In 2019 the author and “unshakable optimist”1 Simon Sinek published a book called The Infinite Game (2019) that made the work of American religious historian James Carse popular in business and organisational circles.
Carse’s book was published in 1986 and it was called Finite and Infinite Games. The premise of the original book is simple: “A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.”2 (p.3) Carse details other differences such as finite games having temporal, spatial and numerical boundaries, while infinite games do not; finite games have agreed upon rules, whereas “the rules of an infinite game must change in the course of play.”(p.9) The higher education system — or earning a degree — is a finite game, education is infinite; research assessment is finite, ongoing research is infinite; producing an artistic work is a finite game, developing a practice is infinite such that “the only purpose of the game is to prevent it from coming to an end.”(pp.6-7)
Carse makes two further distinctions that are useful to consider in relation to practices of choreography, or indeed any artistic practice. The first distinction is that because finite games are meant to end, they are by definition performed for an audience. Carse describes finite play as theatrical and infinite play as dramatic, that is “toward the open, toward the horizon, toward surprise, where nothing can be scripted.”(p.25) In infinite play, there is no audience, only players.
The second distinction is that finite and infinite games have a fundamentally different relationship to surprise. In finite games, surprise is a means by which the game might be brought to an end. To be able to surprise an opponent is a key feature of a finite game. Infinite play is predicated on ongoing surprise: “Infinite players, on the other hand, continue their play in the expectation of being surprised. If surprise is no longer possible, all play ceases.”(p.18) It is the expectation of surprise in infinite play that invites complete openness. There are no feints or strategies, deceptions or distractions. Carse describes the openness of infinite play as not being about candour but rather “vulnerability.”(p.18)
Carse wrote that the only idea that is shared across infinite and finite games is that, “Whoever must play cannot play.”(p.74) What if we all imagine that we do not have to play this finite game? That by choosing to be involved — by choosing to play — we make the infinite game possible; that we write and dance and choreograph so that we may continue to play.