The Infinite Game of Writing

Image via Steven Houston | Unsplash

I recently read Simon Sinek’s The Infinite Game. In this book, he builds upon the ideas in James P. Carse’s work titled Finite and Infinite Games.  As Carse’s original title suggests, there are two games in our world: finite and infinite.

Exploring this concept, Sinek explains the contrast of these two games with specific criteria.

He expounds that finite games are..

  1. “Played by known players”
  2. “Governed by fixed rules”
  3. Based upon “an objective that, when reached, ends the game” (Sinek 3).

For example, take football. There are identifiable players who follow rules from an official handbook, which indicate that the team with the most points scored after a set time is deemed the winners.  

On the contrary, he defines infinite games as ones that are…

  1. “Played by known and unknown players”
  2. Sometimes without “exact or agreed-upon rules” (“Though there may be conventions or laws that govern how the players conduct themselves, within those broad boundaries, the players can operate however they want. And if they choose to break with convention, they can”)
  3. Marked by “infinite time horizons (there is no finish line)” (Sinek 3).

He suggests that, often, people treat infinite games like finite games, and that is when people fall short in terms of fulfillment or success. For example, in his view, no one is crowned the winner of business or deemed the champion of education.

Sure, there are arbitrary accolades and titles and achievements awarded in these fields, but Sinek contends that no one “wins” anything in a finite sense.

I often love reading writers like Simon Sinek and Malcolm Gladwell because I’m interested in concepts in psychology, human motivation, and leadership, and more precisely how they blend into my personal and professional life.

As I read more about the criteria for infinite games, I couldn’t help but think about how writing has always been an infinite game — despite the fact that it is easy and tempting to treat it like a finite one.

With this in mind, it made me reflect on all the ways that we coach our students through the infinite game of writing.

Criterion 1: “Writing is played by known and unknown players”

All of our students, no matter what, are playing the writing game. We know that whichever path our students choose, writing – the ability to communicate, express, and connect – will always be a part of their lives.

We know that something such as literary analysis is not the end-all-be-all skill, but we know that critical thinking and powerful writing can be universally applied to any field or any endeavor.

And that is why we work so hard to reach our students with our writing instruction.

So, in a sense, while we hope that all of our students are “known players,” it’s fair to concede that sometimes, some of our students don’t recognize the power of their developed skill for writing in the time that we have them in class. Sometimes, it is not until after the course has ended that they recognize how the “game of writing” continues – when their skills come into play in a future course, a future career, or future endeavor. But they are our unknown players, who, inevitably, in due time, become known players.

Speaking of “players of a game,” it is easy to turn writing into a competition. Admittedly, sometimes it is, and it is hard to stray from the feeling of a contest with the prevalence of standardized tests scores, overreliance on numerical rubrics, and grades at face value in the educational field.

But we remind our writers that the “players” in this game can work collaboratively without the need to compete or fight for some sort of “spot.”

Cue partner and group writing tasks. Cue peer-revising and learning from one another. Cue group conferences or whole class genre studies. The writing communities we foster in our classrooms indicate to our students how collaboration is the lifeblood of what we do. Our not-so-finite objective is the same: to continue searching for how our words allow us to vocalize our truths and find meaning in the world around us.

Whether we all know or not, we are all players of the writing game.

Criterion 2: Sometimes without “exact or agreed-upon rules” (“Though there may be conventions or laws that govern how the players conduct themselves, within those broad boundaries, the players can operate however they want. And if they choose to break with convention, they can”)

Does writing have rules and conventions? Of course. Quite literally, grammar and the structural concepts of composition are simply that.

However, once students have a foundation of those agreed-upon rules, do we not teach them to break those rules intentionally for effect? To operate however they feel their writing can bring power and purpose to their goals? Absolutely.

I think of when we move beyond the five paragraph model, giving students agency and autonomy with organization (and when we reveal to them that the last sentence of the first paragraph is not always, in fact, the thesis or main idea).

I think of when teach them how to take creative risks to bolster their writing’s delivery. To try something new, something that has not been done before.  

I think of when we teach them to follow all grammar rules and conventional guidelines, but later teach them that is okay – and even encouraged – to break them if it is for an intentional effect. If it is for a purpose. If it is for an impact.

And above all, we teach our students that they can use their writing for anything. I have, in previous posts, mentioned the philosophy in my classroom of wholeheartedly championing the concept that thoughts turn into words and, in the end, into action. And if that is so, do we not do all we can to give them the tools and skills to play the game however they desire?

Criterion 3: Marked by “infinite time horizons (there is no finish line)”  

Similarly to a previous post, Revision as Shokunin, when I characterized revision as an “endless pursuit of perfection” or “mastery of one’s craft,” I see that writing is the epitome of an infinite time horizon, a journey without a tangible finish line.

Many poke fun at teachers of writing as we like to assert that “writing can always be better” and that “there is always room for improvement and revision,” but that only explains the infinite nature of words and the core of our mission. That we are endless searching for more and more out of the potential of our writing’s magic.

This year in my school district, at the end of our courses, we asked students to reflect on their successes, obstacles, and overall experiences in English class (yes, seniors too!). Part of that involved asking them of which pieces they were most proud and which types of pieces they would approach differently in the future. And we even asked them to discuss writing goals they still have moving forward. This focus on metacognition and reflection is what makes our writing game ongoing.

While our on-paper curriculums perceive acquiring the skill of proper literary analysis or whatever the course goal may be as our metric of mastery,  we know that it goes beyond that.

The infinite beauty of writing is that it will stay with our writers past the assignments and learning objectives. It will be the application essay that locks in their dream job. It will be their ability to write effective emails that will help them achieve professional goals or empathetic business memos that will let them connect with and lift up their colleagues. It will be the diary entries that allow them to record, express, think, process, grieve, and celebrate. It will be the letter to a friend, or a quick note on the kitchen table, or the message within a birthday card. It will be any medium that allows them to live out their story.

The game of writing – with its known and unknown players who choose to play as they will without any intention of stopping at some arbitrary finish line – will continue to live on.

And we will continue to coach players through the joys of it all.

Because we are all players navigating the same game. Because we actually love that the game never ends. Because writing is infinite.

-Kenny

How do you guide students through the Infinite Game of Writing? You can connect with me on Twitter @kenbuiCBSD.

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