchrist Part 2: The Matter With Things’, The Jim Rutt Show, YouTube

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