Finite and Infinite Games

I read a lot of books, and I’ve recently started posting book reviews three at a time here.

But the book, Finite and Infinite Games, by James P. Carse, demands a separate treatment. It’s an incredible extended metaphor and thought exercise about how to live a good life (the Infinite Game) as opposed to getting caught up in zero-sum activities (Finite Games). In many ways, it feels like an extended metaphor on Kantian ethics. But it’s a worthwhile read as an exercise for philosophers and lay readers alike.

Carse treats all human interactions, whether they are political, financial, social, moral, or sexual, as a series of games. The finite games have a beginning and an end, they have rules, and they are played to be won. The rules of a finite game are the contractual terms by which players determine who has won.

The infinite game is a little harder to peg. It doesn’t have rules, but it has limits. The rules of the infinite game are like an evolving grammar in a language. It is a form of discourse. The infinite game doesn’t have a winner, but play is limited by resources and inputs. People cease to play infinite games not because they lose, but because they run out of resources, or even because they die.

We all have roles to play within these games. One can be a lawyer, a mother, or a martyr. Sometimes we choose a role, and sometimes it is thrust upon us.

If you want to play the role of a lawyer, you have to take the LSAT, go to law school, pass the bar, pay your dues to your local regulatory agency every year, keep up on continuing learning education credits, and follow certain enumerated ethical guidelines during the entirety of one’s practice. Skip or disobey any of these rules, and the permission to play may be canceled at any time. No amount of smart or savvy or strategy can save you if you ignore the rules. And that’s how the game is played. And so it is with each role we play.

Here are a few other quotes to illustrate the tone of the book:

From the outset of finite play each part or position must be taken up with a certain seriousness; players must see themselves as teacher, as light-heavyweight, as mother. In the proper exercise of such roles we positively believe we are the persons these roles portray. Even more: we make those roles believable to others. p. 12

The issue 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 willing to drop the veil and openly acknowledge, if only to ourselves, that we have freely chosen to face the world through a mask. p. 13

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. p. 43

It is a highly valued function of society to prevent changes in the rules of the many games it embraces. Such procedures as academic accreditation, licensure of trades and professions, synodical ordination, parliamentary confirmation of official appointments, and the inauguration of political leaders are acts of the larger society allowing persons to compete in the finite games within it. Deviancy, however, is the very essence of culture. Whoever merely follows the script, merely repeating the past, is culturally impoverished. p. 44

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 published prizes to settle for their titles and retire. Winners, especially celebrated winners, must prove repeatedly they are winners. The scrip 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. p. 73

Infinite players cannot say how much they have completed in their work or love or quarreling, but only how much remains incomplete in it. They are not concerned to determine when it is over, but only what comes of it. p. 93

Finite and Infinite Games is a fun, aphoristic thought exercise on what it means to live a meaningful life. Definitely worth a read.