Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse
03 November, 2021 - 11 min read
I. Brief Summary
The core idea of the book is to understand the two games we are used to playing in our daily lives—a game with a boundary (finite play) and a game without a boundary (infinite play). A dramatic book which I struggled to finish in one sitting because it was so heavy on metaphysics and moral philosophy. But this is a great gift to the world by James Carse. He has a way to make complex topics black and white and though the world necessarily doesn't operate that way, you can visualize these two buckets while reading. For every idea he presents in the book, he proposes an opposite side of it. For example, the opposite of a boundary is a horizon; the opposite of power is strength. Power is the ability to control the way others play; strength is the ability to allow others to play as they wish. Some may dislike his book due to his presentation of moral philosophy, but irrespective of that, it has some powerful ideas. The distinction between finite games and an infinite game is heuristically very powerful to understand the world around us.
II. Big Ideas
- A finite game is played for the purpose of winning.
- Finite games are externally defined.
- Finite players play within boundaries.
- The rules of a finite game are the contractual terms by which the players can agree who has won.
- The rules must be published prior to play, and the players must agree to them before play begins.
- A point of great consequence to all finite play follows from this: The agreement of the players to the applicable rules constitutes the ultimate validation of those rules.
- All the limitations of finite play are self-limitations.
- Finite play is theatrical. This means that during the game all finite play is dramatic, since the outcome is yet unknown. The theatricality of finite play has to do with the fact that there is an outcome. Surprise is a crucial element in most finite games.
- Surprise causes finite play to end.
- Finite player plays to be powerful.
- Time for a finite player runs out; it is used up. It is a diminishing quantity.
- An infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.
- Infinite games are internally defined.
- Infinite players cannot say when their game began, nor do they care.
- They do not care for the reason that their game is not bounded by time.
- The time of an infinite game is not world time, but time created within the play itself.
- The only purpose of the game is to prevent it from coming to an end, to keep everyone in play.
- There are no spatial or numerical boundaries to an infinite game.
- No world is marked with the barriers of infinite play, and there is no question of eligibility since anyone who wishes may play an infinite game.
- It is impossible to say how long an infinite game has been played, or even can be played, since duration can be measured only externally to that which endures. It is also impossible to say in which world an infinite game is played, though there can be any number of worlds within an infinite game.
- Surprise is the reason for infinite play to continue. Surprise in infinite play is the triumph of the future over the past.
- Because infinite players prepare themselves to be surprised by the future, they play in complete openness. It is not an openness as in candor, but an openness as in vulnerability.
- The joyfulness of infinite play, its laughter, lies in learning to start something we cannot finish.
- Infinite player plays with strength. Though infinite players are strong, they are not powerful and do not attempt to become powerful.
- As an infinite player one is neither young nor old, for one does not live in the time of another.
- Infinite players cannot say how much they have completed in their work or love or quarreling, but only that much remains incomplete in it. They are not concerned to determine when it is over, but only what comes of it.
- To be playful is not to be trivial or frivolous, or to act as though nothing of consequence will happen. On the contrary, when we are playful with each other we relate as free persons, and the relationship is open to surprise; everything that happens is of consequence.
- An immortal soul is a person who cannot help but continue living out a role already scripted. An immortal person could not choose to die nor, for the same reason, choose to live. Immortality is serious and in no way playful.
- Titles are abstractions; names are always concrete.
- Titles are theatrical. Each title has a specified ceremonial form of address and behavior. Titles such as Captain, Mrs., Lord, Esquire, Professor, Comrade, Father, Under Secretary, signal not only a mode of address with its appropriate deference or respect, but also a content of address.
- Power is a feature only of finite games. It is not dramatic but theatrical. How then do infinite players contend with power?
- Infinite play is always dramatic; its outcome is endlessly open.
- To speak meaningfully of a person’s power is to speak of what that person has already completed in one or another closed field. To see power is to look backward in time.
- Power is bestowed by an audience after the play is complete. Power is contradictory, and theatrical.
Society & Culture
- Society they understand as the sum of those relations that are under some form of public constraint, culture as whatever we do with each other by undirected choice. If society is all that a people feels it must do, culture is the realm of the variable, free, not necessarily universal, of all that cannot lay claim to compulsive authority.
- Society and culture are therefore not true opponents of each other. Rather society is a species of culture that persists in contradicting itself, a freely organized attempt to conceal the freedom of the organizers and the organized, an attempt to forget that we have willfully forgotten our decision to enter this or that contest and to continue in it.
- Schools are a species of finite play to the degree that they bestow ranked awards on those who win degrees from them. Those awards in turn qualify graduates for competition in still higher games—certain prestigious colleges, for example, and then certain professional schools beyond that, with a continuing sequence of higher games in each of the professions, and so forth. It is not uncommon for families to think of themselves as a competitive unit in a broader finite game for which they are training their members in the struggle for societally visible titles.
- The power of citizens in a society is determined by their ranking in games that have been played. A society preserves its memory of past winners. Its record-keeping functions are crucial to societal order.
- Culture is an infinite game. Culture has no boundaries. Anyone can be a participant in a culture—anywhere and at any time.
- Because culture as such can have no temporal limits, a culture understands its past not as destiny, but as history, that is, as a narrative that has begun but points always toward the endlessly open.
- For example, it is one thing for persons to choose to be Americans, quite another for persons to choose to be America. Societal thinking easily permits the former, never the latter.
- Since art is never possession, and always possibility, nothing possessed can have the status of art.
- Art is dramatic, opening always forward, beginning something that cannot be finished.
- Art has no scripted roles for its performers. It is precisely because it has none that it is art.
- Artistry can be found anywhere; indeed, it can only be found anywhere.
- We do not watch artists to see what they do, but watch what persons do and discover the artistry in it.
- Artists cannot be trained. One does not become an artist by acquiring certain skills or techniques, though one can use any number of skills and techniques in artistic activity. The creative is found in anyone who is prepared for surprise. Such a person cannot go to school to be an artist, but can only go to school as an artist.
- The assumption guiding our struggle against nature is that deep within itself nature contains a structure, an order, that is ultimately intelligible to the human understanding.
- Gardeners celebrate variety, unlikeness, spontaneity. They understand that an abundance of styles is in the interest of vitality.
- Gardening is not outcome-oriented. A successful harvest is not the end of a garden’s existence, but only a phase of it. As any gardener knows, the vitality of a garden does not end with a harvest. It simply takes another form. Gardens do not “die” in the winter but quietly prepare for another season.
- A garden is a place where growth is found. It has its own source of change. One does not bring change to a garden, but comes to a garden prepared for change, and therefore prepared to change.
- There are no rules that require us to obey rules. If there were, there would have to be a rule for those rules, and so on.
- The rules of an infinite game have a different status from those of a finite game. They are like the grammar of a living language, where those of a finite game are like the rules of debate.
- To believe is to know you believe, and to know you believe is not to believe. — Sartre
- To be serious is to press for a specified conclusion. To be playful is to allow for possibility whatever the cost to oneself.
- To be prepared against surprise is to be trained. To be prepared for surprise is to be educated.
- Education leads toward a continuing self-discovery; training leads toward a final self-definition.
- Training repeats a completed past in the future. Education continues an unfinished past into the future.
- It is a principal function of society to validate titles and to assure their perpetual recognition.
- Death in life is a mode of existence in which one has ceased all play; there is no further striving for titles.
- Evil is not the acquisition of power, but the expression of power.
- As in the Zen image we are not the stones over which the stream of the world flows; we are the stream itself.
- Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.
- The power in a society is guaranteed and enhanced by the power of a society.
- Patriotism in one or several of its many forms (chauvinism, racism, sexism, nationalism, regionalism) is an ingredient in all societal play.
- The purpose of property is to make our titles visible. Property is an attempt to recover the past.
- Artists do not create objects, but create by way of objects.
- It can be said that where a society is defined by its boundaries, a culture is defined by its horizon.
- A boundary is a phenomenon of opposition. It is the meeting place of hostile forces.
- Since culture is horizonal it is not restricted by time or space.
- To enter a culture is not to do what the others do, but to do whatever one does with the others. The reciprocity of this transformation has no respect to time.
- Reciprocity works backward as well as forward.
- If a state has no enemies it has no boundaries.
- Poets cannot kill; they die. Metaphysics cannot die; it kills.
- To look at is to look for. It is to bring the limitations with us.
- Nature has no outline. Imagination has. — Blake
- To look is a territorial activity.
- An audience consists of persons observing a contest without participating in it.
- There is an irony in our silencing of the gods.
- If speaking about a process is itself part of the process, there is something that must remain permanently hidden from the speaker.
- Storytellers invite us to return from knowledge to thinking, from a bounded way of looking to an horizonal way of seeing.
- There is no narrative without structure, or plot.
- Just as nature has no outside, it has no inside.
- Because we make use of machinery in the belief we can increase the range of our freedom, and instead only decrease it, we use machines against ourselves.
- Growth promotes growth.
- Genuine travel has no destination. Travelers do not go somewhere, but constantly discover they are somewhere else.