Architecture’s affinity to the game idea first reveals itself during design, which feels like a game (or contest, or battle). Like a game, design unfolds in steps or moves, which relate to each other linearly and seem to follow rules that guide the judgments forging the “progress” of the design. At the same time, the game’s strategic interest and suspension of “reality” introduces a heuristic space/permission to go beyond the convention or habit that constitute the reality within the game. The artificiality/irreality of the terms frees their play to be purely syntactic, unconstrained except within the strictly controlled and synthetic terrain of the game field. Thus in architecture the rules of the game may be newly established by each project, and design/thinking is free to explore them without reference to the world outside that architecture, that game—giving rise to the recurrent claims for architecture’s autonomy. Of course, if “everything is a game,” there is no stable distinction between any particular game and its context, between inside and outside, and so nothing is safely autonomous in these terms. Disciplinary boundaries are thus revealed to be unavoidably elective, and all the more precious for that.

James Carse has introduced a helpful distinction in this regard between “finite” games and “infinite” games. The former are games which, as the name implies, come to an end. Usually this means victory for one side, defeat for the other—indeed, it means that there are sides: a zero sum game, a contest in the truest sense. “Infinite” games on the other hand are those which do not end, or rather have an end in the activity, the playing itself, rather than in the outcome. It is significant of architecture that while a discipline is best characterized as an infinite game, any instance of architecture can be either or both at various times, as practiced by different people in different ways, and this distinction can be a lever to understanding a particular architectural program. This is because the two sorts of games naturally sponsor different value systems.

There are three generalized strategies of play that can be identified; two of these are in current vogue, but throughout history each has come into and out of fashion: cleverness/metagame, sophistication/refinement, and novelty/innovation. Each of these approaches exhibit different attitudes towards the rules; it is this that identifies them, that gives them their name. Of course it is in the nature of the game(s) that these might overlap and intermingle during play. As these approaches drive the decision-making that occurs during design, they will also describe the particular regimes of judgment applied to the results of the design. It is easy to recast most historical movements within architecture in these terms, without even invoking the historiographic chauvinism alluded to above.

The finite game is about winning and all that goes into assuring that outcome. In the finite game, the gaining of teleological advantage determines every aspect of play, from the motivated orientation to the rules to the search for loopholes or ways around them. Such games value cleverness and innovation or novelty most highly for the advantages they can provide. The infinite game on the other hand is about the play itself, but this can become an advantage, as the exquisite, endless work of the shrines at Ise show. The infinite game is more interested in excellence and refinement, and feels a pang if perfection, as an end, is achieved. Mies played an infinite game, with his tragic, asymptotic approach to ideality; most current practices are engaged in the desperate finite games of novelty production.

Today, the explosion of different formalisms seeking such novelty rather than what could be called “the architectural”—facilitated by the information revolution, the hyperactivity of the media and the pervasiveness and effectiveness of the new digital technology—might still be taken as variations on a more generalized architecture game (not unlike the more institutionalized, or at least earlier, variations in the “art” game). Or not. This apparent diffusion/dissolution of the idea of architecture might be worrisome, but it might also offer a unique opportunity to continue disciplinary investigations initiated by the last generation of critical architects who had only begun to discover architecture’s quarks in its quirks as it fissioned during the modern/post-modern/decon contests. Needless to say, this potentially rewrites what it means to be architecture, exposing this sense-in-play (of the architectural) to an understanding that was previously masked in conventional concerns of tectonics or style. Today, architecture games seem only trivially connected by a “family resemblance” derived from their (increasingly tenuous) relationship to building, revealing a more important connection in their manner of play, however that play might be related to building/construction—order.

In other words, as a game, architecture no longer possesses a single essence (a mirror of the world) that would allow consistent judgment across the variety of contemporary expressions. Instead, it is can be viewed as a bunch of different activities that somehow still manage to be understood as related, as enjoying that “family resemblance.” These are activities that must be engaged to be understood, that must teach the viewer how to view them. It is no longer possible for someone to claim to be able to judge any work without knowing something about the particular game that it is playing.

Each game must make clear the terms of its own success or failure. Yet, perhaps paradoxically, the impossibility of certain answers does not mean an end to questions or to thinking. In fact, the opposite is the case, as the dynamic decision matrix encourages a more agile approach that highlights the quality of thought it takes to successfully maneuver in this new fluid context.