The DNA Game; A Novel Imagining

    In this world it can be said that there are two types of games, one is called "finite" and the other "infinite."  However, only from a genetic perspective can it be said that there exists any attempt at a truly infinite game.  Carse describes a finite game as a game "played for the purpose of winning" whereas an infinite game is played "for the purpose of continuing the play."  But how does one "win" a finite game?  A finite game has been won "when it has come to a definitive end" and thus all playing in that game has stopped.  This can happen only through the agreement of all players involved that the game has indeed ended and that a winner has terminated the game.  We see examples of this all around us in our day to day lives from the pretty birds we see and hear mating to the corporate administrative games professionals engage in each and every day.  We are all of us bogged down in games within games within games.  Carse's definitions are nothing new, in fact, game theory has been dealing with similiar issues for some time now however with slightly different definitions and examples.  In game theory, what we are referring to as a "finite game" would be called a "zero sum game."  In such a game, a player wins if the other player(s) lose.  For example if two people decide to bet on something and each bet a dollar, then the winner is going to get two dollars and the loser, zero hence the name.  Each player gets a certain amount of payoff from the bet, the winner getting +1 and the loser -1, added together we get a sum of 0.  Infinite games on the other hand resemble "non-zero sum games" but in a slightly more abstract manner.  Very simply put, a non-zero sum game is a game in which the payoff does not equal to zero and if we can assume that this leaves open the possibility for continued rounds of play, for as long as the players choose to continue playing then it may be said that a non-zero sum game could indeed be an infinite game.  In many ways an infinite game is nothing more than the continuous playing out of various different finite games (Carse 3).
    Where do we see examples of such games?  In Nature?  In Society?  In our genes?  All of the above.  Indeed many of the finite games we and other animals engage in are simple to observe and understand.  Take for example the classic case of lion and gazelle.  When a hungry lion comes in contact with a gazelle a game begins.  Let us call this game "predator / prey."  If the lion sees the gazelle and gives chase we can say that the game has begun.  But when does it end and who is the winner?  Easily enough we can see that the game is won, or ended, when either the lion (predator) has killed the gazelle (prey) or the gazelle has gotten far enough way that the lion has given up pursuit.  Either outcome ends the game, thus making it finite.  However, a game may be played over and over again in different places, at different times and with different players but each of these must be viewed as a completely seperate game.  A game may only be played one once, in one location, at one time - now.  To change the rules, boundaries or location of the play is to immediately change the very foundations of the game.  The rules are the game and thus must always exist.  The most basic of game rules, as Carse puts it, is that a finite game "must have a precise beginning" and a "difinitive end" thus giving the game "temporal boundaries."  Additionally spatial boundaries exist and the rules of such must be obeyed strictly - i.e. it is not an option for the gazelle to begin flying to escape the lion or to turn and shoot lasers out of its eyes, these things would be against the rules, not because they are not allowed to happen but because they simply are not possible.  In many ways these are not rules as we usually understand them (laws, codes, rules) but rather physical limitations to the play.  It is very much like the old bumper sticker joke "obey gravity, it's the law!"  It is these rules that define what the game being played is, how to play and how to win if winning is an option.  Therefor the rules are the game and are just as unique as the game itself.  The rules of a finite game then cannot change during play as that would end the game being played and begin a new one.  If the rules become different, then a different game is being played.  This is not true of infinite games though, as in an infinite game the rules "must change in the course of play" as that is how the game continues itself, constantly changing and reorgaizing itself and its rules to keep the game continuing towards infinity (Carse 5, 10-11).
      The rules of infinite games are never changed randomly or arbitrarily in any way bur rather each shift is meant to deal with very specific problems threatening the "continuation of play."  To return to our predator / prey example consider what would happen if the gazelle were to stop in mid chase, turn and try to mate with the lion.  Most likely, the gazelle would be quickly devoured as the gazelles action does not change the inherent rules of the game.  However if we take a genetic perspective on the game and its rules we can understand how an infinite game might work.  Staying with our predator / prey game let us go a bit deeper.  Say that the lion's in a particular region have become extremely capable and well equipped hunters, killing their prey 99.9% of the time.  Soon the lion's outstrip their food source and starve to death.  As this happens other small animals who fed off of the remains left by the lions begin to die off as well as the smaller animals they consumed.  Soon the vegetation is overgrown from not being eaten enough and it too begins to compete with itself, eventually killing off its own species.  Total ecosystem collapse.  This where DNA and infinite play come in.  The above mentioned scenario is unlikely to ever happen thanks to infinite game that we call "natural selection."  Because the gazelles most likely to be eaten by the lion are the slower, dumber or less capable ones they have a much lower fitness and a much lower chance of mating.  Thus, it is not very likely that their genes will pass into the next generation.  Instead, we can expect the next generation of gazelles (fathered / mothered by gazelles who didn't become lunch or lasted longer before becoming lunch) to be a slightly faster, or smarter or more agile.  Likewise with the lions.  This is how DNA plays infinitely with the rules of the infinite game.  Through evolution genes change the physical characteristics of species over generations allowing for species to adapt and continue more rounds of playing while leaving other species in the extinction dumpster.  Carse explains it perfectly when he states; "The rule-making capacity of infinite players is often challenged by the impingement of powerful boundaries against play - such as physical exhaustion, or the loss of material resources, or the hostility of non players, or death.  The task is to design rules that will allow the players to continue the game by taking these limits into play - even when death is one of the limits. Since limits are taken into play, the play itself cannot be limited.  Finite players play within boundaries, infinite players play with boundaries."  This is clearly the play of DNA, the genetic code, constantly rewriting rules within each living creature that maintains a working, functional balance of continuous play around the planet.  (Carse 12).
     We can then say that there there is truly only one infinite game, the infinite game within which all games are contained.  While this infinite game cannot occur within any finite game, all finite games occur within the infinite game for so long as it may continue.  Let us examine some examples of finite games found commonly within the world of nature.  As we previosuly discussed there is the game of predator / prey which is arguably one of the easier finite games to recognize and understand, the clear winner being the one who doesn't die as a result of the game.  But not all games are quite so simple and not all finite games are zero sum games all the time, especially when there are many players.  Take for example the next most interesting set of games; courting and mating.  This game could even be said to be the finite game which allows for the mechanism of the infinite game to conitinue the ongoing finite games.  This is primarily because the point of mating is to get as many of your genes as possible into the next generation, thus continuing your own play.  Doing this though can require a lot of time, energy and danger.  A great amount of energy must be spent to mate in a variety of ways, other than just the physically exertive act of copulation.  In many species, particularly birds, there is a great amount of investment that goes into mating displays be they extremely colorful feathers, extravagantly ellaborate dances or meticulously constructed arenas.  This costs a lot of energy that could be spent doing other things, or having other traits.  For example being so colorful not only attracts good mates but hungry predators as well and spending all that time and energy flashing tail displays can not only get the attention of a predator but leave the bird with little enrgy for flying if it's also doing some kind of courting dance.  But in many ways, the risk an be said to be worth it, as the payoff is a great increase in fitness via offspring.  So we can say that the rules for the mating / courting games, put very simply, are attract as many mates of high genetic quality as possible, without getting eaten by predators or killed by other competing singles.  If those are the rules and that is the game then it is no wonder why we see so many birds of such brilliant yet different color, song, display and dance.  Their genetic code, the infinite player, has written rules which allow for the best displays (meaning most affective and safest to complete) to be passed on from generation to generation.  If too many of the displays were so extravagant that they attracted all the predators and were too heavy to fly with, we would no longer have birds as that game would be over.  Instead, something is occuring allowing for a balance which makes continuous bird reproduction possible.  This is but one example of the many mating games which can be found in nature.  The mating game can be said to be the most important game, from an evolutionary perspective, as it effectively keeps the game going.  Without mating there would be no passing of genes, no changing / recoding of rules and thus the infinite game would have ended some time ago.  Fortunatly that has yet to happen, although not for lack of effort on the part of some very strong players.
    It is important now that we move away from animals for a moment to discuss two of these very strong players; bacteria and viruses.  Both categories include thousands, if not millions, of different organisms many tracing their heritage back to the dawn of time.  In any one individual of any species there can be millions of individual bacteria.  In fact, without them many animals would lack the ability to fully digest their food.  Thankfully our systems are packed with just the kind of bacteria we need and in just the right amount.  This is do partly to the ease with which they play the reproductive game.  Rather than investing time and energy into creating displays, courting or any of that business, bacteria can simply divide themselves in half creating exact replicas of their own DNA.  There is a negative side to these super reproducers though, both for us and them.  First of all, asexual reproduction of this type cane be problematic which mutation occurs.  Because there is only one parent and only one set of DNA if mutation occurs there is nothing to offset it and the new code is the code.  This could affectivly wipe out thousands off offspring, thus greatly reducing the bacteria's fitness.  However, at the same time there is no sacrifice or chance being taken on mate choice as the bacteria only has to split itself in twain.  Our problem comes when the balance of bacteria in our bodies gets tipped in their favor.  Although bacteria reproduce very quickly and in huge numbers, they still have to share territory and occupy an area.  Our bodies, for the most part, provide a nurturing environment for just the right amount of the right types of bacteria, but all it takes is one new, stronger strand of a bacteria to wreak havoc on an animal's body.  Over population by bacteria results in ilness from a disfunctional internal ecosystem.  This occurs when there are too many, too few or the wrong kind of bacteria present.  Once again, an embalance.  While bacteria take a huge toll on animal lives around the world we still have no yet reached the a level where there are so many that all other life is slowing down and modern medicine has done a lot to curb the affects of bacterial rapid reproduction.  Viruses, on the other hand, are a bit of a different story.
    Though incredibly subtle, destructive and quick to evolve viruses remain a mysterious topic in the science world today, with little consensus over what they are and whether or not they should even be considered life forms.  Either way, it is clear that a number of viruses are engaged in games on the same level as all other living creatures.  Incredibly small, viruses are barely more than self contained capsuls of DNA which drift around waiting for opportune moments and locations.  With no need to eat, evade predation or court a mate viruses drift around in search of a host.  When a suitable host has been found the virus drifts in and floats around until finding a cell it can dock with.  Once an appropriate cell has been found, the virus docs an unleashes its genes into the unsuspecting cell.  Inside the genes combine, assemble and grow until they have become exact genetic replicas of the original virus at which point they leaves the host cell, usually destroying it, and float out in search of the next.  This process is repeated by the virus until it is somehow kicked out of the body or kills its host.  Some viruses will even sit in a host for years, barely reproducing so as to keep as many copies of itself alive as possible, not wanting to kill the host before having the opportunity to spread to others first.  This is achieved by infecting cells which affect the hosts beahvior, particularly behavior that can be manipulated to help spread the virus.  For example, the flu virus causes coughing, sneezing, vomiting, a high fever and dehydration.  It is clear to see that coughing, sneezing or vomiting would easily spread the virus to others in the area by direct contact, however the high fever an dehyrdation make this even more dangerous as one would expect a dehydrated animal to search for water.  What happens when they vomit in the watering hole?  Thus the virus is easily spread from one host to the entire community, this is how viruses are so affective.  But what game is this that viruses play?  It is a sheer, reproductive yet destructive game.  Perhaps all games are only feigning at being games, prolonging the players just long enough to get to the important game, the true game, the game which allows for all games to continue.  The finite game which supports the infinite game; reproduction. 
    Who then can be said to be the upper eschelon players?  And according to what criteria?  Does longevity of life, size of territory, number of mates or number of offspring signify success?  Let's look at a few of the world's most "successful" players and the reasonings behind them.  The first notable player is the world's heaviest organism, a Quaking Aspen clonal colony known as "Pando."  Weighing in at around 6,000 tonnes and located in the U.S. state of Utah the clonal colony is comprised of fields of gentically identical Aspens all of which also share a root system.  Additionally, it is estimated that this clonal colony may be the oldest living organism on the planet at 80,000 years of age.  How has such a success been possible?  Like with most other things in nature, the answer lies with evolution.  Since each member of the clonal colony is genetically identical leaving very limited room for mutations to occur, thus negative mutations are extremely limited and have little chance of being passed into future generations.  Pando's chief territorial opponent, connifers, have also been kept at bay by wildfires that prevent them from keeping a real competitve foothold in the area, while Pando manages to extend its root structure under newly burnt land, thus capitalizing on areas that had been previously dominated by the conifers.  Much of Pando's success does appear to simply be growing for thousands of years under ideal conditions, with little competition.  High fitness and low cost. 
    The next noteworthy player is a fungus commonly called "Honey Mushrooms."  Growing primarily in the Western United States on trees of a variety of types, the Honey Mushroom grows in a rhizomorph figuration, like shoe strings, deteritoriolizing itself accross the tree as it gains territory until the tree eventually is destroyed and completly consumed.  One of these fungal colonies in the Strawberry Mountains of Oregon is 2,200 acres accross and estimated to be 2,400 years old.  A related colony in Washington spans nearly 1,500 acres but is of an unkown age.  How has this fungal titan done so well?  As a rhizomorph the Honey Mushrooms are well equipped for expansion as any competition (i.e. trees) can easily be colonized, and the majority of the the organism itself is these string like roots, thus it is relatively safe from predation as well.  In many ways it is gaining territory, eating and reproducing simultaneously but in one action, thus conserving energy while increasing fitness.
    Lastly but certainly not least in our rundown of great players is a clonal colony of posidonia oceanica, or Neptune grass, located south of the island Ibiza in the Mediteranean Sea.  Only recently discovered in 2006 it stretches 8km in length beneath the ocean and is estimated to be 100,000 years old.  This would make the colony not only the largest on the planet but the oldest as well.  Similiarly to our previous players the posidonia oceanica colony is a rhyzome, sharing its root system amongst all member of the colony and using it to remain steady on the oceans floor while helping support the stability of the sand itself and cut down on the out put of silt.  Thus, the colony is not only highly sustainable but helps sustain the ecosystem within which it lives as well.  By increasing its own fitness it increases the fitness of the ecology around it as well which in turn results in yet another increase of fitness for the colony itself.  It is a perfect case for you scratch my back, I scratch yours.  In all of these examples it is clear that strong cooperation is occuring in these colonies.  Inclusive fitness is heavily invested in as each individual adds to the fitness of the colony as a whole as they are all close genetic relatives.  Sharing a root system helps in this process as it prevents any real defection when it comes to territory or sharing of resources.  But what about Humans?
    We Humans are very close relatives and are extremely inbred.  Yet, our games cannot be said to be terribly sustainable, nor do they increase fitness for anyone outside of the individual.  Due to our inability to think outside of finite gaming we have become overpopulated and games of murder and war have arisen.  We have outstripped our food and clean water resources, thus we use games of murder and war in an attempt to get them back.  This game of war however is incredibly flawed and not beneficial on any scale.  Firstly, in decreasing population war fails.  Take the baby boom generation that was born post WWII that nearly trippled the world's population on the wake of a war which killed millions.  Further more war for territory or resources is blindly ignorant as the same territory could easily be taken through yet another act of war.  Perhaps that is not why the war game is played.  If we humans could realize that our inclusive fitness icludes the entirity of the human population we could stop playing these games of titles, where winning and benefits are only perceived, never realized.  These game are dangerously finite and lack a sense of the potential of more infinite games, thus jeopardizing the entire human race.  While truly infinite play may not be possible forever on a human scale it is that very spirit, nature and mind set of play that leads to sustainability and longevity of survival.  Our greatest hope for the future as humans on this planet would be for us to take a nod from Pando and the other great players and find new ways to gain and share resources, territory and ultimately, fitness.  Our inclusive fitness is almost non-existent in today's societies.  Parents kill their children well beyond the age when it is evolutionarily beneficial, people steal food from relatives and damage their own communities because of their lack of resources or chance to increase their individual fitness.  It is through our inclusive fitness, the fitness rhyzome, that we will be able to move into the next era of humanity.  Or, we could continue following the individual fitness path we are on and end up with the other genetic players who have been lost to time and extinction. 

Based on Notes from James Carse's Finite and Infinite Games. and from Mike Bryant's science classes at The California Institute of the Arts.   

Comments 2 comments

jhem 7 years ago

very deep

r0n 5 years ago

What if a player does break the rules? Is it possible? In finite automata theory there's a state called the trap state for which all processing is diverted to if an unacceptable symbol arrives. It's also known as a black hole. It's basically the machine's way of having rules. So if a string in the machine decides to break the rules by shooting lasers out of their eyes, the machine enters an infinite loop, unable to escape the state it's in. The question is, is it possible in any finite or infinite game, like life, to enter these states? If it were, it would mean that something broke the rules. Which would mean that laws can be broken. Which would mean that a player could shoot laser beams out of their eye balls. However we know this to be false. But why? Because we have yet to see it? What do we know about black holes? They consume everything around them. Even the event that took place to cause the black hole. This means there is no record of the event that caused the black hole. Or is there? To reach any state, a previous set of states must be entered. Thus a genealogy is inherent in any state; a set of rules for that state to have been reached; a language for black holes. If black holes exist, so do the possibility of breaking the rules.

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