In 1986, a man named James P. Carse released his book Finite and Infinite Games. It’s generally seen as a polarising work, with a fair number of scathing reviews to go alongside its glowing ones.
It clearly made a big impression on the author Simon Sinek however, as he published his own take on the subject – called simply The Infinite Game – in 2019.
Both books talk about the differences between finite and infinite games, which is a concept I found interesting as soon as I heard about it. So much so that I began to think about it through the lens of photography.
So what follows is my own perspective on what finite and infinite games are, and how understanding the difference can help you with your work and creative output.
- Free Press
- Carse, James (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
- 160 Pages - 01/05/2013 (Publication Date) - Free Press (Publisher)
What are finite and infinite games?
In his original Finite and Infinite Games book, Carse came up with the following quote to explain his idea.
“There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.”
To explain that further, a finite game has fixed rules and an agreed objective to decide when it ends and who wins. The infinite game simply continues until a player runs out of the desire or ability to keep playing.
For real world examples of finite games, think of solitaire or baseball. The former ends when the player can make no more moves, be that because they’ve won or lost, while the latter ends when a team has more runs than the other after nine innings.
For infinite games, think of blackjack or a parent throwing a baseball back and forth with their child. Both of these end when the players decide they don’t want to play anymore – be that through losing too much money or tiredness or it’s time for dinner.
The concept isn’t restricted to actual games and sport, though. Both books talk about how it can be applied to other things we find important, like politics, business, or just life itself.
- Sinek, Simon (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
- 272 Pages - 10/15/2020 (Publication Date) - Portfolio Penguin (Publisher)
Why an infinite game mindset is recommended in business
One theme in the James P. Carse book was that playing to keep the game going brought more satisfaction than playing to win. Simon Sinek expanded on this, arguing that an infinite game mindset is essential to win in business over the long term.
Playing finite games means looking for that short term win, which can lead to shortsightedness and inhibit the ability of someone or something to ever reach its full potential.
As a lot of value is placed in the achievement of these previous short term wins, there’s a tendency to look backwards at them, show them off, and rest on those laurels to the detriment of any future prospects.
Businesses with finite game mindsets may concentrate too much on getting wins against their competitors too, which can mean focusing too much on what others are doing and just trying to beat them in the short term, which can restrict the scope of their own long term visions.
People with an infinite game mindset can be more likely to look to the future though, as that’s where their goals are. When all you want to do is keep playing, what’s happened in the past is far less relevant to your focus and status.
I don’t imagine Coca-Cola or Amazon are too concerned today with how they, or indeed any of their competitors, did in 2013 or 2016. They’ll take what lessons they can from the past, but their eyes are firmly on how to keep things going – and going and going – in the future.
Finite and infinite games as a creative person
Concentrating on keeping the game going is all very well for big businesses, but I think the perspective on finite and infinite games needs to change a little for people who create things.
Coca-Cola already have their product. Amazon already have their platform. Perhaps getting those done was a finite game they needed to play before moving on to the infinite one.
An equivalent situation for a musician would be if they made one record and spent the rest of their life performing and promoting it, which would clearly be a bad strategy.
At the same time though, playing an infinite game of constantly churning out song after song and never bothering to put out an album or touring to play any of them is probably also not recommended.
I think similarly about photography. There’s an infinite game going on because I just want to keep shooting for as long as I have the desire or ability to do so. But I want to play finite games too.
So perhaps the best way for a creative person, be that a musician or photographer or anything else, to approach things is to play an infinite game made up of a series of finite ones.
The benefits of playing both finite and infinite games
While the argument for a big business to play an ultimately infinite game is a good one, even they have to play a series of finite ones along the way in the form of quarterly targets and suchlike.
For creative people, I think the benefits of playing an infinite series of finite games are pretty clear. You have to keep going for a long time to build a body of work, and the constant effort of playing the infinite game will only see the quality of what you put out improve too.
Being on a hamster wheel of creation with no smaller projects to show or even sell seems a little pointless to me though, which is where the finite game of making a book or a zine or having your work in an exhibition comes in.
It’s just easier and more beneficial to get someone to look at a curated collection of your 50 best photographs than all the ones you’ve ever published with no context.
We mentioned earlier that people who play finite games tend to look backwards at previous achievements rather than forward at what’s next. In business, I can see how this wouldn’t be ideal.
The difference between business and art though is having things to look back on is vital for a creative who wants people to see or hear their work. If I’m doing this, I want something to show for it.
The game of creation and improvement doesn’t stop, but it needs to be built one project after another rather than being one long stretch of aimless making. For me, at least.
Wrapping up this post on games of all types
Every photograph in that publication was shot on the same film and with the same camera, which is a nice illustration of what I’ve been talking about here.
I’ll shoot more types of film. I’ve got other ideas for more zines and books in the pipeline. They’re all steps along the way in my infinite game. But this zine being finished represents the end of a finite game and gives me something I can always look back on with pride.
That’s not a comment on the quality of the work, by the way, because who am I to judge that? I can always be proud that I put it together, but I’ll leave it to those who buy it to decide if it’s any good or not.
If you’re the kind of photographer who shoots and shoots and never does anything with your work aside from the infinite stream of social media, please consider what this article is saying. And also what might be holding you back.
And if you want to see what came from my own finite game of making a zine, you can check it out and even grab yourself a copy from over on MagCloud.
But most of all, if you haven’t already, please consider what finite games you can play that enable you to make things with your photography that you can look back on and be proud of too. 🙂
If you liked that post on finite and infinite games, why not take a look at these also to stay inspired or learn more about the Rollei Retro 400S I used here:
- My complete review of this Rollei Retro 400S film
- What I shot with the rest of this roll of Rollei Retro 400S
- What I shot with my first roll of Rollei Retro 400s
And if you think others will enjoy this take on making something with your photography too, help them find it by sharing or pinning. 😀