Finite and Infinite Games

Finite and Infinite Games inform your decision making as you consider the long- and short-term implications of decisions and actions. In complex systems, it is crucial that you know whether you are making a decision, finding a solution, or taking action in a short-term, win-lose Finite Game, or if your actions and decisions are part of the longer-term, more sustainable Infinite Game.


Some games are bounded and predictable, like baseball or basketball or bridge. You see the short-term immediate implications, and you play them to WIN. Other games, like marriage, productivity, and health, are unbounded. You see the long-term sustainability issues, and you play them to KEEP PLAYING. James P. Carse, in his book Finite and Infinite Games, offers a perspective that names the two and helps you know when, how, and why to play each kind of game. At HSD, we value both games equally, and help people know what it means to play each one well.

Finite Games have rules and timeframes. There are players, and there are observers in an established field of play. The rules for the games are set, and generally known by the players. Someone is designated as referee to judge how well you play by the rules. It is easy to see who wins. After the game, no one argues about the score. The object of the game is to get the highest score so you win.

Infinite Games, on the other hand, are more open and less defined. Everyone plays in an Infinite Game, and the field is not clearly defined. The rules of the game are not constant. They change all the time, and there are no external judges or referees. The players are accountable to themselves and each other for their behavior in the game. Ultimately, the rules of the game are devised to keep the game goinginfinitely.

So What?

While many models, methods, and approaches teach you how to play Finite Games,HSD focuses on strategies to thrive in the uncertainty of the Infinite Game. In 2013, Eoyang and Holladay described the nature of complex systems as being open to multiple forces, high dimension, and nonlinear. Those very characteristics make systems complex and call for the open, responsive, iterative nature of Infinite Games to set conditions for resilience and sustainability.

People, teams, and organizations engage in Finite Games to establish processes and procedures when certainty is necessary and possible. In uncertainty and chaos, people have to plan for and play Infinite Games. In fact, all Finite Games are played within the context of the Infinite Games.

  • Arranging your schedule for a 30-minute walk each day is a Finite Game that contributes to the Infinite Game of lifetime attention and work to maintain a healthy life.
  • Employee compensation and recognition of short-term performance goals are Finite Games that contribute to the Infinite Game of ensuring that employees are clear about their roles and the contributions they make to the organizations success.
  • Household chores that are checked off the list each day are Finite Games in the Infinite Game of a relationship built on shared responsibility and respect.

Now What?

Use Finite and Infinite Games in your next sticky issue to:

  • Be clear about short-term and long-term outcomes, impacts.
  • Understand the dynamics that shape the patterns of choice and behavior.
  • Take wise action to move toward greater coherence and sustainability.

Related Resources

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August 1, 2013 Glenda Eoyang leads an exploration of entrepreneurship, from the point of view of HSD. In doing so, she poses the question, "What would it be like if entrepreneur were a verb that guides behavior rather than a noun that describes it?"
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