I first read Carse’s book almost 25 years ago. It is one of those books that I keep returning to and finding new insight each time. I am amazed that this book hasn't received more attention over the years. It's provocative and full of paradox, something that pulls me in every time.
Like any good book, it's difficult to summarize. Carse makes the case that the world and our experience of it can be divided into at least two different types of games - finite and infinite games. “A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.” As its name suggests, a finite game has a definitive end and a defined number of players. Infinite games in contrast transcend time and invite anyone who is willing to play to join in.
The rules of a finite game are set in advance and cannot be changed. On the other hand, the rules of an infinite game can and must evolve to ensure the continuation and expansion of the game. “Finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play with boundaries.” Finite players seek predictability while infinite players embrace unpredictability. “Surprise causes finite play to end; it is the reason for infinite play to continue.”
Finite games are ultimately power games – acquiring power, expanding power and retaining power. Infinite games are not about power but strength. “Strength is paradoxical. I am not strong because I can force others to do what I wish as a result of my play with them, but because I can allow them to do what they wish in the course of my play with them.” Finite play requires perception of great power while infinite play encourages expression of vulnerability – “exposing one’s ceaseless growth, the dynamic self that has yet to be.”
Finite games are serious while an infinite game is playful.
Seriousness always has to do with an established script, an ordering of affairs completed somewhere outside the range of our influence. We are playful when we engage others at the level of choice, when there is no telling in advance where our relationship with them will come out . . . . 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.This is just a small taste of the distinction that Carse draws between these two forms of games. I urge you to read his book to see how he draws distinctions between society and culture, theatricality and drama, curing and healing, and machinery and nature by exploring the contrast between finite and infinite games.
- Brilliant review of James P. Carse's book Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility. I have never read this book and clearly this is a must read.