Education – Playing The Ultimate Game?

“A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.”

James P. Carse, Finite and Infinite Games

Here we are in the middle of another ‘glorious summer of sport’ as the mainstream media would have it, from the Wimbledon tennis championships via the British Lions’ rugby tour, The Ashes cricket series and a certain tour of France to THE-ICARUS-DECEPTIONthe Open Golf Championship at Muirfield in Scotland. For anyone who is interested in such things – and I count myself as one of them – there is a great deal of pleasure to be had from feeling part of the drama these events undoubtedly provide, but I have posted before about the danger of making easy comparisons between sport and education (see Learning in the Long Run). My instinct then was that ‘playing games’ may provide a more appropriate analogy, though even that notion seemed to imply that in education there must inevitably be losers, an idea which I was finding difficult to accept. Not all games are the same however, as I discovered this week when reading Seth Godin’s latest book, The Icarus Deception, in which he makes reference to the work of James P. Carse, Professor Emeritus at New York University, and specifically the distinction he makes between finite and infinite games:

“A finite game is one with a winner and a loser. A finite game has rules, yes, but it also has an end. The goal of a finite game, then, is to win, to be the last man standing. The industrial age embraced the idea of finite games. Market share is a finite game. Hiring someone from a competitor is a finite game as well – you have this all-star, your competitor does not. Every season of the NFL is a finite game, with just one team winning and everyone else walking away a loser. Infinite games, on the other hand, are played for the privilege of playing. The purpose of an infinite game is to allow the other players to play better. The goal of your next move is to encourage your fellow game players to make their next moves even better.”

Subtitled ‘How High Will You Fly?’, the Icarus ‘deception’, according to Godin, is that while everyone knows that part of the myth which tells how the wax melted on his home-made wings when Icarus flew too close to the sun, sending him spiralling to his death, the other part of the story is now largely forgotten – the warning about the dangers of flying too low and the risk of crashing into the sea. The tale of Icarus has become synonymous with vaulting ambition or hubris, and is often used to prevent people ‘getting above themselves’, a familiar schooldays lesson for many. Godin’s point is that in the industrial age we have been rewarded for fitting in, knowing our place, not making a fuss, while ignoring the dangers of aiming too low. In the post-industrial age of what he describes as the ‘connection economy’, there will be no alternative but to stand up and stand out, and no limits on what can be achieved. In the connection economy, the true measure of your work is whether you touched someone:

“The connection economy has changed how you get a job and what you do when you get that job. It has changed how we make and listen to music, write and read books, and discover where to eat, what to eat and whom to eat with. It has destroyed the mediocre middle of average products for average people who have few choices, and it has enabled the weird edges, where people who care find others who care and they all end up caring about something more than they did before they met.”

Let us suppose then for a moment that the purpose of education is to prepare young people for their place in the world, and that the modern world is indeed something like Godin describes it. Would it be reasonable to conclude that education is more of an infinite game than a finite game? If your inclination is to answer that question in the affirmative, the implications for any formal education system are clear – that ,while competition can be useful, healthy and fun in certain contexts, we need to move away from the fixation on competition in the form of standardised tests (finite games), and emphasise instead the more important ‘C’ words – Creativity, Cooperation, Caring and Connection. It is only by doing this that we will free young people to be themselves, take risks, fly higher, make better art and recognise that they all have something valuable to contribute to the common good.

“As you’ve guessed, the connection economy thrives on the infinite game (and vice versa). Because connections aren’t a zero-sum investment, because ideas that spread benefit all they touch, there isn’t an overwhelming need for a winner (and many losers). In the finite game, there’s pressure to be the one, the one in a million. The problem with one in a million is that with those odds, there are seven thousand other people on the planet who are as good as (or better than) you are. Winning a finite game in a connected world is a sucker’s bet. In any finite game with high stakes, it’s obvious that it will quickly become work, that you’ll be under pressure to take steroids, cut corners, and abandon generosity in favour of focusing on the end. Our best art is strenuous. But it’s not strenuous in service of creating scarcity and of winning a finite game. It’s strenuous because it’s personal and generous. Infinite games bring abundance and they bring the satisfaction of creating art that matters. Play.”

Seth Godin, The Icarus Deception

Further Reading: Finite and Infinite Games, A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility by James P. Carse