This note is the twenty-sixth letter in the 104-days-of-summer-vacation series. You can also follow the full twitter thread here, and leave any thoughts and comments that might come up!
James Carse writes very simply, there are at least two kinds of games. Finite games are games which are played with the goal of winning. And, infinite games are games played with the goal of continuing the play.
Finite games are played with the intent to end the game, but infinite games are played to avoid the ending of the game. A finite game may not contain an infinite game, but an infinite game may contain many finite games.
And that’s the summary of the book, Finite and Infinite Games, almost everything else is commentary. You might already know how I feel about play, in play-fully I wrote about nurturing the time to play. But the line I’ve drawn has always been between telic and paratelic activities, things in the world which are serious and things in the world which are playful.
This book made me realize the extent to which most human activities can be conceptualized as a game. Our careers, our property, even our states can be thought to be finite games for control over power, recognition, wealth and other social imaginaries.
James reiterates that we are complicit in propagating the games we choose to play: He who must play, cannot play. It is interesting that many of the decisions we “must” make to compete (notice the language we use) in the world, are in fact choices which affirm the very decisions we feel compelled to make. Noticing our act of agency in making those decisions, is a powerful way to take back authority over which games we deem meaningful.
At a societal level, James highlights that the rules of finite games rest on mutual agreement between the players on what constitutes winning. In other words, winning in finite games is only useful insofar as the game is recognized by its audience as valid and fair. A finite game exists not in reality but in the minds of its observers, and what we desire isn’t to win but to be remembered as winners.
This is related with some of my earlier writings on scripted societies. In that note, I said:
A large part of a country (or a community’s) culture is learning the set of scripts that govern it.
In the language of finite games, I codified the identity of a group with the set of finite games that they choose to play. But James Carse draws another distinction here between culture and society. To exist according to a set of fixed games, is in and of itself a bigger game, the game of society, where the winning move is societal success.
But culture is different from society, because culture doesn’t identify with a fixed set of finite games, but rather “always points towards the endlessly open”, it evolves and looks to continue evolving.
A culture does not have a tradition, it is a tradition.
Culture is an infinite game. In that way culture is the home of the infinite player, who believes that only what can change can continue.
The joy of being an infinite player is to learn to start something we might not finish. But the challenge of being an infinite player is to figure out how to hold the serious in the playful, how to keep all finite games in a bigger infinite game. How can we joyfully-subvert the finite games we play in society?
One thing’s for sure, I’d much rather be an infinite player than a finite player. Perhaps you might feel so too.