Book 248: Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse

Finite and Infinite Games a Vision of Life as Play and Possibility by James P. Carse

Finished reading on December 19th, 2017

Rating: 9/10

In “Finite and Infinite Games” James Carse looks at modern life as games that have rules that the player has accepted to obey in hope of either winning the game in case of finite games, where the winner receives a title of some kind; or in attempt to get as many people to play an infinite game to make sure that the game doesn’t end.

In Carse’s vision there’s a big difference between finite and infinite games not just in how one type has to have an end and the other one can’t, but also how finite games are repeatable, infinite ones are not. In finite games the rules cannot change during the game, the player has to choose to play and can’t actually play when they must play. And to play a finite game you have to take up a specific role.

I found the concept disturbing in the sense that for the past couple of days I’ve seen all social engagements in an even more disturbing light, and although I’m not even normally a person who’d follow traditions etc, I find  it even more difficult to deal with them. Considering how Newton’s birthday is coming up, it’s interesting to analyse how some people seem to follow the rules of finite games, and some are not, but for different reasons.

Carse shows how his idea could be applied to see various areas in a different light, starting from finite ones such as earning a degree or winning a war or elections or such, but he also introduces what can be seen as part of an infinite game – culture, art etc that cannot be repeated.

In the case of finite games it is necessary that you’d know who wins. One of the interesting examples of what is won was in Carse’s presentation of (to stick to PG) finding a partner, where the other person becomes your opponent in the finite game, but should you win the game, the prize is the other person. That means that both are playing a game with possibly similar rules, but they’re not part of the same game, because you can’t win and lose at the same game, or can you? The rules of a finite game shouldn’t change, so…

There were some other interesting views that Carse presented such as touching and moving someone – you can’t touch someone without being touched by that person. But in case of moving you have to not move to be able to move someone (which made me think of different frames of reference, but that’s my personal point of origin to think about that). Another was Carse’s idea about the silence of nature and the idea of machines as something that ought to fulfill their purpose and be as little intrusive as possible.

There’s a lot more in the book and it’s quite entertaining.

Now to get to what the book made me think of first was about Rousseau and the idea of a social contract, which sounds the same as Carse’s idea, just in a different coating. I think in Rousseau’s case we seem to have bowed down to society to keep our material goods and hold some status, where we’re invariable tied up in only finite games, while the ideal would be the noble savage, who is only involved in infinite games.

The next connection that blinked in my mind was how one type of game appears superior to the other and it made me wonder whether Nietzsche would have seen infinite games as the only ones that some people should play.

It is truly fascinating to me, especially trying to imagine how would some system be different if it weren’t a finite game, in some cases it’s easy – any education system vs autodidacticism, in other I just couldn’t manage to. But at least trying made me think of if you’d apply Carse’s idea to some notable works of fiction etc and try to see which finite games the characters play and whether they’re involved in an infinite one as well.

The first that came to mind was Goethe’s “Faust”. Could Faust before his meeting with Mephistopheles seen as a person who sees acquiring any and every kind of knowledge as an infinite game as also pleasure in life – he can’t win the game, he has played many of the finite games, but he’s not satisfied with the ultimate infinite game. Now with his deal with Mefisto, his participation in the infinite game stops, and it’s turned into a finite one, where rules are meant to be followed, they cannot be changed, and although Faust might try to sneak past some, he can’t ,and we all know that in some versions eventually Mefisto will be the winner….

The other is the new Star Wars movie. Don’t worry, there won’t be any spoilers. There’s the obvious Rebel Alliance v the Galactic Empire finite war game. I feel though that the game wouldn’t ever be over should the Empire win, is it just me or is the Empire really fighting an idea, that can’t be killed unless there’s literally no-one in the Empire left alive? In that case the Empire is playing an infinite game, whilst the rebellion is playing a finite game – there’s a chance for them to win and be declared victors… or not?

I think the takeaway from Carse’s book is that there’s a lot to think about in an infinite game, to even just start out with – are some games more infinite than others? Are infinite games superior to finite ones? What if our evolutionary background were somehow different so that no finite games exist, how would the world look like and society function? When did the idea of games and rules come about in the history of our species? Can some political systems be seen as favoring one type of game over another?

And how can Carse’s idea be applied to the history and development of science and our views of it. Can we see it so that when some people oppose a scientific idea because it’s called a “theory”, then it’s because they see science as a finite game, where there have to be obvious winners and a “theory” is just a contestant while in reality science, like culture is an infinite game, where rules (definitions, models and paradigms etc) are constantly changing, and no-one wins.

If you’ve reached the end of this post, you’ve obviously just won a finite game of reading this. I applaud you!


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