FINITE AND INFINITE GAMES:
HAS EAST ASIA EVOLVED A NEW FORM OF CAPITALISM?
© Charles M Hampden-Turner 1997
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Business competition is a cultural "game". It stops short of attacking life and limb, but lets one contestant acquire huge amounts of another's money. Limited liability reduces this danger somewhat, but whole livelihoods and reputations are on the line and vast monies are reallocated from those who lose to those who win.
I call this western view of business competition a Finite Game. It is a "game" because it simulates harsher conflict and it is "finite" because the whole point is to assure victory and avoid defeat. It derives its risk, excitement and entertainment value from this crucial contrast. It would be a boring football match if both sides won. These finite games are the prototypical images of capitalism derived from Britain and the USA.
Such games are said to benefit the whole society because the nation's resources are moved from inefficient to efficient managers. We grow wealthy as a community when money ends up in the most capable hands, while "a fool and his money are soon parted". Free markets deliver us from fools.
Is there anything wrong with this vision of capitalism? It is certainly harsh. Not for nothing is economics dubbed "the Dismal Science". My view is that it is less wrong than incomplete. There is much more to wealth creation than permitting some to win at the expense of others. I contend that Malaysia and other East Asian "tiger" economies have constructed an Infinite Game, consisting of a series of finite-games artfully joined together in a never-ending sequence, in which players learn, round by round, how to improve the Game they share. Such Infinite Games could include smart cards, medical telematics, Digital TV all themselves connected by the Multimedia Super Corridor. In contrast Finite Games are fragments of the Infinite Game, an inability to see the wood for the trees.
The following contrasts are instructive. In Finite Games, the purpose is to win and end the game. Some improvement occurs with the fittest surviving and the losers being sidelined, where they swell the welfare rolls. In the Infinite Game, the purpose is to keep playing so as to improve the game itself. Here it is the fittest who survive, i.e.. those who fit best into the Super-corridor. Losers learn from winners what the better plays are.
In the Finite Game the winner-takes-all and "hits the jackpot" in a kind of Casino Capitalism. All contestants want the same thing, to "score" or "make it" through monetary gain. This has the garish simplicity of Las Vegas where someone always "wins" more than you and emnity never ends.
In the Infinite Game winning is widely shared in the form of winning ideas and technologies. Contestants are trained to be diverse so that their skills are incomparable yet complementary. This has all the complexity of a Learning Nation with interacting skills generating knowledge.
The Finite Game has rules fixed in advance, enforced by American influence and legitimized by the "science" of economics. Everyone is supposed to honor The Level Playing Field. The Infinite Game has ever changing rules co-created by the players themselves, as with the Super-corridor. Play occurs with, not within, boundaries, as more and more players are included. Finite Games are common in commodity markets and with mature products. Infinite Games occur where businesses cluster to form new markets.
Infinite Games are extensions of East Asian cultures. Taoism is a Way without end. Asian martial arts have always regarded their shared art as more important than the victors. Islam and Buddhism both look to larger wholes. Business must appeal to more than narrow self-interest if it is to summon up the full energies and aspirations of the citizenry. Tiger economies have tapped their people's urge for self-transcendence.
Professor Charles Hampden-Turner taught in America for 20 years and is now at the Judge Institute of Management at Cambridge University. He is one of the Keynote Speakers at the 26th IFTDO World Conference and Exhibition on Training Development - New Paradigms: Wholistic Human Resource Development; Oct 28-30 at PWTC Kuala Lumpur.
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