Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse

Chapter One: There Are at Least Two Kinds of Games

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.

It is an invariable principle of all play, finite and infinite, that whoever plays, plays freely. Whoever must play, cannot play.

Infinite players regard their wins and losses in whatever finite games they play as but moments in continuing play.

There are no rules that require us to obey rules. If there were, there would have to be a rule for those rules, and so on.

The rules of an infinite game must change in the course of play. The rules are changed when the players of an infinite game agree that the play is imperiled by a finite outcome—that is, by the victory of some players and the defeat of others. The rules of an infinite game are changed to prevent anyone from winning the game and to bring as many persons as possible into the play.

The rule-making capacity of infinite players is often challenged by the impingement of powerful boundaries against their play—such as physical exhaustion, or the loss of material resources, or the hostility of nonplayers, or death. The task is to design rules that will allow the players to continue the game by taking these limits into play—even when death is one of the limits. It is in this sense that the game is infinite. This is equivalent to saying that no limitation may be imposed against infinite play. Since limits are taken into play, the play itself cannot be limited. Finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play with boundaries.

Unlike infinite play, finite play is limited from without; like infinite play, those limitations must be chosen by the player since no one is under any necessity to play a finite game. Fields of play simply do not impose themselves on us. Therefore, all the limitations of finite play are self-limitations.

Some self-veiling is present in all finite games. Players must intentionally forget the inherently voluntary nature of their play, else all competitive effort will desert them.

The issue is whether we are ever willing to drop the veil and openly acknowledge, if only to ourselves, that we have freely chosen to face the world through a mask.

To be playful is not to be trivial or frivolous, or to act as though nothing of consequence will happen. On the contrary, when we are playful with each other we relate as free persons, and the relationship is open to surprise; everything that happens is of consequence. It is, in fact, seriousness that closes itself to consequence, for 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.

Surprise causes finite play to end; it is the reason for infinite play to continue. Surprise in infinite play is the triumph of the future over the past. Since infinite players do not regard the past as having an outcome, they have no way of knowing what has been begun there. With each surprise, the past reveals a new beginning in itself. Inasmuch as the future is always surprising, the past is always changing.

To be prepared against surprise is to be trained. To be prepared for surprise is to be educated. Education discovers an increasing richness in the past, because it sees what is unfinished there. Training regards the past as finished and the future as to be finished. Education leads toward a continuing self-discovery; training leads toward a final self-definition. Training repeats a completed past in the future. Education continues an unfinished past into the future.

For others, however, death in life can be regarded as an achievement, the result of a spiritual discipline, say, intended to extinguish all traces of struggle with the world, a liberation from the need for any title whatsoever. “Die before ye die,” declare the Sufi mystics.

Where the finite player plays for immortality, the infinite player plays as a mortal. In infinite play one chooses to be mortal inasmuch as one always plays dramatically, that is, toward the open, toward the horizon, toward surprise, where nothing can be scripted. It is a kind of play that requires complete vulnerability. To the degree that one is protected against the future, one has established a boundary and no longer plays with but against others.

Although infinite players choose mortality, they may not know when death comes, but we can always say of them that “they die at the right time” (Nietzsche).

The finite play for life is serious; the infinite play of life is joyous. Infinite play resounds throughout with a kind of laughter. It is not a laughter at others who have come to an unexpected end, having thought they were going somewhere else. It is laughter with others with whom we have discovered that the end we thought we were coming to has unexpectedly opened. We laugh not at what has surprisingly come to be impossible for others, but over what has surprisingly come to be possible with others.

The joyfulness of infinite play, its laughter, lies in learning to start something we cannot finish.

If finite players acquire titles from winning their games, we must say of infinite players that they have nothing but their names. Names, like titles, are given. Persons cannot name themselves any more than they can entitle themselves. However, unlike titles, which are given for what a person has done, a name is given at birth—at a time when a person cannot yet have done anything. Titles are given at the end of play, names at the beginning. When a person is known by title, the attention is on a completed past, on a game already concluded, and not therefore to be played again. A title effectively takes a person out of play. When a person is known only by name, the attention of others is on an open future. We simply cannot know what to expect. Whenever we address each other by name we ignore all scripts, and open the possibility that our relationship will become deeply reciprocal. That I cannot now predict your future is exactly what makes mine unpredictable. Our futures enter into each other. What is your future, and mine, becomes ours. We prepare each other for surprise. Titles are abstractions; names are always concrete.

To speak meaningfully of a person’s power is to speak of what that person has already completed in one or another closed field. To see power is to look backward in time.

Power is bestowed by an audience after the play is complete. Power is contradictory, and theatrical.

We are not defeated by floods or genetic disease or the rate of inflation. It is true that these are real, but we do not play against reality; we play according to reality. We do not eliminate weather or genetic influence but accept them as the realities that establish the context of play, the limits within which we are to play. If I accept death as inevitable, I do not struggle against mortality. I struggle as a mortal. All the limitations of finite play are self-limitations.

Infinite players look forward, not to a victory in which the past will achieve a timeless meaning, but toward ongoing play in which the past will require constant reinterpretation. Infinite players do not oppose the actions of others, but initiate actions of their own in such a way that others will respond by initiating their own. We need a term that will stand in contrast to “power” as it acquires its meaning in finite play. Let us say that where the finite player plays to be powerful the infinite player plays with strength. A powerful person is one who brings the past to an outcome, settling all its unresolved issues. A strong person is one who carries the past into the future, showing that none of its issues is capable of resolution. Power is concerned with what has already happened; strength with what has yet to happen. Power is finite in amount. Strength cannot be measured, because it is an opening and not a closing act. Power refers to the freedom persons have within limits, strength to the freedom persons have with limits. Power will always be restricted to a relatively small number of selected persons. Anyone can be strong. 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.

Evil is not the attempt to eliminate the play of another according to published and accepted rules, but to eliminate the play of another regardless of the rules. Evil is not the acquisition of power, but the expression of power. It is the forced recognition of a title—and therein lies the contradiction of evil, for recognition cannot be forced. The Nazis did not compete with the Jews for a title, but demanded recognition of a title without competition. This could be achieved, however, only by silencing the Jews, only by hearing nothing from them. They were to die in silence, along with their culture, without anyone noticing, not even those who managed the institutions and instruments of death.

Your history does not belong to me. We live with each other in a common history.

Chapter Two: No One Can Play a Game Alone

NO ONE CAN PLAY a game alone. One cannot be human by oneself. There is no selfhood where there is no community. We do not relate to others as the persons we are; we are who we are in relating to others.

Only that which can change can continue: this is the principle by which infinite players live.

Patriotism in one or several of its many forms (chauvinism, racism, sexism, nationalism, regionalism) is an ingredient in all societal play.

Society is a manifestation of power. It is theatrical, having an established script. Deviations from the script are evident at once. Deviation is antisocietal and therefore forbidden by society under a variety of sanctions. It is easy to see why deviancy is to be resisted. If persons did not adhere to the standing rules of the society, any number of rules would change, and some would be dropped altogether. This would mean that past winners no longer warrant ceremonial recognition of their titles and are therefore without power—like Russian princes after the Revolution.

Deviancy, however, is the very essence of culture. Whoever merely follows the script, merely repeating the past, is culturally impoverished. There are variations in the quality of deviation; not all divergence from the past is culturally significant. Any attempt to vary from the past in such a way as to cut the past off, causing it to be forgotten, has little cultural importance. Greater significance attaches to those variations that bring the tradition into view in a new way, allowing the familiar to be seen as unfamiliar, as requiring a new appraisal of all that we have been—and therefore of all that we are.

Property is an attempt to recover the past. It returns one to precompetitive status. One is compensated for the amount of time spent (and thus lost) in competition.

It is apparent to infinite players that wealth is not so much possessed as it is performed.

If wealth and might are to be performed, great wealth and great might must be performed brilliantly.

“Artists do not create objects, but create by way of objects” (Rank).

Therefore, poets do not “fit” into society, not because a place is denied them but because they do not take their “places” seriously. They openly see its roles as theatrical, its styles as poses, its clothing costumes, its rules conventional, its crises arranged, its conflicts performed, and its metaphysics ideological.

Infinite players have rules; they just do not forget that rules are an expression of agreement and not a requirement for agreement.

A boundary is a phenomenon of opposition. It is the meeting place of hostile forces. Where nothing opposes there can be no boundary. One cannot move beyond a boundary without being resisted. This is why patriotism—that is, the desire to protect the power in a society by way of increasing the power of a society—is inherently belligerent.

Because patriotism is the desire to contain all other finite games within itself—that is, to embrace all horizons within a single boundary—it is inherently evil.

A horizon is a phenomenon of vision. One cannot look at the horizon; it is simply the point beyond which we cannot see. There is nothing in the horizon itself, however, that limits vision, for the horizon opens onto all that lies beyond itself. What limits vision is rather the incompleteness of that vision.

Every move an infinite player makes is toward the horizon. Every move made by a finite player is within a boundary. Every moment of an infinite game therefore presents a new vision, a new range of possibilities. The Renaissance, like all genuine cultural phenomena, was not an effort to promote one or another vision. It was an effort to find visions that promised still more vision. Who lives horizonally is never somewhere, but always in passage.

A culture is sometimes opposed by suppressing its ideas, its works, even its language. This is a common strategy of a society afraid of the culture growing within its boundaries. But it is a strategy certain to fail, because it confuses the creative activity (poiesis) with the product (poiema) of that activity.

Abstracted thought—thought without a thinker—is metaphysics. A society’s metaphysics is its ideology: theories that present themselves as the product of these people or those.

A people, as a people, has nothing to defend. In the same way a people has nothing and no one to attack. One cannot be free by opposing another. My freedom does not depend on your loss of freedom. On the contrary, since freedom is never freedom from society, but freedom for it, my freedom inherently affirms yours. A people has no enemies.

Finite players go to war against states because they endanger boundaries; infinite players oppose states because they engender boundaries.

The strategy of infinite players is horizonal. They do not go to meet putative enemies with power and violence, but with poiesis and vision. They invite them to become a people in passage. Infinite players do not rise to meet arms with arms; instead, they make use of laughter, vision, and surprise to engage the state and put its boundaries back into play. What will undo any boundary is the awareness that it is our vision, and not what we are viewing, that is limited.

Poets cannot kill; they die. Metaphysics cannot die; it kills.

Chapter Three: I Am the Genius of Myself

I AM THE GENIUS of myself, the poietes who composes the sentences I speak and the actions I take. It is I, not the mind, that thinks. It is I, not the will, that acts. It is I, not the nervous system, that feels.

When I forsake my genius and speak to you as though I were another, I also speak to you as someone you are not and somewhere you are not. I address you as audience, and do not expect you to respond as the genius you are.

To speak, or act, or think originally is to erase the boundary of the self. It is to leave behind the territorial personality. A genius does not have a mind full of thoughts but is the thinker of thoughts, and is the center of a field of vision. It is a field of vision, however, that is recognized as a field of vision only when we see that it includes within itself the original centers of other fields of vision. This does not mean that I can see what you see. On the contrary, it is because I cannot see what you see that I can see at all. The discovery that you are the unrepeatable center of your own vision is simultaneous with the discovery that I am the center of my own.

My parents may have wanted a child, but they could not have wanted me.

The date and place of my birth are matters of causal necessity; I had no part in deciding either. Neither could anyone else have chosen them. My birth, when understood in terms of causal continuity, marks no absolute beginning. It marks nothing at all except an arbitrary point in an unbroken process. Causally speaking, there is nothing new here, only the kinds of change that conform to the known laws of nature.

Dramatically speaking, every birth is the birth of genius.

Sexuality is the only finite game in which the winner’s prize is the defeated opponent.

Finite sexuality is a form of theater in which the distance between persons is regularly reduced to zero but in which neither touches the other.

The most serious struggles are those for sexual property. For this wars are fought, lives are generously risked, great schemes are initiated. However, who wins empire, fortune, and fame but loses in love has lost in everything.

As with all finite play, the goal of veiled sexuality is to bring itself to an end.

Chapter Four: A Finite Game Occurs Within a World

There is nothing about a finite game, in itself, that determines at what time it is to be played, or by whom, or where.

We are players in search of a world as often as we are world in search of players, and sometimes we are both at once. Some worlds pass quickly into existence, and quickly out of it. Some sustain themselves for longer periods, but no world lasts forever.

There is an indefinite number of worlds.

I cannot be a finite player without being divided against myself.

We cannot become a world without being divided against ourselves.

For an infinite player there is no such thing as an hour of time. There can be an hour of love, or a day of grieving, or a season of learning, or a period of labor. 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.

For the finite player in us freedom is a function of time. We must have the time to be free. For the infinite player in us time is a function of freedom. We are free to have time. A finite player puts play into time. An infinite player puts time into play.

If the goal of finite play is to win titles for their timelessness, and thus eternal life for oneself, the essence of infinite play is the paradoxical engagement with temporality that Meister Eckhart called “eternal birth.”

Chapter Five: Nature Is the Realm of the Unspeakable

A prediction is but an explanation in advance.

Successful explanations do not draw attention to themselves as modes of speaking, because what is explained is not itself subject to history. If I explain to you why cold water sinks to the bottom of the pond and ice rises to the surface, I certainly do not intend my explanation to be true now and not later. The explanation is true anywhere and any time.

A god can create a world only by listening.

Chapter Six: We Control Nature for Societal Reasons

We see nature as genius when we see as genius.

The homelessness of nature, its utter indifference to human existence, disclose to the infinite player that nature is the genius of the dramatic.

Chapter Seven: Myth Provokes Explanation but Accepts None of It

MYTH PROVOKES Explanation but accepts none of it. Where explanation absorbs the unspeakable into the speakable, myth reintroduces the silence that makes original discourse possible.

A culture can be no stronger than its strongest myths.

Indeed, myth is the highest form of our listening to each other, of offering a silence that makes the speech of the other possible. This is why listening is far more valued by religion than speaking. Fides ex auditu. Faith comes by listening, Paul said.

There is no story that must be told.

Infinite players are not serious actors in any story, but the joyful poets of a story that continues to originate what they cannot finish.

There is but one infinite game.

Disclaimer: The information provided on this website is for general informational purposes only and should not be considered investment advice. Please read our full disclaimer for more information. You can access it by clicking HERE.


Subscribe To Our Newsletter

- Get smarter
- Invest wisely
- Never miss a thing

You have Successfully Subscribed!