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What type of game are we playing?



James P. Carse wrote a book in 1986 that talks about the fact that there are at least two types of games: a finite game and an infinite game.

A finite game is a game where the opponents are known, the rules are known and there is a very clear goal when the game ends and who wins and who loses, for example soccer.

An infinite game, is different, there are known and unknown opponents, opponents can join and leave all the time, the rules can change at any given moment and the only goal is to stay in the game as long as possible. Education for example is like that. You cannot win in education, world politics or business.


Yes, there can be measurable goals in an infinite game, such as school placement test results or graduation results, and of course it is possible to measure market share and revenues at the end of a year, but these are completely "arbitrary" indicators that we define for ourselves and there is no "victory" in it.

Players in an infinite game only retire for one of two reasons: either they run out of resources that allow them to play or they run out of desire to play.

Take for example the USA in the Vietnam War. The USA never lost any significant battle in the war. In terms of the number of dead: the US had 58,220 dead soldiers while Vietnam had 2,000,000 dead civilians and 1,100,000 dead soldiers, meaning, by any measurable KPI, the US was on top.

The real problem was that they just didn't understand the game they were playing.

The Vietnamese played an infinite game - they played to stay in the game, that is, they fought to survive. The Americans, on the other hand, played with a finite game mindset, that is, they tried to achieve some "measurable victory". In the end, they lost the war, simply because they lost the motivation to fight, because they no longer had the back of the people themselves at home.


In business, we need to understand that we are playing an infinite game. Yes, there are opponents or better called, rivals, and although the goal is to stay in business and grow our business, we keep talking as if we were playing a finite game with terms like: beat the competition, be No. 1 and so on.


Know the game you are playing and act accordingly.

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