Finite and Infinite Games, by James Carse

Posted: March 29, 2005 at 8:33 am in nonfiction

Amazon link

After seeing James Carse speak, I was eager to read his book, which I finally got around to doing on this vacation. It’s a deceptively simple book, with lots of short, simple sentences. But there’s a lot of thought packed into those sentences.

I covered his overall gist in that previous post, where finite games are played within boundaries and with the goal of winning and ending them, and infinite games are played to expand one’s horizons and with the goal of continuing them. I just went and skimmed through the sections of this book that I noted as capturing an idea particularly well (the book is divided in 101 sections, each of which is only a page or two long), and it covers such a wide variety of concepts. I liked his application of the finite and infinite games idea in some cases more than others; in particular, I didn’t get much out of his attempt to apply it to sexual relations.

One thing I really liked was the observation that in a finite game, the past is fixed, and can never be changed. No matter what happens, the Chicago Bears beat the New England Patriots 46-10 in Super Bowl XX in January of 1986. That is a fact. However, in an infinite game, the past is fluid – we can always bring a new perspective to it that changes the way we view events. To use Robert Anton Wilson’s example:

“A cop clubs a man on the street. Observer A sees Law and Order performing their necessary function of restraining the violent with counter-violence. Observer B sees that the cop has white skin and the man hit has black skin, and draws somewhat different conclusions. Observer C arrived earlier and noted that the man pointed a gun at the cop before being clubbed. Observer D hears the cop saying “Stay away from my wife” and has a fourth view of the “meaning” of the situation. Etc.”

Each viewpoint opens up new ways of seeing the situation. We can always tell new stories and change the way we view the universe. I think that this is a powerful observation; far too many people are trapped in a finite world where they can’t even question the assumptions, where there is only one way of seeing. Not only is it sad, but it’s also dangerous; those trapped in a finite world are all too apt to impose their will on infinite players, destroying all alternative viewpoints, rather than open themselves up to the infinite possibilities.

For Carse, conversations should be infinite in the sense that we are open to the possibility of discovering new viewpoints in our interaction with each other. In a finite conversation, each person has their viewpoint and is not going to change, and it is more of a zero-sum negotiation where if I win, you lose (“Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists”). In an infinite conversation, both of us may influence the other, and a new viewpoint can be constructed out of bits of each of our side, such that our eyes are both opened to a new way of viewing the world. Everybody wins. I love these kinds of conversations, where it’s not about winning or losing, but striving to get a different perspective.

There’s so much good stuff in this book. Just go read it. It’s short, but thought-provoking; because it was a small paperback that fit in my jacket pocket, I was carrying it everywhere in New York, and was just as often re-reading previous sections as reading new material. It’s the kind of book where you could read a random section, and ponder how it applies to one’s life today. I need to think more about how I can make myself more of an infinite player, and to move beyond the constrictions of a finite life.

4 Responses to “Finite and Infinite Games, by James Carse”

  1. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || The 4-Hour Work Week, by Timothy Ferriss || February || 2008 Says:

    [...] it’s given, rather than trying to improve the game (it reminds me of the difference between finite and infinite games). Maybe changing the system isn’t possible and the best we can do is to exploit it to our [...]

  2. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || Playing the infinite game || March || 2008 Says:

    [...] is a big topic and I need to think more about it. I should also probably re-read Finite and Infinite Games for ideas. But I really like this vision of things like science and Wikipedia being processes in a [...]

  3. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || Spreading Ideas and Framing || November || 2008 Says:

    [...] where part of the challenge is to step back and re-define the rules (James Carse’s book Finite and Infinite Games is obviously a big influence on me). So people get caught up in trying to win the argument within [...]

  4. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || Influential media || February || 2011 Says:

    […] Carse, particularly his book Finite and Infinite Games, which gave me a vocabulary to separate out activities designed to change the world from those that […]

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