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  • James McNeil

The difference between finite and infinite games

Are you playing a finite game or an infinite one?

Say what?

I can see your eyes narrowing and your head tilting slightly as you wonder what in the world I am talking about. Allow me to explain. In a video on YouTube, Simon Sinek described the differences between the two kinds of games. According to Simon, in a finite game, you know who your enemy (or opponent) is, how the score is kept, and the limits of the game. In a finite game you know that once a certain objective is completed, the game is over.

He used the concept of a baseball game. At the end of nine innings, the game is over unless there’s a tie. You’ll never see a coach say, “I know they’re winning, but if I had two more innings, we could turn this game around!” Likewise, at the end of a basketball game, a football game, or any other sport where an arbitrary score is kept, you don’t see a coach asking for more time to “catch up” at the end of the game. When it comes to a finite game, it’s easily defined and understood. You’re trying to win, and that means you’re trying to make your opponent lose.


The infinite game is nothing like this. You don’t know who all of the players are, what the rules are, or how long the game will last. Rather than trying to win, you’re trying to make the game last as long as you can. Dungeons and Dragons® can be considered a good example of an infinite game. The objective of D&D is not to win. In fact, with the rules so loosely defined, you’d be hard pressed to even understand how you would win. You don’t get a certain number of points per enemy killed, per spell cast, per item created, or any other action you would take in the game.

In D&D there are no defined scoring mechanisms other than your character’s level going up. But everyone’s character goes up by the same scale, so the only way to level up faster is to earn experience faster than your opponent. Again, you run into the fact that D&D is an infinite game. Your objective in D&D is to keep the game going.

Life is the same way. There is no static scoring mechanism for life. You go through life, earning experience, growing with what you can do and what you know, and your objective in life in general is to keep it going as long as you can.

According to Sinek, when a finite player plays a finite player, the game is stable. Likewise, for an infinite player against an infinite player. However, life is full of a variety of people, and not all of them are infinite players. You will find a variety of finite players in the “game of life” who think that if they earn more money, followers on social media, collect more pretty things, or accomplish more, they’ve “won” the game of life.

This leads to comparison. This leads to people bragging about the kind of car they drive, the type of house they live in, the kind of “social media life” they enjoy, and so on. This comparison leads to impostor syndrome. Your neighbor just bought a new car, while you’re still driving that “old beater” because you can’t afford a new car. Your other neighbor is living the good life while you’re struggling. You go on social media, and people are bragging about how good their lives are, and you start to feel like a failure. You start to believe you’ve lost this game, and you’d be better off just leaving the game.

You know where this is going.

Let me say this as clear as I can. Life is not a finite game where we are trying to outdo one another to get a “high score.” Life is an infinite game. It’s a game where we learn, grow, and build our experiences along the way.

We can lean on each other, learn from each other, and support each other along the way.

I’ve said it many times, but it’s just as true. Comparison is the thief of motivation and joy. Don’t try to be better than your neighbor. Work on being better than you were yesterday. Then, before you know it in an odd sense, you’ve won. You won by growing every day. You won by not worrying about the score. Doesn’t sound like it makes sense but believe me it does.

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