Playing games

It’s not difficult to see that much of the modern experience of life, at least in Western societies, has been gamified to some extent. With the rise of self-conscious digital avatars and social media platforms, most of life’s duties are now filtered through some sort of “account,” one which often involves numbers and an audience. The better your performance (whatever the game may be), the higher your number (friends, U.S. dollars, deadlift weight, etc.), and the greater your audience’s level of engagement.

These are status games, similar to any other competitive game like chess or baseball. The goal is to win, somehow, and the game must be played within a set of constraints. In these games, human freedom is not a meaningful attribute. Justin E.H. Smith writes about this, distinguishing these games from the more abstract and creative sorts of games like peek-a-book or charades.

What games are you playing today?

It’s worth thinking about. Smith writes/warns that machines are only capable of playing the competitive status game, the game with prescribed rules and guardrails. That makes sense on face value, and it’s something to keep in mind as “machine learning,” that vast and vague term, seems to accelerate. As machine learning accelerates, my guess is that competitive status games will proliferate further. Trends we’re seeing with digital avatars and social media platforms will ramp up: Soon, life will be dominated by those games (as if it doesn’t yet feel that way).

But the other type of game is deeply important. James Carse calls them “infinite games,” as opposed to the “finite games” of competition and status. Infinite games are not meant to be won; they are meant to be played forever, meant “for the purpose of continuing the play.”

The complicated experience of life is an infinite game, even in the shadow of death. A machine, I think, cannot understand this. But what do I know?

“Finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play with boundaries,” Carse writes. I read this as two ways of conducting yourself across that apparently finite/infinite experience of life. “Because infinite players prepare themselves to be surprised by the future, they play in complete openness. It is not an openness as in candor, but an openness as in vulnerability. It is not a matter of exposing one’s unchanging identity, the true self that has always been, but a way of exposing one’s ceaseless growth, the dynamic self that has yet to be.”

I don’t think that the two ways of conducting oneself are incompatible; finite and infinite players can get along, and probably must in the course of a workday or in line at the bank. But these are very different visions of an unspooling reality. It’s worth thinking about the distinction of these many games before we get too far along in this century. Finite games may swarm across the land, but infinite players can still find ways of playing their game: The game, after all, is everything.

“Only that which can change can continue: this is the principle by which infinite players live,” Carse writes.

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