Outline of Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility

Author: James P. Carse

I picked this book mostly for the back cover, in that it was plugged by Robert Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Quotes and paraphrasing noteworthy points: “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, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.” 1

A finite game is bounded temporally by time, space, participants, and outcome, and players must freely choose to play it. Also, players must have someone to play against. A summary of this is that membership in finite games is externally defined. 2-4

The only similarity between infinite and finite games is that the players must choose to play. Otherwise they are opposites. Game is not bounded by time, space, or eligibility. Infinite games are internally defined, in that they are not based on world time, but time created within the play itself. 6

“Finite games can be played within an infinite game, but an infinite game cannot be played within a finite game. Infinite players regard their wins and losses in whatever finite games they play as but moments in continuing play.” 7

Finite games must have “internal limitations on what the players can do and with each other…The rules of a finite game are the contractual terms by which the players can agree who has won.” 8

“The agreement of the players to the applicable rules constitutes the ultimate validation of those rules.” 9

Whereas the rules of a finite game cannot change, the rules of an infinite game must change. 10

Not just any infinite rules will do, they should regulate the game so it continues to grow. “Finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play with boundaries.” 11

“Although it may be evident enough in theory that whoever plays a finite game plays freely, it is often the case that finite players will be unaware of this absolute freedom.” - Finite players must be selected and might feel pressure to maintain a certain level of performance, as their playing privileges might be revoked. - Players might make every move in a game in order to win it. - It may appear that the prizes for victory are indispensable. 12

“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 experienced necessity to stay at the struggle, we can say that as finite players we somehow veil this freedom from ourselves.” Finite players –> acting roles. “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.” 13

“Seriousness is always related to roles, or abstractions.” “To be playful is not to be trivial or frivolous, or 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.” 14

Finite play is theatrical, infinite play is dramatic. “Dramatically, one chooses to be a mother; theatrically, one takes on the role of a mother.” 15

The goal of finite players is to be able to not be surprised. 16

“Surprise causes finite play to end; it is the reason for infinite play to continue.” 17

“What one wins in a finite game is a title.” 18

“It is a perpetual function of society to validate titles and to assure their perpetual recognition.” 19

“Soldiers commonly achieve a life in death. Soldiers fight not to stay alive but to save the nation. Those who do fight only to protect themselves are, in fact, considered guilty of the highest military crimes. Soldiers who die fighting the enemy, however, receive the nation’s highest reward: they are declared unforgettable. Even unknown soldiers are memorialized–though their names have been lost, their titles will not be.” 20

“The contradiction is precisely that all finite play is play against itself.” 21

“Evil is the termination of infinite play.” 30

“One reason for the necessity of a society is its role in ascribing and validating the titles to property.” 37

“Property must be seen as compensation.” “Property must be seen to be consumed.” (Veblen’s conspicuous consumption) 38

“Therefore, poets do not ‘fit’ into society, not because a place is denied them but because they do not take their ‘places’ seriously. They openly see its roles as theatrical, its styles as poses, its clothing costumes, its rules conventional, and its metaphysics ideological.” 44

“Because patriotism is the desire to contain all other finite games within itself–that is, to embrace all horizons within a single boundary–it is inherently evil.” 45

“For a bounded, metaphysically veiled, and destined society, enemies are necessary, conflict inevitable, and war likely.” 48

The third section is quite a bit of near-Freudian psychoanalysis, and should probably be skipped. Hereafter the book kind of crumbles by getting too specific. The second to last section is especially crappy.

Major Dichotomy

Finite Infinite

external boundaries internal horizons

veiled free

serious playful

no surprise surprises

theatrical dramatic

contradictory paradoxical

title name

point backward openness forward

power strength

society culture (poietai doing poiesis)

explanation story