Playing the long game

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

We're beset on all sides: climate change, the sixth mass extinction, rampaging inequality and Facebook, just for a start. What is the way forward? Prof Niki Harre shares some thoughts with Tom McKinlay. Outside the supermarket, a couple of women are standing patiently in the late afternoon sun holding their charity buckets modestly. They don't need to solicit; the organisation for which they are collecting is well known and donations are coming steadily in small amounts, perhaps adding up to something substantial later when the final count is done.

A couple of bucks earns a sticker for your lapel, signalling your virtue and their cause. And because it is the Salvation Army, they are also giving away small cards. On the front is a photograph of a tree-lined lake, pretty in bright low sun. It peels back to reveal a verse from the Bible: "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever". Below which is the advice, "Turn to the one who is always consistant [sic]".

And on the back: "We're all in this together".

So that's the Sallies' pitch: there are values that stretch through time, embodied in the figure of the Nazarene, and we're all part of the bigger picture.

In Associate Prof Niki Harre's telling they are invoking an age-old notion of God, "a stable point, a symbolic talisman if you like, that allowed people to reflect on what it means to flourish as individuals and as communities".

That's a line from Prof Harre's new book The Infinite Game, in which she has attempted to capture what it might mean to work towards such values in a modern, secular world. The subtitle of her book is "How to live well together".

Prof Harre's not coming at this from a theological perspective though, she is a scientist, a faculty member at the University of Auckland's School of Psychology. She's probably best known for her 2011 book Psychology for a Better World, a largely self-published effort that nevertheless became widely read by her target audience.

"The basic idea behind that was that there are tonnes of people out there trying to make a difference in social and environmental issues, and academic psychology has a lot to say that could help them," she says on the phone from Auckland.

"So I tried to write a book that took all the cool stuff from academic psychology and put it in a framework for people in that field."

Some of the tips included the power of positivity; the way in which people learn by copying; and the importance of identity in terms of understanding why people hold to the beliefs they do.

Knowing this stuff, Prof Harre hoped, would help people better promote their progressive causes.

Professor Niki Harre. Photo: Supplied
Professor Niki Harre. Photo: Supplied
Since it came out, she's done any number of workshops talking about the book and the psychology that undergirds it, during the course of which she came across the notion of finite and infinite games, as first framed by the philosopher Prof James P. Carse. That has now inspired her latest book, which has been published together with an updated edition of Psychology for a Better World.

But before we get into that, a little psychology to give a flavour of what we're dealing with.

In Psychology for a Better World, Prof Harre describes several experiments that show why positivity opens people up to possibilities, while negativity tends to shut creativity down and send people back into their shells.

Here's one from the book that illustrates the positivity-creativity connection.

In a study, people were asked to attach a candle to a wall in such a way that wax wouldn't drip on the floor, using just drawing pins and a box of matches. Before doing the task, some people were shown an amusing video to put them in a good mood, and 75% of them achieved the task. Others were shown a deadly dull maths film and only 20% of them found a solution.

In another experiment, people were either shown jolly film footage or film designed to make them angry or anxious. Those given the good time consequently did much better when asked to nominate potential actions they could take in response to what they had seen.

So that's the psychology: if you want people to think expansively, creatively and come up with solutions, get them in a good mood.

Prof Harre points out that this is precisely the opposite of what well-meaning environmental activists typically do.

"They usually start out with this litany of everything that's going wrong, perhaps without realising just how much that demoralises people and actually shuts down our brain at some level, just makes us less open-minded, less creative and less accepting."

The Infinite Game takes the thinking to the next level, though Prof Harre says it actually feels like a prequel to her.

"The really core thing of The Infinite Game is what are we trying to keep in play? What is the game here?" she says.

"So if you think about a topic like sustainability, what exactly are we trying to sustain? And when I ask people that, they don't say corporate capitalism. And that's even true of people in big business. That is not the core of what we are trying to sustain."

Prof Harre knows this because she has written The Infinite Game on the back of infinite game workshops with thousands of people. In them, people are asked to nominate three things of infinite value: things that are sacred, precious or special; of value for their own sake.

And the values most commonly nominated hardly need listing, though here are six; family, happiness, nature, friendship, love and creativity.

"These are the things that bring us alive as human beings," Harre says. We know them intuitively.

"So the infinite game is, essentially, how do we keep those things in play?"

And being values that transcend time and place, the aim is to keep them in play in perpetuity.

If all of this sounds a little like promoting a familiarly liberal, left agenda, something not a million miles from the likes of Max Harris' The New Zealand Project, published last year, in which he argued for a love-based politics of care, creativity and community, Prof Harre has a riposte: 30 of her infinite game workshops were part of a formal research study. She is not relying on intuition; the values she quotes are part of a robust data set.

Furthermore, thinking of life as an infinite game cuts across values tied to identity, whether that be conservative or liberal, left or right, she says.

"I think there are two different ways of talking about values. The values associated with particular identities are really just different views on how society should operate. So you might say that a conservative identity is associated with believing that hierarchies are important to the good society. A liberal identity on the other hand is associated with believing a more egalitarian structure works better.

"Infinite values on the other hand aren't really beliefs in this same sense, they are impulses we have about what really matters. Almost no-one, conservative or liberal, would say hierarchy matters in this, deeper sense.

"So infinite values go across identities."

The flip side of the infinite game is finite games. We know them well; they are the structures, bureaucracies, goals and rules we encounter every day. The grind of earning a living, the exam that has to be passed, the distance we have to run while training. They are not necessarily negatives, but they can either help keep those infinite values in play, progress the infinite game, or stymie.

In Prof Harre's workshops, when people are asked to nominate finite values - things that have worth "because of what they signify or enable" - the big one is usually money, accompanied by the likes of status, possessions, power and success. They can, to greater or lesser extent, be employed in the service of our higher infinite goals.

The danger with these values is that they can take over, relegating the loftier considerations to the margin.

The "economy" is a ready example, Prof Harre says. It is shorthand for jobs, material wellbeing and the ability to exchange goods, but has become something larger and more suffocating.

"The trouble with the economy is that it is absolutely a finite game. It is just a structure, it is just the rules of play. So quite often we put that, or things like money, as if they are the centre of our decision making when actually they should always be in service of it."

For Prof Harre, competition is another idea that has been elevated in this way in recent decades.

"I do think we are drifting more and more towards a competitive model in our society. There are many things that contribute to that, but I think the reason why the infinite game is an idea that I hope and think will take with people ... is partly because I think we are a bit tired of this idea of winners and losers. We sort of know deep inside ourselves that life is a co-operative game."

The Infinite Game opens with a cricket metaphor to illustrate the point, comparing beach cricket and international cricket. In the former, everyone is welcome and rules are adjusted so everyone can play: it is a co-operative endeavour. The possibilities of how it might play out are boundless and there may well be no losers. International cricket, on the other hand, is tightly prescribed, with each team playing to a narrowly conceived game plan with the very finite aim of winning. The latter might be more of a money-spinner, but as life in microcosm presents as a bit of a nightmare.

Nevertheless, finite games are necessary to forward the infinite game. In the age of climate change, that might mean the work of the Productivity Commission and its recently released draft report Low-emissions economy, which has recommended measures such as turning pasture into forests, backing electric cars and cranking up the price of carbon to the point people notice.

"We need ways to structure ourselves," Prof Harre says. "So the question is always: which finite games do we need now, which ones are taking us backward, how do we adjust them? In the actual moment to moment lived life that is the question, you are working out which finite game to play, if you like."

In terms of climate change, what New Zealanders are going to want to keep in play is the country's biodiversity, the natural species, the ability to grow food and feed the population, all the things that climate change threatens, Prof Harre says.

"So you immediately see that we have to have an immediate plan for getting out of fossil fuels. We certainly can't be having oil companies coming in to do further drilling to exacerbate that problem. These things become immediately obvious when you see what's in play," she says.

Obvious to Prof Harre perhaps, but there is nothing like unanimity on oil drilling in New Zealand. So attempts to curtail that sort of activity, or promote active transport, or reduce waste or enhance biodiversity might equally come to little or nothing.

Which brings us to another important feature of the infinite game. There is no finish line and, Prof Harre says, it is about acting without any expectation of success.

"On the one hand you are holding this really long vision: look at the beauty of the world around us, how can we keep that alive. That is that really long vision. But in another sense you are acting in a very immediate short-term way, which is what is available to me right now: how can I step into this space and do what needs to be done and know as I do that that I am acting in good faith but I don't actually know how it will all turn out?"

How it turns out might be that nothing changes. Indeed, challenging the status quo involves being awash in almost constant failure, Prof Harre writes in the book. All we have in our control is the ability to act in good faith.

"It is an exquisitely difficult game to play at one level, but at another level it is kind of simple because I am not asking you or myself to create world peace or solve climate change," she says.

So you make a play, promote cycling or waste reduction at your place of work for example, and it maybe does something, or maybe nothing. But it comes back to individuals thinking about their next move, their next play, then reflecting on that.

"There are some great infinite game players out there," Prof Harre says, nominating Enviroschools, the Graeme Dingle Foundation, Trade Aid and waste-cutting Kiwi packaging company Friendlypak.

"They are constantly, constantly pushing the envelope in terms of improving their products," she says of Friendlypak, which produces biodegradable packaging, "thinking always about what is the next thing to do; working with organisations to minimise waste. All of that kind of stuff."

It is something we can all play a part in. Like beach cricket.

Here's how Prof Harre puts it on the infinite game website: "Imagine if life was a game, an infinite game in which we continually changed the rules to keep our deepest values in play and ensure that everyone could take part. What kind of player would you be?"

The books

•Both The Infinite Game and Psychology for a Better World, by Kiki Harre, are out now. 

•For more on the infinite game go to


Conservatives want to conserve things, like the environment, public lands, standards of behaviour, and community. This is labelled 'PC'. Radicals want change. In the strange flux of things, Capitalist progress is an extremely radical course and not Conservative.

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