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Finite Games -- Infinite Games


Is Ultimate Frisbee A Finite Game?

or an Infinite Game?

(and why does it matter?)



30 Years ago, the Director of Religious Studies at New York University, James P. Carse, wrote a very influential book entitled Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility.  Carse argues that Finite Games are serious while an Infinite Game is playful.  

"There are at least two kinds of games.

One could be called finite, the other infinite.

The finite game is played for the purpose of winning,

an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play,

...and bringing as many persons as possible into the play.

Finite players play within boundaries;

infinite players play with boundaries."

There are also two kind of players.  Finite Players (see Kenny Dobyns) and Infinite Players (see Kyle Weisbrod).  As motivational speaker and marketing consultant Simon Sinek points out in his 2015 Ted Talk, a system of finite players vs. finite players is stable, a system of infinite players vs. infinite players is stable, but a system with finite players vs. infinite players is unstable.

In other words, Sinek accurately predicted (30 years after the fact) Uglimate*.  All you have to do is watch the epic 1989 Finals between Tsunami and NYNY to witness how unstable Ultimate had become.  The play by play announcers kept track of the calls, with NYNY winning that battle 121-119 while winning the championship 21-19.

*Titanic’s Steve Mooney in 1986: “The history of Spirit of the Gamewas shattered once and for all when Windy City spiked and smashed
their victory trophy. Goodbye Ultimate and long live Uglimate, the fast-paced, exciting new sport disc game.”

Sinek also accurately predicts in the talk that the Infinite Players would ultimately prevail (in the form of the UPA deciding to go with Observers rather than Referees and choosing to stick with the status quo in the rules vs. adopting Finite-Games centric rules modifications).  He basically argues that companies that are based on a Finite Games mentality eventually run out of steam and go out of business whereas organizations based on Infinite Games ideology are therefore not finite and persist.

What is interesting and important to realize is that the original blueprint for Ultimate Frisbee's Spirit of The Game [
directly or indirectly] came straight out of an Infinite Games movement that pre-dated the very first game of Ultimate at Columbia High School in New Jersey by over two years!

Most Ultimate players are unaware that there was a movement that created a entirely novel genre of games that were designed to be fun for all and inclusive, irrespective of physical or athletic ability, intelligence, gender, race, etc..  This new genre of games were called New Games and the entire genre of New Games could undeniably be described as Infinite Games.  ALL New Games are Infinite Games. 

It's critical for any advocate of the SOTG in Ultimate to understand and accept that the rules and SOTG are inseparable and that if they are going to argue in favor of SOTG, they should understand specifically what it is that they are supporting. SOTG is not just about Good Sportsmanship, it's about infusing most of the game with an Infinite Games type fun-at-all-costs mentality.  Fun is a subjective experience and yet it's been made the objective of a Finite Game.  That's CRAZY!!!!

One of the driving intentions in creating the rules for Ultimate Frisbee rules was to eliminate the "win at all costs" mentality typically found in other sports but in creating the framework, what did deciding to make Double Teaming the thrower illegal have to do with eliminating "win at all costs"?   

Absolutely nothing.   

Read on..... 

Play Hard.  Play Fair.  Nobody Hurt. 

Does that sound familiar?  That is the slogan of The New Games Foundation, the NGO that was formed by the founders of the New Game Movement that ushered in an completely new genre of games that were designed to imbibe a new spirit of cooperation and inclusion rather than the mentality of win first, ask questions later.  


The spirit in which these games were intended to be played by was such an important factor that in fact, some documentation refers to the Spirit of New Games and as you'll see below, there is a direct link between the Spirit of New Games and SOTG in Ultimate!!


Read this carefully:


"Ultimate Frisbee - one of the few sports organizations to successfully embody the Spirit of New Games"  Bernie DeKoven [6]

and this:

"Anyone who has played "New Games" knows that the games aren't really new.  What is new is the spirit in which they are played -- a spirit in which it is clear that fun is more important than winning, the players are more important than the game.  Though many New Games can be seen as "cooperative", the truth is that just as many of them involve competition -- a competition that is held in check by the Spirit of New Games and the overriding mandate for universal fun.

These competitive New Games (like Dho-Dho-Dho, Smaug's Jewels, Tweezly Whop, Slaughter, Dragon's Tail, Hug Tag, Lemonade and Ultimate Frisbee) were selected because they were not only fun, but also funny.

They included silly names, silly rituals, silly noises, silly performances, because, as long as they were seen as funny, players would not take them too seriously, and hence be able to keep the competition in check and in appropriate perspective" [4]  (this last paragraph sounds a lot like your average Hat Tournament)

Clearly the leaders within the New Games movement considered Ultimate Frisbee to be a New Game and according to DeKoven, pick-up games of Ultimate were a common sight at New Game tournaments.  But what about within the Ultimate Frisbee community itself, was there anyone aware of this connection? 

Dan Dewey, member of the 2000 and 2001 UPA Campion Santa Barbara Condors is quoted as having said "Of course Ultimate is a New Game, I thought everyone knew that" and Chris Burke, member of the UPA's 2002 FUTURE (FUTure Ultimate Rules Evolution) committee also echoed a similar sentiment to a New Yorker Magazine journalist around 15 years ago.  Joey Gray, who was the Executive Director of the UPA in 2000 has also been a long time friend of Bernie DeKoven's as well, understands the relationship between New Games and Ultimate.

"The Spirit of New Games : the positive experience of playing together is more important than winning or losing; the rules of the game are always flexible. What counts is the enjoyment of playing" [7].   

"Everyone can play New Games regardless of age, ability, size, or gender. They require little or no equipment and are presented and played in a safe manner that encourages participation, creativity, and personal expression. New Games offers a new direction for traditional sports, physical education, and recreation. Ultimately, by cooperating in play, we learn to live together better." [3]

Check out how the following New Games Foundation's guiding ideals behind the Spirit of New Games Philosophy of Play Hard. Play Fair. Nobody Hurt. match up with Ultimate Frisbee's (annotations in red): 

  • Competition and cooperation should co-exist; but while competition can be important, winning and losing is not

    • ✔ This is close to Identical to SOTG*

  • No one should be left out, eliminated, or unable to play

    • ✔ This mentality went in to things like prohibiting Double Teaming the thrower

  • Games are living culture, adapted and changed as required

  • Play should require no or little equipment

    • ✔ All you need is a disc.

  • Play and physicality were as important to children as they were to adults

    • ✔ Ultimate's rules have long been both gender and age neutral

  • The rules should be dirt simple and fun

    •  ✔ and ✔.  The rules for Ultimate are dirt simple and were specifically intended to be fun (you can't legislate a subjective experience)

*There is a direct reason why this line is practically identical to Ultimate SOTG.  The individual who wrote Ultimate's SOTG Clause in the 1978 7th Edition of the rules, Dan "Stork" Roddick, was affiliated with the New Games movement (Bernie DeKoven was an integral part of the movement's Leadership and wrote several books on the topic):


In Junkyard Sports, Bernie DeKoven has brought us a wonderful gift that has been cleverly disguised. When you first look through the pages, you'll think it's a collection of zany things you can do with junk that you find. And, of course, it is that. However, if you're really ready to think about the nature of play and fun, it's very much more. It's like singing along with a song that you realize you've never heard before. Once you begin singing along with Junkyard Sports, it will begin to seem like your own. What was it that you really liked about scout camp or wrestling with your dog or junior high basketball or playing in the waves? What didn't you like? In Junkyard Sports, Bernie gives us permission to simply HAVE FUN, no more, no less. In doing so, he provides some profound observations about sports, games and life. Listen for the tune and like me, you'll soon be humming along, delighted with where the song is taking you.


Dan (Stork) Roddick, executive director, World Flying Disc Federation

In Ultimate's 6th rules Edition, released in 1976, the initial principals of SOTG were beginning to be codified into the rules: "....the two teams will play by the honor system.  The sport has a great deal of freedom and informality implicit in the rules.  Primary among these is the spirit of sportsmanship which enables the honor system to be effective".  This clearly indicates that the philosophy in the mid-70s of the burgeoning governing body of Ultimate was decidedly in line with the ideals of Infinite Games.

Roddick was instrumental in formulating the SOTG Clause in the 7th Edition of the rules in 1978 and you can easily recognize the New Games movement's philosophy of play in the way it's written: “Ultimate has traditionally been considered an alternative athletic activity. Highly competitive play is encouraged but never at the expense of the bond of mutual respect between players or the basic joy of play. Protection of these vital elements eliminates some behavior from the ultimate field. Such actions as taunting of opposition players, dangerous aggression, intentional fouling or other ‘win at all costs’ behavior are fouls against the Spirit of the Game and should be discouraged by all players.”

In the first sentence, it explicitly states that Ultimate is an "Alternative Athletic Activity' (notice it doesn't say sport) which is akin to saying it's a New Game, both literally and figuratively.  The rest of the SOTG Clause looks almost like it was plagiarized directly from the above principal philosophies of the New Games Foundation.

What I find interesting in this quote from a 1976 article on New Games is the reference to being rewarded for catching a bad pass.  In ultimate, the entire culture is represented by icons or photos of players laying out.  A layout catch is always the end result of a mediocre throw.


"In New Games, there are no rigid rules; rather players are encouraged to make up their own rules [an apt description of the UPA], to create their own games. The object of New Games is not rigid adherence to a prescribed set of regulations, but imaginative play in an atmosphere of spontaneity and fun. The emphasis in New Games is the cooperation and participation of all players, regardless of age, sex, or ability.


While there is an emphasis on cooperation, New Games does not deny the need to compete or the need to release hostility; however, the player's competitiveness is usually directed against his own limitations and his hostility is released without harm to others. In New Frisbee, for example, the player concentrates on perfecting his own skills, not on defeating his partner. While New Frisbee looks very much like Old Frisbee, it is philosophically quite different. The player gets no points if he catches a good throw; on the other hand, if he catches or even misses but makes an all-out attempt for a difficult throw, he gains a point. Since the catcher calls his own points, each player is competing against the limitations of not only personal skill but personal integrity."[5]

For good measure, on the Five Ultimate website, there's an entire page devoted to Spirit Games which can all be classified as Infinte or New Games.  In other words, the cross pollination between Ultimate and New Games is undeniable.


So what's the point of all of this?


New Games were Infinite Games.  This is not in question or controversial.


Was Ultimate Frisbee a New Game?


Yes and No. Joel Silver, Irv Kalb, et al developed Ultimate independant of the New Games Movement but the sociopolitical influences of the late 60s and early 70s impacted both equally.  The zeitgeist of the period was an anti-authoritarian, counter culture vibe the resulted in a great many similar trends.  Participation Trophies were born out of this period.  In Little League Baseball where every child is entitled to equal playing time [making benching kids for poor attitudes impossible] came out of this period.  And it's not a coincidence that the Spirit of New Games was almost identical to Ultimate's SOTG so while Ultimate was never an 'official' New Game, for all intents and purposes, it very much was a New Game.


But the more pertinent might be, is Ultimate Frisbee an Infinite Game or a Finite Game?  It's actually a hybrid combination of both and this is most likely a serious issue that most any Games Theorist would call into question.  These are just a few obvious examples where Ultimate Rules lean more towards infinite rather than finite.


  • In the first edition of the rules, there wasn't a back of the endzone.  Infinite.
  • Stop as quickly as possible?  Infinite.
  • Out of Bounds being a 'soft' boundary.  Infinite.
  • SOTG.  Infinite.
  • Informal rules open to interpretation.  Infinite.
  • Lack of Consistent Enforcement.  Infinite.


The idea behind New Games was that through an atmosphere of playfulness, fairness and cooperation, participants could develop interpersonal and social skills through having fun on a leveled playing surface.  Games were specifically designed to be fair irrespective of age, race, gender, build (fat or thin, tall or short), athleticism, intelligence and handicaps.


"The New Games Movement was less about the design of individual games and more about the development of an ethos intended to alter the way people interacted with one another. Its goal was to transform culture by creating opportunities for people to play collaboratively. Play hard. Play fair. Nobody hurt. These three core principles order the design (and play) of any New Games game. The movement organized festival-like 'Tournaments' that brought people together to play cooperatively, erasing (if only for a brief time) barriers of race, age, sex, size, ability, socioeconomic background, and creed. Values of freedom and the creation of community through game play were woven into a utopian rhetoric that advocated new forms of player empowerment.


If you've ever played with  a parachute in your elementary school gym class, you can thank the New Games Movement, which helped transform the traditionally sports-based curriculum of phys ed into a more play-centric, cooperative learning experience. Much of the success of the New Games Movement emerged because of its relationships with other forms of counterculture. New Games 'Tournaments,' for example, mixed the communality of a peace protest with the cultural nihilism of an art happening.


There is no doubt that in many ways the New Games Movement and its game designs emerged out of a particular cultural milieu. But the uniquely transformative agenda of the movement is truly inspiring. Playing with the codes and conventions of gaming and social interaction, the New Games Movement sought to create positive social change through play. It did so not by creating games with explicit political content, but by designing play experiences that intrinsically embodied its utopian ideals." [1]


However, in placing an emphasis on legislating fun and combining Infinite Games' ideologies with Finite Games' concept of winners and losers, the framework for Ultimate Frisbee has become highly addictive.


Again, according to Simon Sinek, in situations where there are a disproportionate amount of *false* positives, this can set up imbalances of neurotransmitters in the brain, such as dopamine, creating an addiction problem.  That Ultimate is highly addictive isn't a controversial statement  and it's widely accepted within the community that the game is very much addictive but the question we need to ask is this; is this addiction bad for the advancement of the sport?


The lab rat when presented with the choice of sex or heroin chooses the heroin and similarly, Ultimate players are hooked on a game that in fact is not very nourishing to their own technical development.  Conventional sports encourage greatness because they offer natural risk/reward scenarios and provide participants with firm, consistent, non-arbitrary boundaries to push up against and test their mettle.  However, games that are specifically designed to artificially induce fun do not necessarily promote excellence. 


The true meaning of the work mediocre is someone who could be great but settles for average.  Most 'Elite' Ultimate Frisbee players are fairly mediocre with their disc handling skills and this is as a direct result of a framework that was ironically intended to place fun above all else.

The Bottom line is that any Games Theorist who is worth their salt will tell you that Finite Games have their place and Infinite Games have their place but hybridizing the two diametrically opposing paradigms can and will yield unstable results with potentiall disasterous and unintended consequences.  Let's ask Simon what he thinks of merging the two paradigms into a single game.  It's easy to predict, if you've see much of Sinek's work at all, that he would most likely suggest that a game that was a hybrid between Finite Games and Infinite games would lead to schizophrenic results and a cultural wide group psychosis by those who participate in the game.  Who knows?  Seriously, lets ask him and see what he says.


The Books "Tweezly Whop Techniques and Tactics", the classic hard cover coffee table photo book "Earthball, The First Four Decades" or "Hug Tag, The Greatest Sport Ever Invented by Man" were never supposed to happen and neither were their Ultimate Frisbee counter parts.  Ironically, any book on the History Of Ultimate is absolutely incomplete without the inclusion of any findings on the New Games Movement as part of the pedigree of the sport.