A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play. – James P. Carse, Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility
It is really hard to find a quote about games or sport that doesn’t have something to do with winning or losing.
It feels like everything in life is seen through this prism of sport – the idea that a competitive nature is what matters – beating others and reaching the top and excelling and getting the prize is the most important thing in the world.
And it’s just not.
Many people will disagree – surely you want your kids to be competitive – to push themselves – to get ahead?
Well, the first question you have to ask yourself is how much success is down to native talent these days.
And how much is down to the resources invested in a particular person to make them the best in the world.
In sports like tennis parents spend huge amounts of money and time taking their children to the best coaches and training facilities in the world.
One would assume that there is a reason why countries that have a lot of snow and ice tend to be the ones that come up with sportspeople who dominate the winter games.
If the sport you’re interested in is an individual one – then there’s only one winner.
And if it’s a team game, there’s one team.
And the fact is that sport is an arena event – it’s a battle, a bloodsport, and humans like nothing more than watching a fight.
That’s really what watching sport comes down to – the vicarious thrill of battle.
And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
What’s wrong is taking that bloodlust and imagining it’s a way to also do things in society.
Which is where Carse’s quote that starts this post is right on the money.
If you have a finite game, one that you play and then it ends – you can win, shake hands and walk away.
And if there is a prize you can walk away with that as well.
These games, you could argue, are played not just to win but also for the prize.
Then there are games that continue – and continue – until life runs out.
The games you play because you want to stay healthy – keep your relationships alive, get ahead in work.
All these are forms of play, where what matters is what you get out of the game.
For example, let’s say you always wanted to be an artist but your parents convinced you that engineering was the right thing for you to do and now you spend your days doing technical support – would you say you were winning or losing?
It’s not that easy, is it?
Maybe the job has provided you with a steady income, given you the ability to raise a family and keep a house.
And yet you wonder where you might have been if you had followed your heart?
The point, I suppose, is this.
Just like life isn’t about winning or losing, it’s also not about grand gestures and big wishes.
Just look at what children do, naturally.
They want to play – they get engrossed in what they’re doing.
They carry on until they get bored and want to try something else.
The one thing that destroys play for children is technology, in the form of the telly and devices.
Then they stop playing and start consuming instead – until they find video games and spend all their time exercising their eyes and fingers.
But, despite the pitfalls the thing to see is that kids like to play and as adults we’re no different.
If we see the thing we do as play, then we’ll do it happily for the rest of our lives.
If we see it as work, we’ll stop doing it the minute we stop getting money for doing it.
If we see it as a competition we’ll probably stop doing it once we start losing consistently.
There is an end when you do something for a reason outside yourself.
When you do something because the reason is inside you – because you like doing it – then you’ll find it’s easy to do it day after day, week after week, year after year.
And somehow, without realising it you’ll probably end up winning.
But, better still, if you don’t, you probably won’t care.
Because you’d have enjoyed yourself every step of the way.