Finite and Infinite Games

James P. Carse

Finite and Infinite Games is a book by religious scholar James P. Carse. With this philosophy text, Carse demonstrates a way of looking at actions in life as being a part of at least two types of what he describes as ‘games,’ finite and infinite. Both games are played within rules, as agreed upon by the participants; however, the meaning of the rules are different between the two types of games.

The book stresses a non-serious (or ‘playful’) view of life on the part of ‘players,’ referring to their choices as ‘moves,’ and societal constructs and mores as ‘rules’ and ‘boundaries.’ He regularly employs familiar terms in specialized ways, but casts them as associated with finite or infinite play & players. Boundaries are ‘rules’ that one must stay within when playing a finite game, in contrast with horizons, which move with the player, and are constantly changing as he or she ‘plays.’ In short, a finite game is played with the purpose of winning (thus ending the game), while an infinite game is played with the purpose of continuing the play.

Finite games have a definite beginning and ending. They are played with the goal of winning. A finite game is resolved within the context of its rules, with a winner of the contest being declared and receiving a victory. The rules exist to ensure the game is finite. Examples are debates, sports, receiving a degree from an educational institution, belonging to a society, or engaging in war. Beginning to participate in a finite game requires conscious thought, and is voluntary; continued participation in a round of the game is involuntary. Even exiting the game early must be provided for by the rules. This may be likened to a zero sum game (though not all finite games are literally zero sum, in that the sum of positive outcomes can vary).

Infinite games, on the other hand, do not have a knowable beginning or ending. They are played with the goal of continuing play and a purpose of bringing more players into the game. An infinite game continues play, for sake of play. If the game is approaching resolution because of the rules of play, the rules must be changed to allow continued play. The rules exist to ensure the game is infinite. The only known example is life. Beginning to participate in an infinite game may be involuntary, in that it doesn’t require conscious thought. Continuing participation in the current round of game-play is voluntary. ‘It is an invariable principle of all play, finite and infinite, that whoever plays, plays freely.’

Carse continues these conceptualizations across all major spheres of human affairs. He extends his themes broadly over several intellectual arenas that are largely otherwise disparate disciplines. He describes human pursuits as either dramatic (requiring participation) or theatrical (participation is optional). This distinction hinges on an agent’s decision to engage in one state of affairs or another. If motherhood is a requirement and a duty, there are rules to be obeyed and goals to be achieved. This is motherhood as tragic drama. If motherhood is a choice and a process, it becomes ennobling theater. Carse spans objective and subjective realms and bridges many gaps among different scholarly traditions.


One Comment to “Finite and Infinite Games”

  1. I like the idea of living as a game – it makes it so much more fun-sounding. Carse sounds like an interesting author.

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