William Liao

February 5, 2022

finite & infinite play

In his book Finite & Infinite Games, James Carse describes two kinds of players in life: “finite players (who) play within boundaries (and) infinite players (who) play with boundaries.” 

The concepts and contributions of infinite play in our culture cannot be understated. 

In her book Rebel Talent, Harvard Business School Professor Francesca Gino speaks to the merits of playing with boundaries that she uncovered in her research, remarking that “when we challenge ourselves to move beyond what we know and can do well, we rebel against the comfortable cocoon of the status quo, improving ourselves and positioning ourselves to contribute more to our partners, coworkers, and organizations.”

In a 1994 interview with the Santa Clara Valley Historical Association, tech entrepreneur Steve jobs talked about the man-made nature of boundaries and the power we wield to change them, emphasizing that “…everything around you that you can call ‘life’ was made up by people who were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.” In addition to revolutionizing the personal computer industry, Jobs would go on to transform other industries, including animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing, and digital publishing. 

Tony Hsieh, the former CEO of Zappos, famously realized the ability to play with boundaries while playing poker of all things. In his book Delivering Happiness, Hsieh writes, “In a poker room, I could only choose which table I wanted to sit at. But in business, I realized that I didn’t have to sit at an existing table. I could define my own, or make the one that I was already at even bigger. (Or, just like in a poker room, I could always choose to change tables). Hsieh is credited with helping pave the way for the multi-billion dollar industry that is online shoe retail today. 

To help tie a bow around these ideas, consider the predicament often faced by finite players according to Carse: “although it may be evident enough in theory that whoever plays a finite game plays freely, it is often the case that finite players will be unaware of this absolute freedom and will come to think that whatever they do they must do.”

Social conventions, peer pressure, and groupthink all serve to reinforce finite play — the idea that whatever you do, you must do. 

The defining moment when a finite player becomes an infinite player is when she realizes that, in fact, she is free to do otherwise. 
 
And in so realizing, discovers a world of infinite possibilities.