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Section I - The Games of Life
Chapter 1 - Our Most Fundamental Paths


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

~ James P. Carse,
Finite and Infinite Games:
A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility


How might we frame this game we call life so that it is fulfilling for us and for the generations that follow?

During the 'cold war' between the United States and the Soviet Union following WWII, the world's two superpowers went eyeball to eyeball in an arms escalation that, by October of 1962, had us threatening each other with mutual nuclear annihilation. The Cuban Missile Crisis took us within a hair's breadth of nuclear war, but President John F. Kennedy was able to convince Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev to remove nuclear weapons capable of striking U.S cities from Cuba.
Imagine, if you will, that your left fist represents one superpower and your right fist the other, each in escalation upward as it perceives the other as an enemy gaining some sort of military advantage. Keep those fists fighting for supremacy. A generation of fist-fighting goes by, and in November of 1989 the Cold War ends without a shot being fired; the Berlin Wall falls, the symbol of the ‘iron curtain' that separated the two superpowers.0209OOI-1

Imagine now that one fist has fallen and the other is raised victoriously. Countries from around the world call for national leaders to hold a summit to develop a ‘new world order'. Our perception of the choices we have seem clear - the United States can operate as the world's only superpower or join with other nations in developing a new world order - more fist or a new, open, and outstretched hand.

There are some stark differences regarding the attributes of each choice. Each step of the escalation that got us to the point of being the single world superpower may be defined as a ‘finite' game, one in which there are strict rules of engagement, a sense that one must take a side -- "you're either with us or against us", and always a winner and one or more losers. Developing a ‘new world order', on the other hand, was an invitation to play an ‘infinite' game, framed by guiding principles intended to change when an overarching guiding principle isn't met. For instance, in the ‘game' of global community, the overall principle might be to ‘achieve lasting, peaceful, cooperative community,' and an underlying principle might be to ‘treat everyone with dignity and respect.' If, at some point, someone who is being treated with dignity and respect continues to threaten the peaceful, cooperative norms, then the community might have to treat that individual differently - with either a new guiding principle, or rules that promote compliance with the primary principle.

The notion that all of life is one of two types of games -‘finite' or ‘infinite' - is clearly articulated in James Carse's book, "Finite and Infinite Games; A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility." Examples of related finite and infinite abound: litigation, a finite game, and justice, an infinite game in the legal field. The former is often characterized as ‘win/lose', and the latter as ‘win/win'.

One of Carse's most profound observations about the nature of these two types of games is that a multitude of finite games can be, and usually are, played within the infinite game, but the infinite game can never be played within a finite game. If this is true, it would seem axiomatic that you can't play the infinite game of ‘global community' or ‘diplomacy' under the finite game of ‘the war on terror, ' but you can play ‘the war on terror' under the infinite game of ‘global community.' When you think about it, it's probably the only way the ‘war on terror' can be won. Our perception of playing either the finite game of being a superpower, or the infinite game of being part of a new world order needs to be changed so that we are playing both simultaneously.

A question that I pondered when I read Carse's book was, "What creates ‘lose/lose' situations?" I suspect ‘lose/lose' occurs when we are playing finite - ‘win/lose'- games without an understanding of the necessity of being governed by guiding principles so that no ‘win/win' situation exists. Examples are participating in athletic events without a sense of sportsmanship, or litigation without a sense of justice.

This in a nutshell is what we are dealing with when we grapple with becoming sustainable -- we are framing so many situations in terms of "you're either with us or against us", consequently playing win/lose games in every facet of our lives without adhering to guiding principles of social and ecological order. These guidelines serve as an 'ethical compass', and when we get 'off course', there are serious consequences. Our tendency is to label the consequences as problems, and the very framing of our work in this manner leads to creating more finite games without ever creating an 'infinite container.'

Our intention with this workbook is to look at life through an appreciative lens. Discerning our lives in terms of infinite containers and the finite games we play within those containers gives us new insights into ways that we might choose as preferred ways of being -- 'A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility' as stated in Carse's subtitle for his book. Each of the three remaining chapters in this section will look at a cultural norm that might be thought of as a problem, but will be viewed from an appreciative perspective. The three cultural tendencies are --

  • discerning situations in terms of polar opposites - dualities;
  • framing life as competitive;and
  • structuring our organizations and societies hierarchically.



Think about a time when you were getting caught up in an escalation scenario, and you stepped away from it, perhaps facilitated others from stepping away from it.

What was the situation?
What greater good did you wish to serve by not escalating further?
What learning took place for you and for others?
Can you describe the infinite game you wished to play and its guiding principles?
What were the rules that created winners & losers in the finite games you played?


(Rev. 2009-02-01 MOM)


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