Finite and Infinite Games

James P Carse

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Highly Recommend

Uniquely-written and dense book that took me for surprise by the end. I’ve found it’s often the case that the simplest ideas, when explained well, lead to the greatest understandings. After reading it I see the concepts just about everywhere in my life. If nothing else, read it for the writing style and elegance that Karse explains topics in.


There are at least two kinds of games.

There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, and infinite game for the purpose of continuing to play.

There is no finite game unless the players freely choose to play it. No one can play who is forced to play.

The rules must be published prior to play, and the players must agree to them before play begins…Rules are not valid because the Senate passed them, or because heroes once played by them, or because God pronounced them through Moses or Muhammad. They are valid only if and when players freely play by them.

It is on this point that we find the most critical distinction between finite and finite play: The rules of an infinite game must change in the course of play.

[In reference to extreme cases of slavery or oppression] “Certainly the price for refusing it is high, but that there is a price at all points to the fact that oppressors themselves acknowledge that even the weakest of their subjects must agree to be oppressed.”

To account for the large gap between the actual freedom of finite players to step off the field of play at any time and the experience necessity to stay at the struggle, we can say that as finite players we somehow veil this freedom from ourselves.

Some self-veiling is present in all finite games. Players must intentionally forget the inherently voluntary nature of their play, else all competitive effort will desert them.

“Since finite games can be played within an infinite game, infinite players do not eschew the performed roles of finite play…They embrace the abstractness of finite games as abstractness, and therefore take them up not seriously, but playfully.”

Theatrical play – type of play in finite games. Although it doesn’t seem to be known in advance, it’s clear looking back that the winners knew the right things to do

Dramatic play – type of play in infinite games. “…players avoid any outcome whatsoever, keeping the future open, making all scripts useless…”

“Dramatically, one chooses to be a mother; theatrically, one takes on the role of mother.”

“A finite player is trained not only to anticipate every future possibility, but to control the future, to prevent it from altering the past. This is the finite player in the mode of seriousness with its dread of unpredictable consequence. Infinite players, on the other hand, continue their play in the expectation of being surprised. If surprise is no longer possible, all play ceases.”

To be prepared against surprise is to be trained. To be prepared for surprise is to be educated.

What one wins in a finite game is a title. A title is the acknowledgement of others that one has been the winner of a particular game.

There are games in which the stakes do seem to be life and death.

  • “…found in those persons who resort to expensive medical strategies to be cured of life-threatening illness. They too, seem to be giving life away in order to win it back.
  • So also are those who observe special diets or patterns of life designed to prolong their youth and to postpone aging and death indefinitely; they hate their life in this world now in order that they may have it later.
  • Death for the finite player is deserved, earned…If the losers are dead, the dead are also losers. [IE don’t try to cheat death because it’s a game you can’t win, and then your death will signify the loss of that game]
  • If the prize for winning finite play is life, then the players are not properly alive. They are competing for life. Life, then, is not play, but the outcome of play. Finite players play to live; they do not live their playing.

The death of an infinite player is dramatic. It does not mean that the game comes to an end with death; on the contrary, infinite players offer their death as a way of continuing the play. For that reason they do not play for their own life; they live for their own play.

Because it is the purpose of infinite players to continue the play, they do not play for themselves…The joyfulness of infinite play, its laughter, lies in learning to start something we cannot finish.

When a person is known by title, the attention is on a completed past, on a game already concluded, and not therefore to be player again.

Power is always measured in units of comparison. IN fact, it is a term of competition: How much resistance can I overcome relative to others?

All the limitations of finite play are self-limitations.

Evil is the termination of infinite play.

Evil arises in the honored belief that history can be tidied up, brought to a sensible conclusion. It is evil to act as though the past is bringing us to a specifiable end…Evil is not the inclusion of finite games in an infinite game, but the restriction of all play to one or another finite game.

No One Can Play a Game Alone

We do not relate to others as the persons we are; we are who we are in relating to others. [Interesting epistemological implications about truth]

Finite games sometimes appear, therefore, to have fixed points of social reference. Not only are there true and false ways of loving your country, for example; there is a positive requirement that you do so.

Before I can have an enemy, I must persuade another to recognize me as an enemy.

The United State did not, for example, lose its war in Southeast Asia so much as lose its audience for a war. No doubt much of the disillusion and bitterness of its warriors comes from the missing final scene – the hero’s homecoming to parades or ceremonial burial – an anticipated scene that carries many into battle.

Society remains entirely within our free choice in quite the same way that finite competition, however strenuous or costly to the player, never prevents the player from walking off the field of play.

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 game – 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.

Those who desire the permanence of their prizes will work to sustain the permanence of the whole. Patriotism is one or several of its many forms (chauvinism, racism, sexism, nationalism, regionalism) is an ingredient in all societal play.

Society is a manifestation of power. It is theatrical, having an established script. Deviations from the script are evident at once. Deviation is antisocial and therefore forbidden by society under a variety of sanctions. It is easy to see why deviancy is resisted…This would mean that past winners no longer warrant ceremonial recognition of their titles and are therefore without power – like Russian princes after the Revolution. It is a highly valued function of society to prevent changes in the rules of the many games it embraces.

Culture continues what Mozart and Rembrandt had themselves continued by way of their work: an original, or deviant, shaping of the tradition they received, original enough that it does not invite duplication of itself by others, but invites the originality of others in response.

Only those who consent to a society’s constraints see them as constraints – that is, as guides to action and not as actions to be opposed.

This means that a peculiar burden falls on property owners. Since the laws protecting their property will be effective only when they are able to persuade others to obey those laws, they must introduce a theatricality into their ownership sufficiently engaging that their opponents will live by its script.

It is apparent to infinite players that wealth is not so much possessed as it is performed.

Art that is used against a society or its policies gives up its character as infinite play, and aims for an end. Such art is no less propaganda than that which praises its heroes with high seriousness.

The creativity of culture has no outcome, no conclusion. It does not result in art works, artifacts, products. Creativity is a continuity that engenders itself in others…Whoever takes possession of the objects of art has not taken possession of the art.

This is why patriotism – that is, the desire to protect the power in a society by way of increasing the power of a society – is inherently belligerent. Since there can be no prizes without a society, no society without opponents, patriots must create enemies before we can require protection from them.

Every move an infinite player makes is toward the horizon. Every move made by a finite player is within a boundary. Every moment of an infinite game therefore presents a new vision, a new range of possibilities…What will undo any boundary is the awareness that is it our vision, and not what we are viewing, that is limited.

Each new speaker of its language both learns the language and alters it.

I am the Genius of Myself

As the geniuses we are, we do not look, but see…If to look is to look at what is contained within its limitations, to see is to see the limitations themselves.

The physicist who sees speaks physics with us, inviting us to see that the things we thought were there are not things are all. By learning new limitations from such a person, we learn not only what to look for with them but also how to see the way we use limitations.

As finite players we will not enter the game with sufficient desire to win unless we are ourselves convinced by the very audience we intend to convince. That is, unless we believe we actually are the losers the audience sees us to be, we will not have the necessary desire to win.

Winners, especially celebrated winners, must prove repeatedly they are winners. The script must be played over and over again. Titles must be defended by new contests. No one is ever wealthy enough, honored enough, applauded enough. On the contrary, the visibility of our victories only tightens the grip of the failures in our invisible past.

We ask ourselves and each other whether certain behavior is acceptable or desirable; we are puzzled over the proper response to sexual feelings – ours or another’s…What one wants in the sexual contest is not just to have defeated the other, but to have the defeated other. Sexuality is the only finite game in which the winner’s prize is the defeated opponent.

The seduced opponent is so displayed as to draw public attention to the seducer’s triumph. In the complex plotting of sexual encounter it is by no means uncommon for the partners to have played a double game in which each is winner and loser, and each is an emblem for the other’s seductive power.

The true value of my property, in fact, varies not with its monetary worth but with its effectiveness in winning for me the declaration that I am the Master Player in our game with each other.

…who wins empire, fortune, and fame but loses in love has lost in everything.

By contrast infinite players have no interest in seduction or in restricting the freedom of another to one’s own boundaries of play…What they learn is not about sexuality, but how to be more concretely and originally themselves, to be the genius of their own actions, to be whole.

A Finite Game Occurs Within a World

There is an outside to every finite game. [Perhaps a good way to identify if something is finite or infinite]

An audience goes not receive its identity according to the persons within it, but according to the events it observes. Those who remember that day remember precisely what they were doing in the early afternoon of that day, not because it was the 22nd of November, but because it was at that moment that they became audience to the events of that day. [In relation to JFK’s assassination]

We look on childhood and youth as those “times of life” rich with possibility only because there still seem to remain so many paths open to a successful outcome. Each year that passes, however, increases the competitive value of making strategically correct decisions.

The outcome of a finite game is the past waiting to happen. Whoever plays toward a certain outcome desires a particular past. By competing for a future prize, finite players compete for a prized past.

An infinite player does not begin working for the purpose of filling up a period of time with work, but for the purpose of filling work with time. Work is not an infinite player’s way of passing time, but of engendering possibility.

Infinite play remains invisible to the finite observer. Such viewers are looking for closure, for the ways in which players can bring matters to a conclusion and finish whatever remains unfinished.

Nature is the Realm of the Unspeakable

Nature…has no voice of its own, and nothing to say. We experience the unspeakability of nature as its utter indifference to human culture.

There is no such thing as an unnatural act. Nothing can be done to or against nature, much less outside it.

So close are knowledge and property that they are often thought to be continuous. Those who are entitled to knowledge feel they should be granted property as well, and those who are entitled to property believe a certain knowledge goes with it. Scholars demand higher salaries for their publishable successes; industrialists sit on university boards.

To lose a contest is to become obedient; to become obedient is to lose one’s listeners. The silence of obedience is an unheard silence. It is the silence of death. For this reason the demand for obedience is inherently evil.

We Control Nature for Societal Reasons

The alternative attitudes toward nature can be characterized in a rough way by saying that the result of approaching nature as a hostile Other whose designs are basically inimical to our interests is the machine, while the result of learning to discipline ourselves to consist with the deepest discernable patterns of natural order is the garden.

To garden is not to engage in a hobby or an amusement; it is to design a culture capable of adjusting to the widest possible range of surprise in nature.

The most elemental difference between the machine and the garden is that one is driven by a force which must be introduced from without, the other grown by an energy which originates from within itself.

There is no style in operating a machine. The more efficient the machine, the more it either limits or absorbs our uniqueness into its operation.

Radios and films allow us to be where we are not and not be where we are.

All culture has the form of gardening: the encouragement of spontaneity in others by way of one’s own, the respect for source, and the refusal to convert source into resource.

Gardening is not outcome-oriented. A successful harvest is not the end of a garden’s existence, but only a phase of it…Gardeners celebrate variety, unlikeness, spontaneity.

The motels around the airports in Chicago and Atlanta are so little different from the motels around the airports of Tokyo and Frankfurt that all essential distances dissolve in likeness. What is truly separated is distinct; it is unlike. “The only true voyage would be not to travel through a hundred different lands with the same pair of eyes, but to see the same land through a hundred different pairs of eyes” (Proust).

But waste is not the result of what we have made. It is what we have made. Waste plutonium is not an indirect consequence of the nuclear industry, it is a product of that industry.

Waste in unveiling. As we find ourselves standing in garbage that we know is our own, we find also that it is garbage we have chosen to make, and having chosen to make it could choose not to make it. Because waste is unveiling, we remove it.

A people does not become superfluous by itself, any more than natural waste creates itself. It is society that declares some persons to be waste.

When society is unveiled, when we see that it is whatever we want it to be, that it is a species of culture with nothing necessary in it, by no means a phenomenon of nature is no longer shaped and fitted into one or another set of societal goals.

Myth Provokes Explanation but Accepts None of It

If it is true that myth provokes explanation, then it is also true that explanation’s ultimate design is to eliminate myth.

The myth of the Buddha’s enlightenment has the same paradox in it, the same provocation to explanation but with a little possibility of settling the matter.

It is not necessary for infinite players to be Christians; indeed it is not possible for them to be Christians – seriously. Neither is it possible for them to be Buddhists, or Muslims, or atheists, or New Yorkers – seriously. All such titles can only be playful abstractions, mere performances for the sake of laughter.

There is but one infinite game.

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