None of This is Real: A Guide
There are two types of game: finite and infinite. What matters is why we play, the rules we employ and how we treat one another. Only one of these can produce losers. We should stop playing those.
Yesterday, during a multi-hour meditation, I reached a vividly altered state (or two, or six) and upon waking, spent a half-hour processing my thoughts, dictating and thumb-typing them while they were still fresh in my mind.
The first thing I jotted down was the following:
Definition A: A game by whose rules the players agree to abide. If a perception — or a perception-fueled act — falls outside of the adopted rules, it is thereby considered unreal, and therefore unsanctioned, and earmarked for corrective action, and erasure.
Flaunting the rules publicly is often punishable by incarceration, immobilization, and/or application of a drug protocol regimen that aims to forcibly change the dissenter or renegade’s mindset, in order to achieve complicity with the accepted rules.
Only then is he or she allowed to return to play.
This morning, as I sat to write, I thought of William Shakespeare’s famous line from As You Like It in a new light:
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”
Jacques, the statement’s author, then describes The Seven Ages of Man, from birth to death, clearly articulating each in caricature-like fashion, following a well-worn and familiar human script.
Shakespeare in turn reminded me of another saying — this one by Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, who quipped the following:
“When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion, it is called a Religion.”
His comment has less to do with religion, per se, and more to do with how readily — almost without fail, really — we allow ourselves to believe we are the roles we play in our terrestrial drama.
James Carse is the author of a book called Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility. It is a tiny and remarkable book I am reading right now: a deep set of insights about human meaning and identity, masquerading as a manual.
He draws a line in the sand early on, and places every human on one side or another: we are either finite or infinite players, in life. But regardless of which we are, we are all, always, players. He asks, “At which point do we confront the fact that we live one life and perform another, or others, attempting to make our momentary forgetting [about who we really are] true and lasting forgetting?” We are so absorbed in playing our parts, playing dress-up, that sometimes (often; usually; always) we forget that these are no more than roles as Jacques defined them for us.
Shakespeare, the oracle whose dais was a stage, laid bare the truest glimpse of his life philosophy on stage, and in a comedy, no less — for our acting is, by and large, comedic, when seen for what it is — and did it so vividly, that in my view, we have yet to be presented a more compelling and rich view of humanity, four hundred years on.
As You Like It isn’t the only place he tries to help us see the farce. He nudges us toward acknowledging our jests in Hamlet, too, when he warns, “This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”
He continues, throughout his life and his plays, to make us aware of the ruse. In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet understands that even her surname and everything that encrusts it — the very thing that keeps the star-crossed lovers apart — is no more than a farce, when she muses aloud, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.”
Then in King Henry IV, the eponymous monarch states, “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown,” distinguishing himself — the man — from the role he plays as a king.
And finally, in just six words, The Bard of Avon tells us, via The Merchant of Venice, that “All that glitters is not gold.”
Said another way, appearances can be deceiving.
Is not all of life deceiving, if we allow ourselves to deceive one another, and ourselves, confusing our roles with our true selves?
Jean-Paul Sartre provides us with a chewy slab of beef — one you cannot simply swallow, but must live with, for a while, before dispatching it — when he writes:
“To believe is to know you believe, and to know you believe is not to believe.”
Meaning, at some point, we must reckon with Jacques’ cardinal insight: that our lives are but overlapping tragedies and comedies, and that whether we know it or not, we play different parts in each.
Finite and Infinite Games
In his book, Carse lays out the difference between finite players and infinite ones, along the lines of how we choose to play our parts.
Finite games are played to be won, and ended. In a finite game, there is always a winner, and there is always a loser; and until the players acknowledge the winner(s) and loser(s), play continues, with the aim of emerging victorious. In finite games, surprises are unwelcome, because they threaten to undermine our control over winning. To a finite game player, every act is seen through the lens of risk, because it prejudices our chances of winning, since it moves some players closer to the finish line while creating barriers for others. In finite games, we are always measuring ourselves against others, because they are seen as adversaries, obstacles, or tools to leverage to gain territory, or with whom we establish a brief truce in order to vanquish a common foe. In finite games, we take our roles very seriously, and because the aim is to win, as Carse says, players “must hide their future moves. The unprepared opponent must be kept unprepared. Finite players must appear to be something other than what they are. Everything about their appearance must be concealing. All the moves of a finite player must be deceptive: feints, distractions, falsifications, misdirections, mystifications.”
Infinite games, by contrast, are played in order to preserve play, so that it doesn’t end. The goal of an infinite game is to keep playing it. In an infinite game, there are no winners or losers; if there were, the game would end, for which end everybody would suffer from being unable to continue play. Infinite players love surprises, because as Carse writes, “the infinite player does not expect only to be amused by surprise, but to be transformed by it, for surprise does not alter some abstract past, but one’s own personal past.” In this way, he is suggesting a difference between finite and infinite players, insofar as the degree of openness (seriousness or playfulness) with which each contrastingly recognizes they are playing parts. While the finite player conceals everything, the infinite player plays “in complete openness,” by which Carse means vulnerability. That’s because it’s only in a vulnerable state that we transform, and transformation is one of the most powerful forces in continuing play.
Training vs. Education
Carse then offers us his own slab of meat, in how he contrasts some salient differences in the mindset of the two types of players, wherein finite players train themselves, and infinite players look to be educated:
“To be prepared against surprise is to be trained. To be prepared for surprise is to be educated.
Education discovers an increasing richness in the past, because it sees what is unfinished there. Training regards the past as finished and the future as to be finished. Education leads toward a continuing self-discovery; training leads toward a final self-definition.
Training repeats a completed past in the future. Education continues an unfinished past into the future.”
At no point does Carse suggest that life is anything other than a game. The nuance lies is in how seriously the players take themselves, how they define themselves in reference to the other players, and whether or not they mistake the roles they play for reality. One answer to each question leads to finite behaviors, while its opposite leads to infinite acts.
If it’s not already clear, finite, win-lose, zero-sum games (these terms all mean the same thing) are transactional, combative and harmful. Those who play them also control the overwhelming majority of current human societal constructs in which we all live. Finite players assiduously avoid mirrors, lest they discover that they are mere players. To win, they must convince themselves that they are the role they play. If not, they will not be able to bring the required seriousness to their game play, and therefore risk losing.
Carse says, “The issue here is not whether self-veiling [confusing role for reality] can be avoided, or even should be avoided. Indeed, no finite play is possible without it. The issue is whether we are ever willing to drop the veil and openly acknowledge, if only to ourselves, that we have freely chosen to face the world through a mask.”
Games We All Play
Examples of finite games include politics, capitalism, social or occupational (aka business) hierarchies and titles, and law. Examples of infinite games include education (not training), not-for-profit businesses, evolution, and yoga.
Professional sports are finite games. Pickup beach ball is an infinite game. A loan from Chase Bank is a finite game. A loan from Grameen Bank is an infinite game. A divorce lawyer plays a finite game. A divorce mediator plays an infinite game. Shareholders play finite games. Collaborators play infinite games. A Broadway play is a finite game. An improv sketch is an infinite game. Pop idols play finite games. Jazz musicians play infinite games.
Finite and Infinite Values
The New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study (NZAVS) is, so far, a 2o-year longitudinal study of social attitudes, personality and health outcomes of more than 60,000 New Zealanders. Under its umbrella, Niki Harré, a professor of community psychology and sustainability at the University of Aukland, and author of the 2018 book, The Infinite Game, undertook a study to crowd-source New Zealanders’ thoughts about the distinction between ‘finite’ and ‘infinite’ values. She understood that it is our values that seed our actions, which lead to how we organize ourselves. That same year, she presented a slide show at the Career Development Association of New Zealand’s (CDANZ’s) National Symposium, in which, among other things, she shares two powerful ‘word clouds’ — one each to represent finite and infinite values, as the people in her study have identified them. The larger the word, the more times someone identified it.
Infinite values include love, family, happiness, nature, friendship, laughter, connection, respect, kindness, empathy, inclusion, creativity, honesty, healthy environments, belonging, trust, civil society, community, compassion, learning, openness, knowledge, hope, artistic expression, etc. etc.
Finite values include money, status, possessions, houses, wealth, power, competition, economic systems, winning, qualifications, social position, appearance, bureaucracy, rules, limits, status symbols, ego, sports, law, domination, etc. etc.
So I tried an experiment of my own, knowing a tiny bit about win-lose game playing. While Harré doesn’t drive this point explicitly in her musings, what struck me as I read the word clouds was that when I tried to construct a loser using any of the infinite values, I could not; where the reverse was true of the finite values: I couldn’t construct a scenario where there wasn’t a loser. Each finite value identified in her study fuels games whose only aim can be to win; while games employing each infinite value can do no less than lift everyone up, without a downside.
Try it. It’s eye-opening.
As we’ve seen, finite players view anything that undermines their control over winning as a risk or threat to their chances of victory, and therefore must be neutralized. Moreover, since everything that we do together is some form of game, played by choice, we cannot play unless everyone agrees on the rules of play, and abides by them. This brings up another dimension of game-playing. In finite games, Carse writes, “the rules may not change in the course of play,” because doing so creates risk to one’s winning. By contrast, he writes, “the rules of an infinite game must change in the course of play,” when players of an infinite game agree that play is imperiled by a potential finite outcome — that is, a potential win; or when it’s discovered that some rule or other has precluded someone else from joining. That’s because infinite games are played to be accessible to everyone, since the more people participate, the better they get. Carse writes, “If the rules of a finite game are the contractual terms by which the players can agree who has won, the rules of an infinite game are the contractual terms by which the players agree to continue playing.” In that way, he says, infinite rules “are like the grammar of a living language, where those of a finite game are like the rules of debate.”
So on to my opening thoughts about reality. Reality is both the stage upon which we play our parts, and the rules by which we agree to interact. On Broadway, when someone flubs their pre-determined lines (a rule), it is a problem. If the role-playing audience catches on, bad reviews are written by some, while the ‘flubber’ is reprimanded by others. If this happens often enough, the ‘flubber’ is determined to be lesser for it, and may be dispatched, or paid less, or relegated to B venues. With improv, when someone utters a line no one wrote, it is applauded for its spontaneity, especially if it keeps play going, richly. The more the line contributes to keeping the game going, the better the reviews will be, from audience and experts alike. People will buy more tickets, wax poetic about the talents of the troupe, and the more people who can be brought into an improv sketch and keep the dialogue bouncing, the more joy audience and players feel. Jazz is no different. For decades, I’ve gone to tiny clubs where I can be no more than steps (or an arm’s length) from the players. Jazz is a conversation — the wilder, the better, and I want in on it. Sometimes, I even drum the table in front of me. Usually, people I’m with are mortified. That’s not the rule! I’m not on stage! Equally often, a musician, feeling my energy, will come up to me during a break and thank me, or ask if I’m a musician, before telling me that it’s energy like mine that they feed off of, and that makes for a good show. Apparently, I’m a bad finite game-player, but a great infinite one.
One of my two favorite jazz albums is Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert, in which he sits in a trance on a stage facing his piano, eyes closed, and wanders for a full hour, letting his fingers translate his meandering. It is a remarkable act of connectedness — of following his mind and letting us in on his discoveries. He can even be heard on the album occasionally moaning, unable to contain his discoveries just to his fingers.
The Rulebook in Society
We have established incredibly complex rules of play that largely trade on the idea that we, as a species, are here to play a set of finite games. Anything infinite is still, largely, considered fringe, or unreal, and therefore dangerous. People who don’t self-identify with a single sex in the binary sense are seen as deviants, as, too, are those whose love choices don’t biologically produce offspring, or lie beyond the pale of accepted rules. Falling in love with someone outside of one’s role as a Muslim, or a child, or one percenter, will not be tolerated by most other players. Sometimes, the punishment is ostracism. Other times, it’s imprisonment, or stoning.
The same goes for the Burner community, who are largely considered a bunch of degenerates, hippies, sex fiends, drug addicts, or unthinking youth, or all of them; not for the open-minded, wildly creative, loving, accepting, collaborating, generous, talented and optimistic individuals they are, along with the outrageously creative and life-affirming communities that they’ve made together.
Homeless people have failed at the finite game, and are therefore among the most maligned of humans, because they are seen as abject failures — as lesser humans because of their inability to properly play their roles. Society at large has left them to wither and die; only outliers with an infinite mindset have volunteered to play a new game that includes them, built around the driving values of compassion, giving and care.
Meditation, acupuncture, functional medicine and yoga are still officially considered New Age hokum in the West, and of no true consequence to one’s health, in the sense that any government considers it part of an official protocol, and that insurance agencies are willing to pay for it.
Most are not.
When it comes to Law, jaywalking across an empty street, or rolling in a vehicle past an empty intersection, will certainly land one with a fine, or in jail; as will walking out of a store with a new pair of shoes without paying for it, even if we don’t have any, and there are 700 of them on display.
Behaviors and decisions that challenge the rules of play — or color outside of the lines — are met with our most severe punishments. Altered states, whether induced by psychedelic drugs, meditation, tribal dancing, religious ritual, a belief that aliens exist and are among us, or that we are living inside of a simulation, or even dreaming — something we all do, every single night — are considered amusements at best, and delusions at worst. Reality, the way civilized humans measure it, is “the way things work in the real world.” And by “the way things work,” we mean the orthodox rules of play we have established, and the roles we have assumed in order to play our finite games.
The World Health Organization (WHO) released a statement in 2018 that “one in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives,” “placing mental disorders among the leading causes of ill-health and disability worldwide.”
I’m not here to tell you that mental illness isn’t real, and that people don’t truly suffer from it. It is, and they do. I personally know people who fall under this category, and are crippled by it. You do, too, without a doubt. With that said, how we see this phenomenon is what matters. Is it the failure of the player to follow the rules that removes them from play — whether at our hand, or their own — or is it the failure of the rules to adequately account for them and recalibrate, so that they, too, can play, and thrive?
Said simply, did the games we made up make them that way?
Burn the Witch
Is reality not truly just a fantasy? Were the early Catholics right to burn Galileo at the stake for his heresy in suggesting that the Church and Man were not at the center of the universe? That we were mere bit players in a cosmic drama? The entire world that Copernicus entered knew — knew, with every fiber of their being — that the world was flat, and that if we sailed too far, sea monsters and a nasty fall into space would follow. So he, too, was dispatched, for encouraging others to break the rules, and sail off to their certain deaths.
Of course, we now know that mental health sufferers—whether they have a chemical imbalance or are simply non-complicit—can only be allowed back into the game with drug regimens that keep them in line with rule orthodoxy. At no point do we ask ourselves whether changing the rules changed to include these ‘outliers’ — employing infinite values, like community, compassion, belonging, tolerance, human connection, commitment and hope to rewrite the rule book, and start a new, open-ended game — might possibly lead to better outcomes for the marginalized players, and thus improve outcomes for everyone.
A New Look at Old Institutions
What, for that matter, would happen if we took every single institution that governs our play — education, healthcare, governance, public safety (a far better term than law enforcement; see how this works? words matter), social exchange (including media), work, community, and compensation (how we get our material needs met) — and used exclusively infinite values to derive a new set of rules for play, discarding those from which we could contrive a loser? Do you think it’s even possible that any of these would look anything like they do right now?
Of course they wouldn’t.
Can’t we come up with a set of infinite games based on infinite values that not only lift everyone without losers, but are responsive enough to adapt the rules every time somebody, or something, or some idea that lies outside of the sandbox, but improves play, comes to mind? Doesn’t that bake iterative improvement into the mix?
How is that not more real than what we currently call reality?
How is “Joe in the suit” — hammering his fist on the table about quarterly returns, firing up the faithful while firing the unfaithful, frightening all other players into complicity, lest they undermine his self-serious or his paycheck, and his frankly twisted role-playing — any more real than when I dive through the ‘black dot’ I see when I meditate, as I did yesterday, and into multi-dimensional space-time, where I can see myself as a little boy, and finally teach him what I should have learned years ago, so that he stops getting the way of his and my lightness, now that we get it?
Yeah, that. M-hmm.
How is the bloody war of unbridled commercial gain a better game than the healing peace of self-acceptance and self-stewardship? Who’s the psycho here? Let’s be clear: I play both games. I am an exceptional finite game-player. I’ve won many, many rounds. But that doesn’t mean I like them, and don’t have a better time playing infinite ones. In fact, as I age, I want to spend more time playing infinite games, and less time playing finite ones. That’s because I have begun to see them both for what they are, and for the impact they have on all of us. It’s not pretty.
…either unite us, or divide us.
…are either inclusive, or exclusive.
…are either elastic, or rigid.
…are either light-hearted, or stressful.
…either reward, or punish.
…either prioritize innovation, or return on investment.
…either seed collaboration, or antagonism.
…either value the other players, or the win.
…either educate, or deceive.
…are either played vulnerably open, or duplicitously concealed.
…either accommodate or neutralize difference.
And our games either accept that reality is a farcical construct and we are mere players on a stage, or else they insist that there is no stage, nor players, only the ‘laws of the jungle’, and we are engaged in a life or death struggle.
I don’t know about you, but the players who forget they’re playing, confuse themselves for their roles, and won’t stop until the game is over, and a winner declared, even when the ‘win’ results in the wholesale destruction of things or people, seem to me to be far more delusional than the ones who enjoy the game for what it is, don’t take themselves too seriously while they’re playing, and concern themselves primarily with the quality of play, as measured by how much the others want to keep playing because doing so resonates with their common humanity.
Personally, I’ll take a week spent uniting in Black Rock City over one spent dividing in a Grand Jury anytime. Only one of these is enjoyable.
I wrote something else yesterday, as I emerged from the meditation, about the black dot I just mentioned. For those unfamiliar with it, practitioners of meditation also refer to it as the Blue Pearl, and consider it an aspect of our third eye opening. You know, a different reality; real reality. Aka ‘the true self’. They consider the black dot a gateway, or portal, or tunnel to your ‘higher soul’. You know, the one that every religion, and pre-religion, assures you exists.
I didn’t know anything about third eyes or blue pearls until today, when I researched it for these musings; but regardless of my ignorance, interestingly, I wrote the following, in my altered state:
“The only way you can create a hole is by pushing things out of the way.
The hole is not a thing; it’s the absence of the obstruction.
Another way of describing act this is ‘increasing lucidity and clarity’.
Multi-dimensional, multi-planar clarity.
This is the black dot I keep seeing, and it’s the reason I need to make it larger—so that I can dive through it.
I finally understand the black dot. Now I get to keep playing, in a continuing act of educational self-discovery.
Or as it’s also sometimes called, delusion.