Interview: Niki Harre talks about The Infinite Game
Deeply informed by psychological research, The Infinite Game is a book is about how you can improve not only yourself, but your community as well. This is an invitation to live life differently – as an infinite game. Whether we are competing for a job, building a business or championing a good cause, some days it can feel as if we are trapped in an endless competition for status, wealth or attention. Maybe if we learn to play the game and follow the rules we’ll come out on top. But is life really a finite game – a game of selection and rules, winners and losers, players and spectators? Niki Harre talks to NZ Booklovers.
Tell us a little about The Infinite Game.
The infinite game is a way of thinking about life. It suggests that the purpose of life is to keep what we most value in play. So one of the first questions I ask in the book is what do people most value? Is it ‘our way of life’ and the institutions that prop it up, or is it something deeper? When you actually ask people this question, you find that almost everyone’s core values concern connection with others, expression and creativity, personal integrity, the natural world and spirituality. The book then, tries to describe what life would be like if we put those values at the centre of what we do.
The Infinite Game also explores finite games. Finite games set the rules and goals that allow us to organise social life. Finite games are necessary, but they are not the point. In our culture these games are often competitive – there are winners and losers. Think of the politics game, the house buying game, the free market game or the university qualification game. We’ve been trained to think that competition is the engine of social progress, but this, I think, is mistaken. In fact, when people are pressured to compete, they put immense energy into winning by the rules of the game at hand and very little energy into changing those rules to make sure the larger game stays in play. If we are to keep our finite games relevant, we need to adapt them and get rid of the old, tired games that are destroying what we value. For example, should we still be playing the ‘oil game’? Why do impose such severe restrictions on entry to qualifications like medicine – is the world better for having fewer doctors? How could we adapt the ‘politics game’ to make it less adversarial?
What inspired you to write this book?
For several years I had been thinking that we need a new narrative or symbol to make sense of our lives together. Then I heard a podcast in which the philosopher James Carse described life as an infinite game in which the key purpose is to continue the play. I was immediately intrigued – how could thinking about life as an infinite game help us approach the social and environmental issues we face? I read his short book on the topic and went on to develop Infinite Game workshops based on the distinction between the infinite game and finite games.
What research was involved?
I did a lot of reading from a wide variety of disciplines to figure out the implications of seeing life through the lens of the infinite game and finite games. I came across numerous related ideas. As I discuss in the book, the infinite game can be seen as a God substitute – a way of talking about the mysterious ‘whole’ we are part of that stretches forwards and backwards and into the tiniest details of the present. There is also a lot of writing that unpacks the effect of competition on our emotions and relationships. Finally, I ran Infinite Game workshops all over New Zealand, thirty of which were part of a formal research project. Two colleagues, Helen Madden and Rowan Brooks, helped with the analysis of the workshops.
What was your routine or process when writing this book?
My ideal weekday involves three to five hours reading or writing before I open email. Once I look at email, I find it very difficult to concentrate on something as inward and focused as writing. In 2014 I had a sabbatical from my job as a university academic and so managed to maintain this routine on many days. When I was back into regular academic life, it was harder. But still, unless I had to teach an early class or attend a meeting, I tried to work between 7am and 10am on the book. Fortunately, once I am obsessed with an idea, I can’t wait to get up and work on it.
What are the outcomes when people take the infinite game approach for society?
If a group is playing the infinite game they will be genuinely open to the contributions of everyone involved. They will also be aware of their impact on the natural world and responsive to new knowledge about that world. This may sound simple; actually it is very difficult. To take an example, if our society embraced the infinite game, we would take new knowledge about climate change very seriously. We would listen carefully to those who observe the impacts of climate change – including scientists and people who live close to the natural world – and change our current practices in light of their insights. We would also strive to provide the conditions under which all people can thrive. This might mean a reduction in material consumption – it would certainly mean considerable redistribution of wealth. But just imagine what we could create if we threw out the rule that some people are allowed material luxury and huge financial reserves, while others struggle to fulfil the basic needs of living.
The infinite game requires rules to change or be broken. How challenging is that for people to adjust to?
It’s very difficult for people to work out how and when to break the rules. This is because rules can be useful. For example, we wouldn’t want some people suddenly driving on the right hand side of the road in New Zealand! It’s a matter of saying to yourself – what does this rule function to create? If it is something harmful, and it is within your power to do so, you may wish to break the rule or lobby for it to be changed.
What did you enjoy the most about writing this book?
I most enjoyed what I learnt about myself and the conversations that have come out of it. As I read, wrote and talked about the infinite game I got an increasing sense of what life is about and the kind of player I wanted to be. I also really enjoy the routine of writing and having a big project underway.
What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?
It was a great relief to get the book to the point of sending to a publisher. And an even bigger relief when Auckland University Press were interested. But I don’t really feel like it is ‘done’. It’s more than a book to me, it’s a project and getting the book out is just one step along the way. So I haven’t celebrated yet. Perhaps I’ll have a glass of wine at the launch!
What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?
I am currently reading Andreas Weber’s book Matter and Desire: An Erotic Ecology and loving it. It articulates all the principles of the infinite game but in the context of our relationship with the natural world. Weber also uses beautiful language that makes me relish every word and pause frequently to consider the ramifications of what he is saying.
What’s next on the agenda for you?
I’m working with others on how to bring the infinite game to interested organisations and communities. We also hope to set up a network of infinite players – people who’d like to bring the principles of the infinite game into their lives and have a forum for discussing how to do this.