Interminable game

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Call this the James P. Carse fan fiction, or the expanded universe.

Carse introduced the world to his conception of “finite games” — fixed rules, boundaries, duration and an agreed zero-sum objective of victory — and “infinite games” — no fixed rules, boundaries, duration, or objective other than keeping going. Boxing on one hand, community building on the other.

That great populariser of his work, Simon Sinek, observes the folly of trying to play an infinite player with finite tactics: where you play to win by reference your own pre-determined criteria and your opponent is playing to survive on whatever terms she can, you will get bogged down, dispirited, demotivated and eventually give up, while she will flourish against all odds: as happened to the Americans in Vietnam and, we like to imagine, is happening to Vladimir Putin in the Ukraine about now.

But there are some other permutations. When you play a finite game with infinite tactics, we suppose for the simple reason that such a player would quickly get sent off, and in any case would lose (maybe inventing the game of rugby union on the way to an early bath) — nor what would happen if both participants in an infinite game use “finite” tactics.

Of course, to use finite tactics in what could be a collaborative environment betrays a lack of perspective, a failure of imagination, and an obsession with what has gone before at the expense of what might yet be. So it should be no wonder that that’s what most people do most of the time.

Interminable games are destructive where infinite ones are constructive. Instead of seeking to imagine new worlds and open up undreamt-of possibilities, in an interminable game, each side seeks to shut the other one’s existing world down. These games are mainly harmless — just tiresome, and pointless — because neither side will persuade each other of anything, much less win.

Does God exist? Is Socialism good? Is Capitalism bad? Are permissionless blockchains the future? Will string theory explain life, the universe and everything? Whither social justice? Is Brexit a success? These are interminable games.

Like finite games, they appear to be contests “to the death”. Yet, like infinite games, they must not be finally resolved. The goal is, always, to avoid final victory and carry on the fight because, if you win, you must pack up your banners, disband your army and go home. And who, having assembled a power structure, does that?

Thus, should outright victory impend, putative victors will scramble to change their own terms of reference to ensure they still have something else to fight about.

This can work because, the rules of engagement are not fixed, or even agreed: each side is playing to its own rules, with total disregard for the other’s, and will change its premises should it appear to be on the brink of victory or defeat.

What happens when people miss the point.
Game Type Player Tactics Outcome
Finite Both finite Magnificent gladiatorial contest. Someone wins, someone loses, but honour is kept, lessons learned, stories are told, legends forged etc.
Infinite Both infinite Imaginative world-building. Collaboration. Hacky-sack, man!
Finite One finite, one infinite Infinite player picks up ball and runs with it (therefore gets sent off) or sits in a corner playing with daisies (therefore gets walloped). Finite player wins, but unsatisfyingly, by default, because the other player refused to play “properly”.
Infinite One finite, one infinite Finite player gets bogged down and gives up. Infinite player finds someone else to play with (hopefully an infinite player).
Finite Both infinite Players abandon game, which was rubbish anyway, and do something else (like playing an infinite game)
Infinite Both finite Interminable game <== This is what happens most of the time. Players argue past each other, playing to their own respective galleries, achieving nothing.

See also