Book Notes: “Finite and Infinite Games”

Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility
By James P. Carse
Free Press, 1986

Some of the best books are hard to categorize. You could say Finite Games and Infinite Games is a philosophy book, but it’s unlike any other philosophy book I’ve read. Parts of it sound like a manifesto; an urgent (yet level-headed and even poetic) call for us to shed our delusions.

The book opens with a duality:

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.

Carse explores the implications of this idea as it applies to various social constructs: religion, patriotism, culture, sexuality, politics, etc. Examining the world through this lens allows us to see it differently, and to think differently about the degree of agency we have in changing the way things are. Achieving positive impact requires that we think of ourselves as infinite players: people who aim to keep the game going.

This way of being affects all aspects of our lives. Here’s a passage that spoke to me from a professional perspective:

An infinite player does not begin working for the purpose of filling up a period of time with work, but for the purpose of filling work with time. Work is not an infinite player’s way of passing time, but of engendering possibility. Work is not a way of arriving at a desired present and securing it against an unpredictable future, but of moving toward a future which itself has a future.

This paragraph sums up much of the book’s power for me: it’s an appeal to stop with the stupid fears already and take action, joyfully. We’re at play in a field of possibilities! An empowering message in times of uncertainty.

I first read Finite Games and Infinite Games about fifteen years ago. It impressed me then, and returning to it now makes me realize time has not diminished its power. Everyone is engaged in the sort of gameplay Carse talks about; it behooves us to know which types of games we’re playing so we can go about it more conscientiously.

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