Play and Possibility

James Carse, who was Director of Religious Studies at New York University for thirty years, introduced the concept of play and possibility as a vision of life, in his book Finite and Infinite Games (1986) which he wrote after participating in a seminar on game theory - the study of mathematical models of strategic interactions among rational agents.

He outlines his theory early on in the book:

"There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play."

There are lots of simple examples of finite games; sports games, board games, a debate, a job application. Essentially when you play life as a finite game, you are playing within a set of rules and training within the boundaries of those rules. The rules are externally set and power gives players the best chance to win over their opponent. Playing the game requires a sense of seriousness and eventually reaches an endpoint.

frozen white methane bubble suspended in thick, clear ice
When Worlds Collide

Infinite games are perhaps harder to spot. In children's role playing games, the rules are changed in the course of play. Boundaries shift, like a desert mirage where the rules of light appear to play with us. Naturally-flowing conversations are not associated with a defined set of rules. We don't approach a conversation by agreeing at the start that the participants each get to talk for one minute before the next person gets their turn. Playing along is voluntary and we change the rules of play as we move through the conversation to make the conversation more equitable or longer lasting, and therefore more enjoyable. There is joy in infinite play.

A Pep Ventosa technique image of a large Douglas fir under snow
Seasonal Spirit

I would argue that photography, too, can be approached as a finite or infinite game and I suggest that playing with infinite possibilities is a far more joyous way to practice photography.

And, like a horizon, a phenomenon of vision that has no reachable endpoint, practising photography as an infinite game brings new visions with every moment and therefore a whole new range of possibilities for creating images.

I am not suggesting that there is a right and a wrong way to practice photography, rather that being aware of how we tend to practice is in itself worthwhile. A finite game example would be a bucket list of shots that you want to say you have made - these might be location-based, subject based or a coming together of elements in a composition and with each one that is checked off the list, the game ends and there is nowhere further to go. If we always approach our photography this way, there will be no success in the infinite game - where we might otherwise find continued ability to adapt creatively and to find joy in that process. Finite games do have their place to within the overall infinite game, for example in the learning of a new technique.

I have spoken about slowing down on other occasions and, it really is only when we slow down that we have freedom to explore and play unscripted within our imaginations and to embrace surprise to the point of continuing play in pursuit of it. Weather and other aspects of nature establish the context of the play and, in the infinite game, are accepted as realities; we may struggle with them but not against them within our set of practices.

I have selected a set of my own images here where playfulness was key to moving a boundary, turning walls into bridges and expanding the realm of possibility. I particularly enjoy coming across a scene and spending time getting to know the place or subject, deeply observing and just being with.

Kelp washed up on the shore, shaped into crashing waves, Tofino, British Columbia
The Wave

Next time you are out photographing, ask yourself whether you (or someone else) have imposed a set of extrinsic rules upon the game. Playing life and practicing photography as infinite games are about educating yourself to adapt to the unknowns and unexpected moments.

Creating new and personally meaning images is an imposing aspiration, but setting out to play a game where the only intent is to prevent it coming to an end, is far more manageable and, one of the unintended outcomes may be a new and personally meaningly image.

Listen to Joanna Macy read Go to the Limits of Your Longing by Rainer Maria Rilke, one of my favourite poems which perfectly captures the infinite game.

Book recommendations: Finite and Infinite Games - James Carse

Posted in Reflections.