Finite and Infinite Games

Finite and Infinite Games

A Version of Life as Play and Possibility

James P. Carse

Summary in 100 words or less

We play a finite game to win—and an infinite game to continue playing. A finite game is serious while an infinite game is playful. To be serious is to press for a specified conclusion. To be playful is to allow for possibility. Society is a finite game, culture is an infinite game. For the finite player in us, we must have the time to be free. For the infinite player in us, we are free to have time. A finite player puts play into time. An infinite player puts time into play.


My Highlights

A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.

If a finite game is to be won by someone it must come to a definitive end. It will come to an end when someone has won.

Just as it is essential for a finite game to have a definitive ending, it must also have a precise beginning. Therefore, we can speak of finite games as having temporal boundaries—to which, of course, all players must agree. But players must agree to the establishment of spatial and numerical boundaries as well. That is, the game must be played within a marked area, and with specified players.

In one respect, but only one, an infinite game is identical to a finite game: Of infinite players we can also say that if they play they play freely; if they must play, they cannot play.

Finite games can be played within an infinite game, but an infinite game cannot be played within a finite game.

The rules of a finite game are the contractual terms by which the players can agree who has won.

The rules of an infinite game are changed to prevent anyone from winning the game and to bring as many persons as possible into the play.

Finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play with boundaries.

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.

The issue here is not whether self-veiling can be avoided, or even should be avoided. Indeed, no finite play is possible without it. The issue is whether we are ever willing to drop the veil and openly acknowledge, if only to ourselves, that we have freely chosen to face the world through a mask.

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. It is, in fact, seriousness that closes itself to consequence, for seriousness is a dread of the unpredictable outcome of open possibility. To be serious is to press for a specified conclusion. To be playful is to allow for possibility whatever the cost to oneself.

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.

Education discovers an increasing richness in the past, because it sees what is unfinished there. Training regards the past as finished and the future as to be finished. Education leads toward a continuing self-discovery; training leads toward a final self-definition.

Life and death as much are rarely the stakes of a finite game. What one wins is a title; and when the loser of a finite game is declared dead to further play, it is equivalent to declaring that person utterly without title—a person to whom no attention whatsoever need be given.

There is a contradiction here: 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. Life is therefore deserved, bestowed, possessed, won. It is not lived.

When a person is known by title, the attention is on a completed past, on a game already concluded, and not therefore to be played again. A title effectively takes a person out of play.

When a person is known only by name, the attention of others is on an open future. We simply cannot know what to expect. Whenever we address each other by name we ignore all scripts, and open the possibility that our relationship will become deeply reciprocal.

The exercise of power always presupposes resistance. Power is never evident until two or more elements are in opposition. Whichever element can move another is the more powerful.

Power is always measured in units of comparison. In fact, it is a term of competition.

Power is a concept that belongs only in finite play. But power is not properly measurable until the game is completed—until the designated period of time has run out.

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.

Evil is not the acquisition of power, but the expression of power. It is the forced recognition of a title—and therein lies the contradiction of evil, for recognition cannot be forced.

This essential fluidity of our humanness that is irreconcilable with the seriousness of finite play. It is, therefore, this fluidity that presents us with an unavoidable challenge: how to contain the serious within the truly playful; that is, how to keep all our finite games in infinite play.

Before I can have an enemy, I must persuade another to recognize me as an enemy. I cannot be a hero unless I can first find someone who will threaten my life—or, better, take my life. Once under way, warfare and acts of heroism have all the appearance of necessity, but that appearance is but a veil over the often complicated maneuvers by which the antagonists have arranged their conflict with each other.

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.

Culture, on the other hand, is an infinite game. Culture has no boundaries. Anyone can be a participant in a culture—anywhere and at any time.

Cultural deviation does not return us to the past, but continues what was begun and not finished in the past. Societal convention, on the other hand, requires that a completed past be repeated in the future. Society has all the seriousness of immortal necessity; culture resounds with the laughter of unexpected possibility. Society is abstract, culture concrete.

Whoever is unable to show a correspondence between wealth and the risks undergone to acquire it, or the talents spent in its acquisition, will soon face a challenge over entitlement. The rich are regularly subject to theft, to taxation, to the expectation that their wealth be shared, as though what they have is not true compensation and therefore not completely theirs.

Property is an attempt to recover the past. It returns one to precompetitive status. One is compensated for the amount of time spent (and thus lost) in competition.

There is a second theatrical requirement that falls on the owners of property. Once they have drawn attention to what they have lost in acquiring what they own, they must then consume what they have gained in a way that recovers the loss. The intuitive principle here is that we cannot be justified in owning what we do not need to use or plan to use. One does not earn money merely to store it away where it will be protected from all possible future use.

The more powerful we consider persons to be, the less we expect them to do, for their power can come only from that which they have done.

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. One must be surprised by it. It cannot be looked for. We do not watch artists to see what they do, but watch what persons do and discover the artistry in it.

Where a society is defined by its boundaries, a culture is defined by its horizon.

A horizon is a phenomenon of vision. One cannot look at the horizon; it is simply the point beyond which we cannot see. There is nothing in the horizon itself, however, that limits vision, for the horizon opens onto all that lies beyond itself. What limits vision is rather the incompleteness of that vision.

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.

This is why every new participant in a culture both enters into an existing context and simultaneously changes that context. Each new speaker of its language both learns the language and alters it. Each new adoption of a tradition makes it a new tradition.

A people, as a people, has nothing to defend. In the same way a people has nothing and no one to attack. One cannot be free by opposing another. My freedom does not depend on your loss of freedom. On the contrary, since freedom is never freedom from society, but freedom for it, my freedom inherently affirms yours.

War is not an act of unchecked ruthlessness but a declared contest between bounded societies, or states. If a state has no enemies it has no boundaries. To keep its definitions clear a state must stimulate danger to itself.

War presents itself as necessary for self-production, when in fact it is necessary for self-identification.

If to look is to look at what is contained within its limitations, to see is to see the limitations themselves.

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. The more negatively we assess ourselves, the more we strive to reverse the judgment of others.

The more we are recognized as winners, the more we know ourselves to be losers. That is why it is rare for the winners of highly coveted and publicized prizes to settle for their titles and retire. 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.

Since sexuality is the only finite game in which the winner’s prize is the loser, the most desirable form of property is the publicly acknowledged possession of another’s person, a relationship to which the possessed must of course freely consent. All other forms of property are considerably less desirable, even when they are vast in quantity.

There is nothing hidden in infinite sexuality. Sexual desire is exposed as sexual desire and is never therefore serious. Its satisfaction is never an achievement, but an act in a continuing relationship, and therefore joyous. Its lack of satisfaction is never a failure, but only a matter to be taken on into further play.

The fact that a finite game needs an audience before which it can be played, and the fact that an audience needs to be singularly absorbed in the events before it, show the crucial reciprocity of finite play and the world. Finite players need the world to provide an absolute reference for understanding themselves; simultaneously, the world needs the theater of finite play to remain a world.

We are players in search of a world as often as we are world in search of players, and sometimes we are both at once. Some words pass quickly into existence, and quickly out of it. Some sustain themselves for longer periods, but no world lasts forever.

The infinite player in us does not consume time but generates it. Because infinite play is dramatic and has no scripted conclusion, its time is time lived and not time viewed.

As an infinite player one is neither young nor old, for one does not live in the time of another. There is therefore no external measure of an infinite player’s temporality. Time does not pass for an infinite player. Each moment of time is a beginning.

Each moment is not the beginning of a period of time. It is the beginning of an event that gives the time within it its specific quality. For an infinite player there is no such thing as an hour of time. There can be an hour of love, or a day of grieving, or a season of learning, or a period of labor.

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. Work is not a way of arriving at a desired present and securing it against an unpredictable future, but of moving toward a future which itself has a future.

For the finite player in us freedom is a function of time. We must have the time to be free. For the infinite player in us time is a function of freedom. We are free to have time. A finite player puts play into time. An infinite player puts time into play.

Explanations settle issues, showing that matters must end as they have. Narratives raise issues, showing that matters do not end as they must but as they do. Explanation sets the need for further inquiry aside; narrative invites us to rethink what we thought we knew.

Finite speakers come to speech with their voices already trained and rehearsed. They must know what they are doing with the language before they can speak it. Infinite speakers must wait to see what is done with their language by the listeners before they can know what they have said. Infinite speech does not expect the hearer to see what is already known to the speaker, but to share a vision the speaker could not have had without the response of the listener.

Storytellers do not convert their listeners; they do not move them into the territory of a superior truth. Ignoring the issue of truth and falsehood altogether, they offer only vision. Storytelling is therefore not combative; it does not succeed or fail. A story cannot be obeyed. Instead of placing one body of knowledge against another, storytellers invite us to return form knowledge to thinking, form a bounded way of looking to an horizontal way of seeing.

Our freedom in relation to nature is not the freedom to change nature; it is not the possession of power over natural phenomena. It is the freedom to change ourselves.

Machines do not, of course, make us into machines when we operate them; we make ourselves into machinery in order to operate them. Machinery does not steal our spontaneity from us; we set it aside ourselves, we deny our originality. 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.

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.

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.

True parents do not see to it that their children grow in a particular way, according to a preferred pattern or scripted stages, but they see to it that they grow with their children. The character of one’s parenting, if it is genuinely dramatic, must be constantly altered from within as the children change from within. So, too, with teaching, or working with, or loving each other.

Genuine travelers travel not to overcome distance but to discover distance. It is not distance that makes travel necessary, but travel makes distance possible. Distance is not determined by the measurable length between objects, but by the actual differences between them.

Infinite players are not serious actors in any story, but the joyful poets of a story that continues to originate what they cannot finish.

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