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Finite and Infinite Games

A Vision of Life as Play and Possibilities

By James P. Carse
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Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse

Finite and Infinite Games (1986) offers two contrasting viewpoints on how to live your life, whether you’re engaging in sexual relationships or warfare. Carse argues that any activity can be seen as either a finite or an infinite game, the former being end-oriented and the latter leading to infinite possibilities. He reveals how the world appears through the eyes of those who play with the finite or infinite in mind, and concludes that how and what games we play are our own choice.

Key idea 1 of 7

You can see almost every part of life as a finite or an infinite game.

When we think of games, we usually think of hide-and-seek, truth-or-dare or similar children’s games. But if you reflect a little further, we adults have our own games too.

The games of adults, however, can be finite or infinite.

Finite games have specific temporal, spatial and numerical boundaries. A finite game always has a clear beginning, a particular playing field and a certain number of players. Besides these external restrictions, there are also internal limitations that mean that the rules of the game must be agreed upon in advance by the players. Then the players compete in line with these rules with the aim of winning.

Then the game is over.

If this doesn’t really sound like the real world to you, consider a general election. The rules of an election are clearly outlined; a winner is decided by the amount of votes on a given day, there are certain practices that are or are not permitted (for example, vote rigging is banned) and only one candidate is allowed per party.

Infinite games, on the other hand, are the polar opposite of finite games.

While people play finite games to win, infinite games are played with the goal of continuing the game. Therefore, infinite games don’t have external or internal restrictions. Anyone can participate in the game anytime and anywhere.

Consider music composition: there will never be a best symphony, because there will always be new composers writing inspiring music. No composer makes music to win or be the best, but because the compositions she writes are invitations for even more people to join in the game.

All this might sound a bit abstract at first, but read on to get a better grasp of what life looks like according to the finite and the infinite player.

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