Infinite Games and Online Communities

29 November 2018

The idea of infinite vs. finite games is illustrated by a book of the same name by James Carse. From the book’s Wikipedia article: "There are at least two kinds of games: finite and infinite. Finite games are those instrumental activities - from sports to politics to wars - in which the participants obey rules, recognize boundaries and announce winners and losers. The infinite game - there is only one - includes any authentic interaction, from touching to culture, that changes rules, plays with boundaries and exists solely for the purpose of continuing the game. A finite player seeks power; the infinite one displays self-sufficient strength. Finite games are theatrical, necessitating an audience; infinite ones are dramatic, involving participants..."

In my experience, inside of a community individuals usually play infinite games. Sometimes there are popularity contests or power spats or calling someone out, but usually they individuals within a community will cooperate, because if people didn’t cooperate they would just leave that community to find another. The cost of leaving and finding a new internet community is almost none (as opposed to a new community in real life).

However, different online communities almost never play infinite games in my experience. If someone could figure out how to nudge communities to play infinite games, then that would be a boon to everyone. I think this would probably necessitate the creation of a new platform, as the current ones (facebook, reddit, etc.) structurally incentivize people to play finite games with people of different communities through likes, filtering people into echo chambers, screenshots devoid of context, etc. A charitable way to see this is that tools used to foster cooperation within a community can be used destructively when used by a different community. A less charitable view is that platforms just do whatever increases engagement the most, which means fostering as much conflict as possible.

One way to fix that is lock those tools to outsiders so that only members of a community can use them in a positive way. Another way is to weight people’s importance to a community rather than giving everyone the same power to be heard. Another way would be to lock people’s ability to switch communities (local region lock?), which would force people to have a stake in that community.