The Infinite Game

meleu By meleu.


Here in the RetroAchievements project we’re playing an infinite game. But what does that really mean?

I recently stumbled upon the concept of Finite and Infinite Games and instantly related such concepts to a lot of situations we experience here on this project.

The concept is described by James Carson in his book with that same title. Those two types of games have many differences, but the most apparent one is that a finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.

Let’s check some other differences.

Finite vs. Infinite Games

A finite game is defined by a fixed and known set of rules, known players, pre-established goals, and (of course) the players want to win. And once someone won, the game is over.

Any video game is a finite game. Let’s take, for example, Mega Man. You (the player) is a blue robot and the rule is to shoot every enemy appearing on the screen. After beating a Robot Master you get its ability. If you lose your last life it’s a game over (but you can use continues). If you defeat Dr. Wily you win and the game is finished. In this game you know the players, the adversaries, the rules and the goal(s).

An infinite game, on the other hand, is defined by a set of known and unknown rules (also, they are mutable), there are known and unknown players, and the goal is not to win, but to keep playing. And as there are no winners and losers, what happens is that some players leave the game because they lost their will or went out of resources to keep playing.

The marriage is a good example of an infinite game. There are at least two players, but the relatives and kids also play an important role in this game. There are rules to follow, but they can change over time and depend on who is playing (different couples, at different ages, have different rules). When any of the main players is not willing to continue the play, the game is over. In the game of marriage there are no winners. The goal is not to win, but keep that game existing, preferably in a healthy and respectful way.

Finite vs. Infinite Player

A good finite player is always looking for ways to take advantage of situations. Their decisions are based on what will bring them the most advantage. Speed runners are a good example for this. They are always looking for shortcuts, and situations where they can get faster. A finite player is focused on their own interests and to win the game. Once they won, the game is finished.

On the other hand, the characteristics a good infinite player are not really straightforward to list. OK, we understood that they’re trying to keep playing, but what exactly makes a good infinite player?

Another guy wrote a book about this finite vs. infinite game. Simon Sinek wrote a book named The Infinite Game, where he asserts that “the way to play an infinite game is through consistency in adhering to values, regardless of the short term expense”. So, a good infinite player is the one who makes decisions based on values. Therefore it’s important to have very clear what those values are.

Which one is better?

A kind of question that can arise is “which type of game is better, finite or infinite?”. Or even “which kind of player is better?”. And there’s no answer for such questions, they’re just different types of gaming.

There’s one thing to keep in mind though, it’s important to play a certain type of game with a mindset that matches such type. Playing a finite game with a finite player mindset increases your chances of success. On the other hand, playing an inifinite game with a infinite player mindset also increases your chances of success.

A more practical advice would be like: If you’re playing Sonic, play it as a finite player. If you’re playing the “marriage game”, play it as an infinite player.

Problems start to happen when playing infinite games as a finite player and vice-versa.

A finite player in an infinite game will most likely run out of resources soon and be out of the game. On the other hand an infinite player in a finite game would be easily overtaken by a player with the appropriate mindset.

RetroAchievements is an Infinite Game

Although our project is all about retrogames, and they are all finite games, it’s important to keep in mind that the RetroAchievements project is an infinite game.

Therefore, it’s totally OK to play our games as a finite player (actually it’s expected), but your approach towards the project as a whole should always take into account that this is an infinite game.

We don’t want to win anything. We don’t want to beat anyone. What we want is to continue playing “forever” (or at least for as long as there are people interested in this project).

As said above, “the way to play an infinite game is through consistency in adhering to values”. That’s why we have the RetroAchievements Manifesto. There you can see what we value more. In attempt to summarize it, I would say that our three pillars are:

  1. respect, as needed to keep this a healthy environment.
  2. overall quality over individual pride (badges and/or amount of points).
  3. involvement, as in giving something to the community instead of just consuming.

If you get involved focused on the project’s quality (rather than individual’s pride) and do it in a respectful way, you’re surely playing very well our infinite game.