How You Play the Game

About a year ago, my friend and colleague Mille Bojer invited me to write an essay for a booklet she was compiling on “Changing the Game”. The booklet was based on an article written by Mille in which she argues that we need to fundamentally transform the way we approach life and our roles in this world, as individuals and members of various communities. Mille and I are members of a global community called Pioneers of Change, and this booklet was an attempt at a global dialogue amongst PoC members around this idea of Changing the Game. I joined 10 other Pioneers from around the world in sending in a reflection. The original booklet can be downloaded here, and I recommend it highly, especially Mille’s lead article.

Here is what I wrote, below. Comments welcome.

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How You Play the Game

Mille discussed James Carse’s framing of finite and infinite games and I want to reflect on that a little because I agree that it has deep implications for the ‘Transformation’ approach. To quote Carse, and then Mille,

““A finite game is played for the purpose of winning. An infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.” The dominant games we are playing in modern society are finite games. Life itself, as I understand it, is the great infinite game…Carse’s book is less about the actual games than about what kind of player we choose to be. We can choose to be finite or infinite players. The main difference essentially is that infinite players engage in finite games well aware that they are finite games. They choose consciously to play as long as it doesn’t jeopardize their infinite game. They don’t take the finite games too seriously.” [italics mine]

What does Mille mean by “Life is the great infinite game”? I hear it as, what is our infinite purpose? I brain-dumped possible answers this question might elicit and came up with: happiness, love, providing a better life for our children, continuing our cultures and traditions, leaving a legacy, getting to heaven/paradise, attaining enlightenment, living in the moment, living for the moment, and working for something greater than oneself. I’m sure there are other possible answers as well; and to each their own.

With so many infinite games being played, it matters more than ever how we play the game. Pierre de Coubertin’s Olympic Games creed claims that what matters is not whether we win or lose but how we play the game. In finite games, this is naïve, as any sportsperson will tell you – although we must play fair and know how to win and lose graciously, winning is still bloody important. I play my finite games to win. I’m intensely competitive on the cricket field or squash court. I use the stock market to supplement my meager NGO salary. I submit occasionally to the annoying rituals of courtship because I am looking for love. In all these, I win some, I lose some. And when I win, someone else loses. But they’re finite games, they ‘don’t jeopardize my infinite game’, and I don’t take them too seriously.

In infinite games though, how we play becomes paramount because, by definition, there is no victory – it’s the unreachable star. The closest thing we can come to winning an infinite game is the knowledge that we have played it both honorably and well; as de Coubertin (and several others) put it, “the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle.”

One of the ways in which we can know how well we’re playing the infinite game is how good we are at sticking to our principles, to what we hold most dear. One of my principles is non-violence. In his book The Age of Consent, George Monbiot argues that we won’t know we are succeeding until we are resisted violently, because those that are benefiting from the status quo will oppose our attempt to change it. To bring that argument to this debate, we won’t know if the transformation approach is working unless is it violently resisted, because of the vested interests in maintaining the current structure. I pray we won’t encounter violence but I do agree that no change is painless and that many people benefit immensely from the current structure, so I have to admit that violent resistance is a possibility. How will I counter that? Not with violence, I hope, because of my non-violence principle.

I bring this up because it illustrates the importance of how we play the game. To use violence – and not just personally, but also in the person I vote for or the organization I work for or the company I invest in – would mean I’m not playing honorably; hence losing the infinite game, or coming as close to losing it as possible. But non-violence is not easy at the best of times, let alone in times of personal danger or great anger. It is a huge challenge.

As are all infinite games. Brought up in a world that likes Hollywood endings and encourages instant gratification, not knowing the result of our game can be both frustrating and discouraging. Often we may not even have tangible milestones to chalk up as signs of progress. The way I’ve decided to compensate is to always seek to play the game with principle. If I take care of the ‘how’, then not having a result matters less.

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