"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..."
This single proposition, the opening line of 'Finite & Infinite Games' by James Carse, has had a prolific and monumental influence on my life.
The simple, subtle, and omnipotent distinction between finite and infinite games – and understanding when and where you are a finite or an infinite player – has radically transformed the way I view myself, life, and Reality at large.
Few books are able to facilitate complete paradigm shifts in individuals, only religious and spiritual texts come close. It is a rare and momentus occassion when you come across a story with the potential to oblierate existing mental models and outdated social conceptions in you, once and for all.
Fortunately, this is one of those books. It has been weaved into my very Way of Being, becoming bedrock foundation for the majority of my current work, and has brought levels of levity and play that was missing from my life.
With all of my book reviews/explorations, the only books I will cover are books that were so strong, so compelling, that I read them twice or more. Finite & Infinite Games passes that test of being a book so nice I read it twice.
If you are ready for a wandering journey through the forests of game theory and cultural architecture — let's begin.
📖 Defining Finite & Infinite Games
The most valuable contribution Carse makes is by explicating the distinctions and definitions of Finite Games & Infinite Games. These definitions alone have propelled this book to the infamy and reputation it currently has.
🏆 Finite Games:
- Are played to win. The game ends when someone has won.
- Have temporal boundaries. The game has a defined start and finish.
- Have a clear arena, and specific players. You play in an arena, and every player and their role is known.
- Each role has expectations. Your role comes with expected behaviours, positions, movements, and more.
- The rules of play determine behaviour. The rules of the game dictate how you act and what you can do.
- The rules cannot change during play. There is no negotiating the rules while the game is underway.
- Compete for highest ranking. Your aim is to become the best.
- Prizes are viewed as indispensable treasures. Sacred covenants that are strived for by all players and teams.
- Must self-veil freedom to get investment. You must forget you are free to act otherwise or leave the game in order to take the game seriously.
- All limitations are self-limitations. You voluntarily agree to the limitations, they are adopted by you to participate in the game.
- Are theatrical: roles, scripts, audiences, outcomes. Finite games are a performance.
- Are contradictory. The game is played in order to end the game.
- The past is greater than the future. The outcome, the end goal, the result is what you are playing for and care about.
- Win a public title, visibility important. Others must recognize your success and achievement.
- Fundamentally comparative in nature. The games are about climbing an agreed-upon and established hierarchy. You compare your rank to others.
- Give life in death. Immortality via titles/trophies. True life for finite players only begin in death, attaining immortality via the reputation, the history, the accolades, the record of their performance.
Organized sports are a clear example of a finite game. A soccer match. A chess tournament. Professional wrestling.
All of these are finite games, where the aforementioned stipulations and definitions apply.
🔁 Infinite Games:
- Are played to keep playing. The aim of the game is to continue the game.
- Have no temporal/numerical boundaries. The game is not bounded by time, by score, or by specific arenas.
- Are defined internally, by the players themselves. The players decide what game they are playing, and how they want to play.
- Are designed to correct threats to play. Roles and rules are used to address anything that could end the game.
- Have rules that must change during play. Rules are used to help ensure play continues, and as such, the rules are required to change during play.
- Use roles and self-veiling, but without seriousness of finite games. Infinite games use roles and rules, and the self-veiling of freedom to get internal commitment and investment, but it doesn't come with the serious forcefulness of finite games as all players understand the aim of the game is for the act of play itself.
- Are dramatic: no scripts, no outcomes. There are no goals, or expected outcomes. It is a grand drama unfolding over time.
- Surprise is welcomed: the future > past. Previous achievements are irrelevant, the focus is on the future, on what will unfold and how the game will progress.
- Redefine being 'educated' as prepared for surprise. To be an educated and competent infinite player is to be prepared for suprises, to look forward to novel developments within the game.
- Play in openness: vulnerability of the changing and dynamic self. Players are open, vulnerable, & excited by the dynamic changes that unfold through the act of play.
- Have death in life: not pursuing titles. Contrary to finite games, the infinite player dies during the game. The self is surrendered in service of the game itself. Infinite players pursue no titles, no accomplishments, they exist for the act of play itself.
"There is only one infinite game."
This is the final line of the book.
Of course, Life is the archetypal infinite game. It seeks no outcomes, strives for no accomplishments. Life exists solely for the purpose of life, and continuing the game of life.
Other examples of infinite games include language and culture. These exist for themselves, for the act of participation.
🎲 Games & Participation
From these initial definitions, Carse continues to explicate important facets of games, and the important relationship between the player and the game.
- You cannot be forced to play, you must play freely. Play is voluntary, forced participation is not playful. If you are to play, you must opt-in freely.
- There are finite games within infinite ones, but no infinite games inside of finite ones. You can play soccer inside of Life, but you are not playing Life inside of soccer. This is a critical point.
- Finite play within boundaries / Infinite play with boundaries. Finite and Infinite games use boundaries and definitions differently. Finite games play within defined boundaries. Infinite games use boundaries to facilitate the continuation of play.
- Self-veiling is necessary for roles, but do we ever admit the fallacy to ourselves? Self-veiling, the act of hiding the Truth from yourself, is necessary for investment and to 'take the game seriously' – but rarely do players admit to themselves that this is all a game, something they enter by voluntary choice and can leave any time.
- Seriousness is always related to roles. Any 'seriousness' in games come from the roles you play and the expectations related to those roles. A police officer is only taken seriously when they are 'in uniform', when they are acting out their role.
- Being playful is not trivial/frivolous. Playfulness is not a trivial pursuit, it is not frivolous nonsense. To allow for any possibility, to welcome surprise and change and respond to it is a significant undertaking that requires effort and investment.
⚡️ Finite & Infinite Games Implications
We have covered the landscape of Finite & Infinite Games – exploring definitions, requirements, key differences, and specific components of these games, and the relationships between the players and the arenas.
What makes Finite & Infinite Games a true masterpiece is what Carse does next.
He takes this understanding and applies it to several components of life: good & evil, culture & society, wealth & warfare, and genius & sexuality.
This moves towards abstraction, but the implications are vast and significant.
It is also confrontational to look deeply at where you perpetuate evil, where you smother the genius of others, and looking at the morality of society.
😈 Redefining Evil
Carse comes forward boldly with a radical redefinition of evil. Given that life is the infinite game, we use the lens of infinite games to surmise the definition of evil.
"The purpose of an infinite game is for the continuation of play and the game itself: evil is the termination of infinite play, in unheard silence."
Evil is the forced expression of power over areas of play.
This is confronting because society itself can fall under this definition of evil. The entirety of the Western world is built on top of stolen land, where Indigenous cultures must adapt, speak the language, and recognize this power.
The Western world has terminated infinite play through force, and is therefore evil.
Another reflection is that of civilization. Civilization has initiated, through force and power, a trophic cascade of ecological and sociological failures that if continued, may lead to the termination of human culture. This too is a willing use of power that threatens the infinite play of all future generations.
Under this framing, modern civilization in its current iteration is also evil.
The final point Carse surfaces is that the attempt to eliminate evil is also evil. You cannot respond with force and coercion to correct force and coercion. You must focus on self-recognition, on playing your own infinite game with your own infinite players. You must relentlessly pursue the more beautiful world.
We do not play against reality, but according to it. You cannot lose to a flood, you simply respond to it.
⛩ Culture & Society
Perhaps the most audacious and powerful segment of Finite & Infinite Games begins when Carse draws parallels between society as a large finite game, in relation to culture as an emergent infinite game.
Culture cannot be contained within a society. A culture can exist and prosper within societal domains, but it can never be fully contained by it.
"Society is a species of culture that persist in contradicting itself.”
Like any finite game, we begin with self-veiling. Creating the illusions of separation and seriousness in the forms of borders, flags, currencies, customs, etc.
The role of society is to create and maintain the temporal, spacial, and numerical boundaries that necessitate the finite playing field. Society is a system of record keeping.
Society is a large, complicated finite game with many smaller finite games nested within in. A holonic finite game, if you will.
Society has social ranks, and the aim, as it always is, is competing for the highest titles, positions, and levels of influence. Power in the society is maintained by the power of that society. Society must self-perpetuate in order to maintain the illusion of seriousness.
By encouraging internal competition (winning the finite game), it creates the necessary buy-in from the players to help guarantee external protection. If someone wants to climb the social hierarchy, that society must continue to exist. This creates fanatacism, funds armies, and justify taxation.
The biggest struggle of Society is with the very Culture that it comes from.
Why is this? By definition, society must be serious. Society cannot handle a lack of seriousness. Culture as an infinite game is not serious, it is playful and generative in nature. Society must aims to restrict and cultivate its own cultural origins.
This is where true Art begins to emerge. Art is future facing, it cannot be possessed, and as such it is inherently socially deviant. This is why art is on one hand rejected by society as useless and frivolous, but at the same time is one of the highest rewarded areas in the social hierarchy.
To play a game one must play freely. You cannot be forced to play. With artists not accepting social standards or norms, artists exile themselves, and this experiential distance from the society enables them to comment and critique the very society that they come from.
Culture has no boundaries. Like any infinite game, anyone is free to join, and it exists for its own sake.
Boundaries are loose and malleable, and participants look towards future emergence with excitement and hope.
Society enforces adherence to scripts with sanctions or punishments. Inevitably, culture creators become deviants, they are outside of the normal operating procedures. Society attempts to surpress this, but it cannot, for you cannot surpress nature, you cannot limit emergence. You cannot stop a flood, you merely react to it.
Culture builds upon on the past, whereas society repeats it.
The infinite game of culture utilizes rules and boundaries in the form of tradition. If the tradition enables the continuation of play, the players uphold it. If new rules or traditions are necessary for the continuation of play, the culture evolves.
Culture is tradition.
Here Carse invokes the metaphor of culture as a family. When you were born, your family history existed before you and you were born into it; but at the moment of your birth, a new family is made. This is cultural emergence as it develops over time.
💰 Wealth & Warfare
Politics as “the art of the possible.” — Bismark.
Carse returns to arguing society as finite game because it requires buy-in from the audience to maintain its power and legitimacy. This too applies to the law. It is only powerful because people believe in it. This is applied to the acquisition of property and the performance of wealth.
Property itself can be taken, but ownership cannot. Countries can take the land, but will never own the earth. Nations can dominate countries, but will never own the land it was stolen from.
Property requires visibility and maintenance from an external audience to give it power.
Carse argues that this is one of the main functions of society. It's entire reason for being. Society exists to recognize and validate the ownership of property. Property of all forms, housing, possessions, etc.
But this must be a willing acknowledgement from all society members. You cannot use force to give assent. One wins to be powerful, not with power. Property has two requirements:
- Given as compensation for winning.
- Actively consumed by individual.
The burden of proof lies on the property owners to display their property, ownership, and wealth. This is why you get a weird feeling in your stomach when you hear that Bill Gates owns an island house in Maui that he has never once visited. It goes against the performance, and wealth must be actively performed.
“It is apparent to infinite players that wealth is not so much as possessed as it is performed.”
Wealth is an active process: it is displayed, embossed, continued, consumed. This demonstrates why the transition into a highly materialistic and consumerist society was inevitable given the finite game nature of society.
This process only furthers to increase the importance of the deviant artists and cultural architects: to demonstrate viscerally that this is all theatrical. It's all a drama, a show that is put on, a fancy charade.
Artists as infinite players don’t care about playing within, but rather showing how arbitrary boundaries are. Politics follows humanity, not lead it. As with society, it will always be downstream of culture, never preceding it.
This then brings us to the fundamental necessity of warfare in society. Societies require spatial boundaries, and all boundaries require opposition – meeting resistance, a point at which they end.
Carse comes with perhaps his sharpest critique and most divisive line at this point: patriotism is evil.
Patriotism, the supporters of a society, require boundaries and enemies. They need to display themselves, and some 'other' to resist against and get buy-in from the collective, to help perpetuate the society.
The aim of patriotism, the will of the patriots, is to have all horizons fall under a single boundary — their society. It is the wish to have everyone and everything do what they do. This is the essence of Manifest Destiny.
As we've seen in the definition of evil: impinging on others abilities to steward their own infinite game is evil.
The aim and existence of patriotism and society is fundamentally and inherently evil. The wish and stated goals for worldwide adoption and adherance to a single doctrine is fundamentally evil.
These were the most compelling arguments in the book for me: modern civilization and the source code of society and fundamentally evil in nature. This is not a value judgement, this is a statement.
“War to end all war only breeds universal warfare.”
With this notion, war is not self-protection. It is self-identification.
Due to the necessity of enemies, boundaries, and ideology to define the substance of a society, warfare is an existential necessity for the existence of a society.
Fortunately there is a way out of this. To undo the boundaries, to remove the limitations here — you must change your limited vision, not the limited field. It's not about changing the borders, it's about changing perceptions and intentions.
💡 Genius & Sexuality
"I speak authentically as a genius, you receive originally as a genius. But when I repeat or copy others, I lose my genius, and treat you as an audience."
Moving forward, Carse begins to explore perhaps the most abstract yet compelling definitions — that of genius and sexuality.
To speak from your own emergent being is to embrace your own genius. This necessarily abandons the boundaries of the self, as you must include the possible response in your statement.
To speak is to invite further speech.
To return to your genius is not to see things within the limitations and roles you embody, but to witness the limitations themselves and address them. Giving birth to a human is to birth genius itself, an arbitrarily delineated moment in an unbroken causal relationship since the origin of the universe.
Preparing for surprise is the first step to genius. To open yourself to emergence, to use boundaries and roles to facilitate this birthing process.
“To look at is to look for.”
Carse invokes a strong reminder here — that finite players must have an audience to prove a winner to. There must be a witness to validate the victory. With this comes several important factors:
- The more negative your self-assessment, the more removed from your genius you are, the stronger your desire to win.
- It is never enough, winners must always prove themselves again and again.
- This is a self-veiling contradiction: the finite player must forget the previous audience of past and prove themselves again to a present audience.
And like a great crescendo in a symphony, Carse ties this all together in the reclaimation of the sacredness of sexuality.
In finite sexuality, the prize and victory itself is the defeated opponent.
You see this in our language now in 'kill counts' or 'body counts'. You go 'hunting for a mate', you pursue a victory. Finite sexuality is theatrical, it is a performance, a display of status and wealth.
But it lacks genius. No one is moved by the interaction, no one is witnessed in their fullness, in their genius. No one is touched or seen in their humanity.
In this context, porn turns into mandatory hostility — it is only powerful insofar as it shows us something otherwise unseeable or inappropriate. This is why the emergence of the 'step family' genre is massively on the rise in Western culture. Only the most taboo will suffice.
You can win empire, fortune, fame — but if you lose in love you lose everything. Finite sexuality is self-terminating — living in memories and recollections. It is performed to be finished. The act itself is lost.
At this point Carse delivers among the most potent proposition of the entire book:
"The true revolutionary act is the restoration of genius to sexuality."
To arrive fully in your genius, to enter into an infinite dynamic of emergence with another genius, on equal terms. To play with boundaries and roles to facilitate the emergence of a pair-culture. The smallest unit of culture possible, as culture and infinite games must be shared with another.
I have attempted here, to the best of my own authentic genius, to create a compelling overview of Finite & Infinite Games. This is inevitably incomplete. Significant context is missing, but the fundamental themes have been addressed.
If nothing else, I hope this invokes in you an interest and willingness to explore the book yourself.
Carse systematically deconstructs and reinterprets foundational definitions across culture & society, warfare & wealth, genius & sexuality, and of course, of finite & infinite games.
The evolution into an infinite player requires a deconstruction of your most fundamental motivations, of noticing where you still play finite games.
These are fun, there is a role for finite games in life, but not at the expense of playing infinite games with infinite players. To contribute in your genius to the ongoing evolution of human culture.
Let's start playing the infinite game. See you there. ♥️