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Games you play and games you win.

I was reading Tommie’s blog today and came across this passage:

We played 2 boots. Tarka, Jackie, and I won.

2 Boots is a disc game we play. Yesterday I was trying to describe to the guys about why I don’t keep track of the score.

I recently finished Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse, an amazing philosophy book based around the idea of games and how they relate to everything we do.

The basic premiss is that there are two kinds of games, finite and infinite. The finite are played to win so that play comes to an end and someone (or a team) is given a title. Baseball is played to win, each team trying to end play and get the title of winner.

Infinite games are played to keep playing. You don’t play “house” with the expectation that someone will win and play will stop. You don’t play to stop.

Finite games can be played within infinite games, the “infinite player” recognizes this and plays the finite game seriously with the understanding that it is ultimately part of the larger infinite game.

I witnessed this when I was staying at Acorn last year. Twice a week we would go over to Twin Oaks and play Ultimate Frisbee. It was the best ultimate I’ve ever played, hands down. I didn’t quite understand why until I was introduced to the above concept.

We didn’t keep score, something I hardly noticed at the time. It wasn’t necessary to keep score because we were all infinite players playing a series of finite games.

It was at the moment of the opening disc thrown that the finite game started. We played for the point at hand. Not for the accumulation of points. Once that point was scored the finite game ended, the winning team got the title of team to most recently score a point then we started play on the next finite game.

We played to keep the game going. If one team kept winning and the other team was getting frustrated we would trade players to even out the skill levels. We would adjust the rules, boundaries on or off, people rotating out, etc. to ensure that the game continued (until sun down, of course).

Each finite game was played to it’s fullest. We played with great seriousness. Even more serious than professionals I would guess. Because no point was worth any more/less than another. We were never so far behind in points that scoring couldn’t keep us from losing or so far ahead that we could go easy on our opponent. We were never playing warm up or pre-season games that “didn’t matter”. We were playing for the point, the only point—at that moment in time—that mattered.

I see this kind of play in the kids. When in the round they are in that same kind of finite game. They care not who is in the lead for a moment and they simply try and make the point. The whole world collapses down and they forget their fears and perceived inadequacies, they forget that just a few minutes ago they were complaining that they were too tired or not fast enough or not good enough to enter into this world of play.

It is in this space I always want us to be.

That’s why I don’t keep score.


  1. Abram says:

    Hell yes, 2 Boots, Werewolves… most good games are played WITH to keep them interesting.

    I’ve been reading ‘Reality is Broken’ by Jane Macgonigal and one of the things that grabbed me early was her point that we play games to get better and better at them but eventually we reach a point where we have failed enough times to have learnt and mastered the rules (of the finite game) – at which point the game stops being fun. Gaming is deep learning.

    I remember this game I played with my brothers and my dad as a kid: ‘Push daddy over’ where we basically tried to wrestle him to the ground. The day that we actually could overpower him was the day the game ended. It was pretty sad, actually. There was no fix. We moved on to other games, and I can think of plenty that allowed us to continue in an infinite play (shadow puppets, storytelling, ghost stories are all infinite games)…

    So in response to MacGonigal’s ‘fixes for reality’ I have this one: if reality seems boring or broken, maybe it’s time to step out of whatever finite game you think you’ve been playing and reinvent an infinite variation.

    Play on.

  2. NancyT says:

    What a great book. This was one of my favorite sessions from ALF Summer last year. I’m seeing this as a staple to re-visit with each new group of ALFs that we bring in each summer 🙂

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