Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse

Rating: 10/10

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High-Level Thoughts

It’s an oddly written, extremely concise, very thought-provoking book. It definitely needs to be re-read 2-3 times. Make sure you’re thinking on the plane of infinite play.

Summary Notes

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.”

Spatial boundaries are necessary for every finite game, but infinite games have no boundaries.

We cannot play alone, in finite games, we must have an opponent to play against and usually teammates to play with.

Only one person or team can win a finite game, but the non-winners could be ranked at the end. Not everyone can be a CEO, but there are other positions.

If you must play a game, you cannot play a game.

Finite games can be played within an infinite game, but an infinite game cannot be played within a finite game.

The rules of a finite game are the contractual terms by which the players can agree on who won. These are not laws, in that they don’t mandate certain behaviors, but they restrain the freedom of players, allowing for choices within those restraints. Rules are valid only if and when players freely play by them.

In a finite game, the rules are fixed until there is a winner, but in an infinite game, the rules must change during the course of play. The rules of an infinite game are changed to prevent anyone from winning the game, and to bring as many other persons as possible into play.

The rules of a finite game are like the rules of a debate, infinite game, like language. The rules of a debate dictate how the debate ends, the rules of language ensure language continues.

Finite players play within boundaries, infinite players play with boundaries.

Whoever plays a finite game plays freely, but it is often the case that finite players will be unaware of this freedom and will think that whatever they do they must do.

  • No one is forced to be a lawyer, but once you decide to be a lawyer, there are rules you must follow to continue being a lawyer.
  • Since you play a finite game to win, every move must be in the goal of winning, and so you believe you must make whatever moves are necessary to win.
  • It may seem that the prizes of winning are indispensible, that life is meaningless without them, but few games are life and death.

The fields of play do not impose themselves on us, all limitations of finite play are self-limitations.

A degree of self-veiling (self-deception) is necessary in all finite games, since we must forget they are optional in order to be motivated to win. This is true with all roles. You step freely into the role of mother, but once in it, you must suspend your freedom to give the role the attention it requires.

Infinite players do not avoid finite games, they enter into them with the appropriate energy and self veiling, but without the seriousness of finite players. They embrace the abstractness, and take them up playfully.

The desire of all finite players is to be a “Master Player,” one who is perfectly skilled at the game and who can play as if they already know the outcome.

Finite players avoid surprise and try to plan around them, infinite players expect to be surprised and continue their play in pursuit of it.

To be prepared against surprise is to be trained, to be prepared for surprise is to be educated. Training regards the past as finished and the future to be finished. Education leads toward a continuing self-discovery; training leads toward a final self-definition.

People who take on special diets and regimens to extend their youth and postpone aging choose to hate their life now in order to have it later.

The joyfulness of infinite play, its laughter, is in learning to start something we can’t finish.

Titles and Power: Titles point backwards in time, they’re based in an unrepeatable past. To speak of a person’s power is to speak of what they’ve already done, to see power is to look backward in time. It’s bestowed after play is complete.

Nature: We are not defeated by acts of nature, since we cannot play against reality, we can only play according to reality. We do not eliminate weather or nature, we accept them as realities that establish the context of play. If you accept death as inevitable, you do not struggle against morality, you struggle as a mortal. All limitations of finite play are self limitations.

Infinite players don’t oppose the actions of others, but initiate the actions of their own so that others will respond by initiating actions of their own.

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.”

Ceaseless change is not a discontinuing, change is the continuity, only that which can change can continue, this is the infinite player’s priniciple.

The fluidity of change gives us a challenge: how to keep all of our finite games in infinite play. This is misunderstood as needing to find room for playfulness within finite games. Inevitably, seriousness creeps back into this kind of play, the executive vacation, like a football team time out, because a device for refreshing the conestant for higher competition. Even childrens playfulness is exploited through sports, and artistics regimens.

“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” The dream of freedom is universal, but finite players already have it, they’ve just surrendered it.

Schools are a form of finite game, to the degree that they give ranked awares to those who win degrees from them. Those awards qualify graduates for competition in still higher games, like pretigious colleges, and then professional schools beyond that, with a continuing sequence of higher games in each profession, and so forth.

The law is powerful for persons only because they obey it. We do not go through an intersection because a signal changes, but when it changes.

We display the success of what we have done by not having to do anything. The more we use up, the more we show ourselves to be winners of past contests. Those who society does not want to forget are given prominent eternal monuments at the heart of capital cities, taking up considerable space,  making people go around them.

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

Poietai: the storytellers, inventors, sculptors, poets, any original thinker.

We do not watch artists to see what they do, but watch what persons do and discover the artistry in it.

Horizonal thinking: A society is defined by its boundary, but a culture is defined by its horizon. A boundary is a phenomenon of opposition. A horizon is a phenomenon of vision. You cannot look at it or reach it, you can only extend it. Every move an infinite player makes is towards the horizon. Every move a finite player makes is within a boundary.

A culture is sometimes opposed by suppressing it’s ideas, but this is bound to fail, since it confuses the creative activity (poiesis) with the product (poiema) of that activity.

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.”

Hamlet was not reading when he said he was reading words, a dog taught to shake does not shake your hand, a robot can say words but does not say them to you.

Winners, especially celebrated winners, must prove repeatedly that they are winners. The script must be played over and over again. No one is ever wealthy enough, honored enough, applauded enough.

A Master Player of finite sexuality chooses not to take disinterested attitudes as a way of refusing the sexual game, but takes them to be part of the game. Sexuality is the only finite game in which the winner’s prize is the defeated opponent.

We enter into societal arrangements by way of sexual roles. The king is the father of the country, your father is rarely considered the king of the family.

Society is where we prove to our parents qua audience that we are not what we thought they thought we were. Since the emphasis is not on what they thought, but on what we thought they thought, they become an audience that survives their death, and an audience whose approval we can never win.

The most serious struggles are those for sexual property, but who wins empire, fortune and fame but loses love has lost everything.

Whoever chooses to compete with another can also choose to play with another. Sexuality doesn’t have to be bounded, it can be horizonal. Infinite players do not play within sexual boundaries, but with sexual boundaries. They cannot be said to be heterosexual, homosexual, etc.

The triumph of finite sexuality is to be liberated from play into the body. The essence of infinite sexuality is to be liberated into play with the body. In finite sexuality, I relate to you as a body; in infinite sexuality, I relate to you in your body.

A Finite Game Occurs Within a World

“A finite game is within a world. The fact that it must be limited temporally, numerically, and spatially means that there is something against which the limits stand. There is an outside to every finite game. Its limits are meaningless unless there is something to be limited, unless there is a larger space, a longer time, a greater number of possible competitors.”

We are players in search of a world as often as we are world in search of players. Some worlds pass quickly in and out of existence, some sustain for longer, but no world lasts forever.

There is an indefinite number of worlds.

Finite play also occurs within a time frame. Time is a diminishing quantity. For the finite player, freedom is a function of time. We must have time to be free.

The infinite player does not consume time but generates it. Because infinite play is dramatic and unscripted, its time is time lived and not time viewed. An infinite player does not begin working for the purpose of filling 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 a way of moving towards a future which itself has a future.

Nature is the Realm of the Unspeakable

“Nature is the realm of the unspeakable. It has no voice of its own, and nothing to say. We experience the unspeakability of nature as its utter indifference to human culture.”

Explanation sets the need for further inquiry aside’ narrative invites us to rethink what we thought we knew.

I can explain nothing to you unless I first draw your attention to inadequacies in your knowledge. You will remain deaf to my explanations until you suspect yourself of falsehood.

Explanation is an antagonistic encounter that succeeds by defeating an opponent. It possesses the same dynamic of resentment found in other finite play. I will press my explanations on you because I need to show that I do not live in the error that I think others think I do.

Knowledge and property are so close that they’re thought to be continuous. Those who are entitled to knowledge feel they should be granted property as well, and those entitled to property believe some knowledge goes with it.

The measure of a finite speaker’s discourse is in what precedes its utterance, what is already the case and is the case whether or not it is spoken. An infinite speaker’s discourse lies in what comes of its utterance, whatever is the case because it is spoken.

Storytellers invite us to return from knowledge to thinking, from a bounded way of looking to a horizonal way of seeing.

Historians become infinite speakers when they see that whatever begins in freedom cannot end in necessity.

We Control Nature for Societal Reasons

“We control nature for societal reasons. The control of nature advances with our ability to predict the outcome of natural processes. Inasmuch as predictions are but explanations in reverse, it is possible that they will be quite as combative as explanations… It follows that our domination of nature is meant to achieve not certain natural outcomes, but certain societal outcomes.”

It’s not that we can exercise power over nature (atomic bomb), but that our attempt to do so masks our desire for power over each other.

Machine vs. Garden

  • The result of approaching nature as a hostile other whose designs are inimical to our interests is the “Machine”
  • The result of learning to discipline ourselves to consist with the deepest discernable patterns of natural order is the “Garden”
  • “Machine” is inclusive of technology and not an example of it.
  • “Garden” is not a garden someone lives beside, but a garden one lives within. It is a place for growth, maximum spontaneity. Gardening is a horizonal activity.
  • A machine can exist in the garden, but you must ask whether a machine serves the interest of the garden.
  • The machine is driven by a force which must be introduced from without, the garden is grown by an energy which originates from within itself.
  • The more power we exercise over natural forces the more powerless we become before them.
  • To operate a machine is to operate like a machine, we not only operate with each other like machines, we operate each other like machines.
  • Machinery is meant to work changes without changing its operator, while gardening transforms its workers. You learn how to drive a car, you learn to drive as a car, but you become a gardener.
  • Infinite players understand that the more complex a garden, the more numerous its sources of change, and the more vigorous its liveliness. Growth promotes growth.
  • We understand nature as source when we understand ourselves as source. We abandon attempts at explanation of nature when we see that we cannot be explained, when our own self-origination cannot be stated as fact.
  • A garden is not something we have over which we stand as gods. It’s a poiesis, a receptivity to variety, a vision of differences that leads always to a making of differences. The poet joyously suffers the unlike, reduces nothing, explains nothing, possesses nothing.


  • We make use of machines in the belief we can increase the range of our freedom, and instead only decrease it, so we use machines against ourselves.
  • We do not buy an automobile to own some machinery, but rather what it will let us do: move rapidly from one place to another, show wealth, hide from the weather.
  • The importance of reducing time in travel is that by arriving as quickly as possible we need not feel as though we had left at all. Neither space nor time can affect us, as if they belong to us and not we to them.
  • Genuine travel has no destination, travelers do not go somewhere, but constantly discover that they are somewhere else.
  • Travel is not measured in distance, but in actual difference. The motels around the airports in Frankfurt and Tokyo are very similar. True travel is to see the same things through different eyes.


  • Waste is not the result of what we have made, it is what we have made.
  • Waste is unveiling, when we find ourselves standing in garbage, we realize it is garbage we have chosen to make, and so we could have chosen not to make it. So we remove it, we place it out of sight.
  • The more waste a society produces, the more revealing that waste is, and the harder they work to hide it.

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.”

The livelihood of a culture is not determined by how often thinkers discover new knowledge, but how often they depart in search of it.

A story attains the status of myth when it is retold, and persistently retold, solely for its own sake.

The opposite of resonance is amplification. A choir is the unified expression of a voice resonating with each other, a loudspeaker is the amplification of a single voice, excluding all others. A bell resonantes, a cannon amplifies. We listen to the bell, we are silenced by the cannon.

The loudspeaker, muting all other voices and therefore all possibility of conversation, is not listened to at all, and therefore loses its voice and becomes mere noise.

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.”

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