Scoop Review of Books

More Beach Cricket Please

Book Review
The Infinite Game: How to live well together by Niki Harré (Auckland University Press, $29.99)
Reviewed by Alex Beattie

infinite-game-coverI have an obsessive tendency to organise books into niche categories like those you find on Netflix. On my shelves I have Bromance Novels, Baby Boomer Fiction, and Urban Nature Writing. Then there are the subtler distinctions. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and Carl Newport’s Deep Work fall into the Play the Game category, as both these books provide guidance on how to get ahead in life. The more enterprising Break the Game books – Oliver James’ Affluenza or Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics criticise the status quo and imagine a new paradigm. Niki Harré’s The Infinite Game: How to Live Well Together, definitively falls into the latter and more ambitious camp.

The Infinite Game is a pop psychology-cum-philosophy book about radically reshaping society. Not into a commune, religious rally, or anything that would keep Mike Hosking awake at night; but into something else entirely. The Infinite Game is an intellectually stimulating read that is ideal for book clubs or any budding conversationalist who wants to move beyond tired discussions about the New Zealand housing crisis or nation-wide transport woes.

Getting the win

This isn’t a book that ignores central Kiwi issues. Rather, The Infinite Game examines the philosophical underpinnings driving how we live and discuss topical issues such as public transport, housing, or conservation. Harré’s central point is that we tend to frame these issues in terms of winners and losers, which structures our society around finite games: buying a house, climbing the corporate ladder, or in general, getting the best deal. If you manage to win at those games, then great – you’re on the right side of the numbers. The problem however, is that most finite games are rigged, with more Kiwis losing and becoming ‘have-nots’.

Harré argues we’ve been led to believe by evolutionary theorists and free-market economists that chasing finite games and the associated values of self-interest and competition is all there is to life. Winning and competition are of course important, and Harré doesn’t call for society to suddenly hand out participation trophies en masse. But our obsession with getting the win is stifling and undermines other values that underpin democracy, such as cooperation and fraternity:

When a finite game takes itself, rather than its purpose, too seriously, we are in trouble. This would be like…experienced players in beach cricket spending every moment of their summer holiday training to beat the other players when, actually, it’s not about the winning. It’s not even, in fact, about the cricket. There’s a bigger game in play.

Beach cricket-ify life

Harré suggests to re-structure some of society around ‘infinite’ games. Where the object isn’t to win, but like beach cricket, to keep playing to foster community and camaraderie. On this point alone, I found it heartening to read that Harré isn’t a psychologist who privileges self-interest as the most sacred of human motivators.

Unfortunately, The Infinite Game lacks concrete examples to flesh out its major points. I was eager to learn about which specific aspects of Kiwi society could be reformed into infinite games. However, Harré chooses to focus more on the abstract elements to infinite games which could put off some readers.

One industry stymied in a finite game that Harré could have spotlighted is the media industry. The 2017 Newshub election debate hosted by Patrick Gower is a good example. Right out of the gate, Gower blasted Jacinda Ardern with a yes/no question on Labour’s proposed water tax that did nothing to inform viewers about the policy but instead aimed to expose Ardern and create a TV ‘soundbite’. After pursuing Bill English with a similar zero-sum question, it became clear that Gower’s primary aim wasn’t to educate the audience but to generate ratings by creating the most memorable debate. The media’s desire to win the ratings battle creates suffocating conditions for political discourse, which transforms debate into theatre and ultimately subverts democracy.

Credit: Newshub

Credit: Newshub

Another pointless aspect to politics that could be retired is the scoring of cheap political points. This is when one politician announces a policy or statement to the press, and the opposition provides a half-assed response with the level of insight on par with the halftime interview of a Super Rugby match. All parties involved  the politician, the reporter, and the audience — know the process is conceited, but some deeply entrenched belief in the infallible competitive spirit justifies the opposition a response. Perhaps in some instances (such as climate change) it’s best to weigh up whether an oppositional comment actually enriches the policy debate. What I took away from The Infinite Game is that transforming certain aspects of the media and politics away from ‘wins’ and ‘losses’ could encourage politicians to work across party lines.

Ahead of its time

What isn’t so certain is how much of Kiwi society is ready for a book like The Infinite Game. It certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. I can’t imagine many business executives or readers of the National Business Review being into this book, which would be their loss. It just so happened that while I was reading The Infinite Game, I was also watching Wild Wild Country, a Netflix documentary about a 1980s sex cult in Oregon, U.S. While it may appear flippant to compare The Infinite Game to a sex cult whose members only wore red and pink clothes, there are some parallels. Like the Rajneeshee movement, The Infinite Game presents an alternative version of the good life that is so radically different from our normalised day-to-day of winning and losing that some readers may feel uncomfortable and outright reject it. But their close-mindedness would be like the bigoted Christians in Wild Wild Country, who could not accept their Rajneeshee neighbours’ different way of seeing the world. Interestingly, it is these Christians who are depicted as the villains in the early episodes of the show.

Credit: Getty/Rainer Binder

Credit: Getty/Rainer Binder

Time will tell how impactful The Infinite Game is. Those who most need to read it are the next generation of Kiwis who are poised to enter the job market. They are the cohort who will have the best opportunity to operationalise Harré’s blueprint for widespread social reform. New social enterprise initiatives like The Now Crowd and Festival for the Future suggest that some young Kiwis are already getting the message and thinking beyond the shackles of homo economicus and finite games.

The Infinite Game is a humanist vision of the good life that serves to remind Kiwis that there’s more to living than a job promotion or a flashy holiday.