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Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility

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An extraordinary book that will dramatically change the way you experience life.
Finite games are the familiar contests of everyday life, the games we play in business and politics, in the bedroom and on the battlefied -- games with winners and losers, a beginning and an end. Infinite games are more mysterious -- and ultimately more rewarding. They are unscripted and unpredictable; they are the source of true freedom.
In this elegant and compelling work, James Carse explores what these games mean, and what they can mean to you. He offers stunning new insights into the nature of property and power, of culture and community, of sexuality and self-discovery, opening the door to a world of infinite delight and possibility.
"An extraordinary little book . . . a wise and intimate companion, an elegant reminder of the real."
-- Brain/Mind Bulletin

180 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1986

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About the author

James P. Carse

13 books118 followers
James P. Carse taught at New York University for thirty years as the Professor of the History and Literature of Religion, and Director of the Religious Studies Program. He retired from the University in 1996. He is a writer and an artist, and lives in New York City and Massachusetts.

James Carse was the Director of Religious Studies at New York University for thirty years. He was a member of the Department of Middle Eastern Studies, and the recipient of numerous teaching awards. He is retired and living in New York City.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 818 reviews
Profile Image for Wai Yip Tung.
29 reviews13 followers
June 19, 2012
"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."

This is the opening statement of Carse's book. It introduces an intriguing concept of infinite game and gives us a new way to see things people do in this world. Unfortunately this is also the book's climax. The charm wear off quickly.

Carse went on to categorize many different things into finite or infinite game. The problem is that this is simply dichotomy view by his arbitrary categorization. To give you some taste of the book, finite game and infinite game are separately described as dramatic or theatrical. Without telling you which is which can you make a sensible case of either? And here is another quote form the book "Such museums (referring to New York's principal museums) are not designed to protect the art from people, but to protect the people from art." Without providing you the context, I would just say the entire book is filled with assertions and judgments like this. "Something is or is not this" or "something does or does not cause that". As I debate the merit of his assertions, the revelation comes. This is just his game with semantics. It will be futile to find meaning in his confusing world or distorted semantics.
Profile Image for Rob.
86 reviews85 followers
April 27, 2008
amazing. amazing!

one of those books that doesn't really teach you anything, but page after page you want to shout, "yes!, that's what i've always known, but i never had the words!".

hard to summarize, because it covers such a wide range, but the basic distinction is drawn between seeing life as a series of "finite games" and seeing existence as a single infinite game.

finite players play their finite games with the goal of "winning", which of course means that their goal is to actually BRING THE GAME TO AN END. they actually enter into everything they do hoping to end it, i.e. to stop doing it. the rules of the game are very important to them and keeping score and giving a prize or title to the winner. war, sports, contests, competitions, grasping after social status, etc., are finite games. it is theatrical, with everyone playing not as themselves, but playing a predetermined role with strict guidelines.

infinite players play with the goal of continuing the game. they do not approach boundaries as they move. the only limit is the horizon, which moves with them everywhere and can never be reached. it is dramatic, with surprises around every corner and constantly changing rules, with everyone just playing for the sake of continuing the game, to discover the possibilities.

if this all sounds squishy and new-agey, all i can say is that it isn't. he actually addresses very deep issues and brings up the titans of western thought, from plato to jesus to augustine to copernicus to nietzsche to heidegger to einstein to freud. good and evil, self and other, sex, machines and nature.
Profile Image for Brian.
646 reviews250 followers
May 13, 2011
(1.5) Found it vapid

So at least one reviewer said you needed to be 'intellectual' enough to really get this book. Well, I guess I'm unintellectual cause I really didn't. It was a sequence of unconnected quotable paragraphs usually of the form:

1. Something sounding like a topic sentence that might be interesting and you expect explication/justification to follow
2. It doesn't.
3. A tidy little wrap-up sentence of the form: It's not that A Bs the C; rather C Bs the A (e.g. "we not only operate with each other like machines, we operate each other like machines"--okay, doesn't exactly follow the pattern above, but the goal seems to have been to write as many sentences with two parts in which the second part is minimally different but carries a very different meaning). It reminds me so much of cute little snippets from political speeches (which I find eye-rolly at best, as they appear to carry meaning but typically do not at all). Here's another: "if you must play, then you cannot play" though I guess there is a bit of meaning there.

What I took away: Don't sweat the small stuff (finite games). All the goals, aims, achievements, letdowns in life are just a part of the overall game of life (THE infinite game, go play). Enjoy it. But I didn't need to read this to come to that realization.

I agree with another reviewer who pointed out that he likes to choose concepts/words, define them (usually in two opposing pairs) and then divide the world according to the two concepts. This was unenlightening to me in pretty much every example he goes into (war, birth, sex, society etc.).

I also found myself frequently disagreeing with his examples/analogies/points.

I'm not going to tell anyone not to read it, but I think you have to come into it expecting it to enlighten you and to find your own meaning in what you read. I guess it's a decent Rorschach test in that regard. It certainly didn't do it for me.

Heh, and some petty criticism: some of his evidence is now technologically dated. For example, parents now can choose the time and place of birth (C-sections, induction), we can talk on the phone without talking with someone on the phone (voice recognition menus). Though I don't think this weakens his arguments as I found them pretty weak to begin with...or rather, I couldn't actually determine what his argument was.
1 review1 follower
June 1, 2008
This is a litmus test kind of a book. It appeals only to a certain kind of a person (me and others like me who are strongly intellectual in orientation). If you are stopped in your tracks by a sentence which asserts that your parents may have wanted a child, but they could not possibly have wanted you, then this book belongs on your list.

The author advances his premises by presenting pairs of opposites, but not the empty abstract opposites of logic (A and Not A), but opposites that depend upon insight in order to be understood. For example, the opposite of a boundary is a horizon; the opposite of power is strength.

Power is the ability to control the way others play; strength is the ability to allow others to play as they wish.

If I move you, I use my power. If I touch you, I must be strong. So, moving others and touching others are opposites. I can move you without being moved, but I cannot touch you without being touched.

Distinctions of this nature abound in this slim volume. It will challenge and delight your mind and your heart and your spirit, if you are a certain kind of person.
Profile Image for Philippe.
634 reviews525 followers
February 25, 2018
I grant this book five stars for the brilliance of its core idea. The distinction between finite games and an infinite game is heuristically so powerful that once one has grasped it, it is almost impossible to put it out of one’s mind. I feel that the tension between these two basic dispositions traverses my whole personal biography. My deepest desire has always been to participate in an infinite game: not playing to win but to keep the game going and draw ever more people in. I believe that in some areas of life I have been able to create a space and develop skills to do so. But the nature of the game dictates that one is never at ease, always has to question oneself. I am grateful to James Carse that he hands us a powerful language to formulate those questions.
You run ahead? Are you doing it as a shepherd? Or as an exception? A third case would be as a fugitive.
First question of conscience.

Are you genuine? Or merely an actor? A representative? Or that which is represented? In the end, perhaps you are merely a copy of an actor.
Second question of conscience.

Are you one who looks on? Or one who lends a hand? Or one who looks away and walks off?
Third question of conscience.

Do you want to walk along? Or walk ahead? Or walk by yourself? One must know what one wants and that one wants.
Fourth question of conscience.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols
Profile Image for Richard.
1,147 reviews1,043 followers
January 9, 2019
Despite my middling evaluation, I do recommend Carse’s book for anyone curious about it.

I stumbled on this title while listening to Ezra Klein’s podcast. It seemed like there were quite a few sequential episodes where he mentioned it, and since I’m quite impressed by his ability to do his homework and ask intriguing and insightful questions of his guests, I thought it would be a good lead to follow up on.

Both the context in which he mentioned it as well as my intuition about the title itself made me suspect I knew what the book would be about. It turns out I was right about the general topic, but wrong about the scope. Finite and Infinite Games is much more of a philosophical discourse on the abstract concept than I’d expected.

I discovered Game Theory accidentally several decades ago, when I stumbled on Robert Axelrod’s The Evolution of Cooperation . The idea that strategic thinking could be reduced to such elegant and powerful thought experiments was astonishing; that individual rationality could lead to either worst-case or best-case outcomes, depending on circumstances outside individual control, was stunning. That discovery changed my life in several ways, not least that I’ve been studying cognitive science since then.

The Evolution of Cooperation was a seminal exploration of how the Prisoner’s Dilemma plays out divergently in one-shot play and repeated play. I think once someone is sufficiently intimate with PD, they’ll spot it over and over in some surprising situations. (For example, as I’ve been thinking about writing a review of Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, I’ve been pondering whether civilization itself can be usefully thought of as a multiplayer coordination game.)

One result of discovering Axelrod’s book is that I took a degree in International Relations, which also uses the idea of a “two-level game”. That is the observation that states have to simultaneously negotiate issues both domestically and internationally. Think of tariffs, for example, or exports of powerful weapons. Both within and outside of that state there will be powerful and passionate interests, all of which will have costs and benefits to the political actors conducting the negotiations.

So I was familiar with game theory in general, and thought I knew what these finite and infinite games must be, especially because Klein was dealing with political problems and situations in most of his podcast episodes.

But, as I said, Carse was writing more generally: he sporadically invokes examples, but most of his text is an purely abstract argument. That can make the book difficult to parse; I found it useful to pause and think of my own real-world instances to make sure I stayed on track. Occasionally I had to try several before I found one that allowed me to decide I understood what he was getting at. Occasionally, even that didn’t work.

I recommend the book because it has several insights that I think are powerful and profound.

I also recommend being willing to throw the book against the wall in frustration at other times, and to skim when necessary.

Not surprisingly, the idea behind the title is the most powerful. It is useful to think of many situations in the world as games, or contests. Carse makes the case that it is also useful to differentiating them into finite and infinite games. The example that lay uppermost in my mind is electoral politics: while a single race at the ballot box will end with a winner — and thus is finite — the context of that race is going to be a contest of ideas which won’t cease just because one election is over. That larger context is, in effect, infinite. Even with the collapse of a country, that infinite game would simple evolve to affect other kinds of finite games.

That much should seem obvious… except it isn’t. Look at how the United States has entered into an era of absolute tribal partisan hatred. I have people in my Facebook feed that share references to “Rape-publican voters” and others that share the definition of a Democrat as a “Prog-lo-dyte”, defined as “an ignorant leftist retard-icant”. Both sides in this war apparently believe that their tribe should simply win, and only after that (absolute, and perhaps inevitably preordained) victory will things get back to "normal".

Okay; that’s already too much politics.

Finite and Infinite Games provides a lot of elaboration of this basic idea. That’s both the reason the book is better than a one-paragraph summary and the reason it goes too long and too far — at least in my opinion. You'll have to decide for yourself.

There are a number of dichotomies Carse provides that match up with the finite/infinite one. For example, since only the finite games have a beginning and an end, only those can have winners. Furthermore, only finite games can actually have rules, since in an infinite game the equivalent of a rule must evolve over time — he’ll call those traditions. Makes sense, right?

Only finite games can have boundaries. That’s a tougher one to conceptualize. Is the larger game of U.S. political direction one that extends beyond the United States? On consideration, the answer has to be yes: what happens in the U.K. (think of Brexit as the contemporary example) will have repercussions in the United States and vice versa.

Carse also asserts that while finite games are “serious”, infinite games are “playful”. This requires the reader to again expand their mental appreciation of the infinite game: since there is no temporal end, not even death really matters. Those thoughtfully playing the infinite game must realize others have played so long ago their names have been forgotten, and more will play long after today’s traumas aren’t even footnotes in the histories.

That brought to mind the idea of detachment common to many faiths, as well as to (my favorite) Stoicism. If one is going to be playful about the infinite, it seems to me that the player will need to be somewhat detached from the outcome of all those finite games. The book doesn’t use the words “detachment” or “Stoic” anywhere, though.

There are more ideas brought into the mix. The role of the audience and possible referees, for example, and how titles and property play a role in telling us who the winners are as well as in the use of power in a finite game. About how an effort to “win” in the infinite game merely creates yet another finite game.

But problems arise. For example, all play is voluntary, in both finite and infinite games. “Whoever must play, cannot play.” Ultimately anyone can refuse to play by dying, I suppose, so can’t be completely coerced, but that somewhat begs the definition of “voluntary”.
In slavery, for example, or severe political oppression, the refusal to play the demanded role may be paid for with terrible suffering or death. Even in this last, extreme case we must still concede that whoever takes up the commanded role does so by choice. Certainly the price for refusing it is high, but that there is a price at all points to the fact that oppressors themselves acknowledge that even the weakest of their subjects must agree to be oppressed. (p. 11)

By the end of Chapter One of the book, I think the most important points had been made.

The author has already introduced elaborations which, while interesting, don’t seem central to the point of the argument. That finite play is “theatrical” and infinite play is “dramatic” isn’t quite as arbitrary as it first seems, but it is only a nuance. Similarly, an finite player is “trained” and struggles “against surprise” whereas an infinite player is “educated” in preparation for surprise. Finite play is “contradictory” while infinite play is “paradoxical” — I never did take the effort to figure that one out.

There were even outright disappointments. On page 32, we’re told “Evil is the termination of infinite play. It is infinite play coming to an end in unheard silence.” What? How can infinite play terminate? Oh, one thinks, maybe he’s referring to the annihilation of the human race itself? Well, no, that “unheard silence” is defined as “when the drama of a life does not continue in others for reason of their deafness or ignorance”.

It was about here that I felt the level of woo was climbing alarmingly. James Carse is a religious scholar who apparently doesn’t believe in God (if his Wikipedia page is to be trusted), and so is undoubtedly accustomed to opining on Evil, but my personal conclusions — you’re welcome to differ, of course — is that almost any talk of “evil” is going to end up either in appeals to Faith or in otherwise untestable assertions. (I’m looking forward to reading Julia Shaw’s book Evil ; from what I’ve heard, she’s got it right.)

Frankly, the appeal of Chapter Two was sporadic and uneven. The parts regarding property and war as societal controls were interesting. Even though those aren’t new arguments, positioning them within the context of finite and infinite games was somewhat novel.

But that chapter also gave us —
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.
I can’t even begin to connect the concepts of “patriotism” and “contain all other finite games”. I’m pretty sure most folks that consider themselves patriots don’t have that desire.

At this point, I started wondering if Carse was being playful. Was his book intended as a move in a finite game, wherein we agree that Carse is a Profound Thinker™, or is a move in the one infinite game, intended paradoxically and dramatically?

Chapter Three began with “I AM THE GENIUS of myself, the poietes who composes the sentences I speak and the actions I take.” While this wasn’t quite a non-sequitur, as far as I was concerned the signal-to-noise meter had just pegged. I read a bit further, then gave myself permission to skim in search of something that looked… well, at least comprehensible.

I didn’t find it. Truth be told, I wasn’t looking too hard. While the book had been engaging, it had taken quite a bit of effort to keep it that way, and that tends to exhaust me so I make progress through the pages too frustratingly slowly. I knew there were other books out there to read, so I was somewhat glad to stop.

If you can’t make it all the way, here is how it ends: “There is but one infinite game”. I think that is both poetically cumulative and ironically appropriate.
Profile Image for Kinga.
479 reviews2,255 followers
October 18, 2020
This is why everyone hates moral philosophy professors.

Except this guy isn't even one. He has all the arrogance of one but none of their intellectual rigour.
This book has all the impracticality of a philosophical treatise, combined with all the self-righteousness of a self-help guide.

And what's with the random-ass quotes peppered through the thing?
Profile Image for Jonathan.
920 reviews978 followers
November 29, 2018
Some good stuff buried under a lot of messy writing and incoherent thought. Logical inconsistencies abound. I think his main problems come with infinite games - his rhetorical structure means he must always present binaries with respect to finite/infinite games, and with finite = bad and infinite = good. As an exploration of finite games, I think there is a lot to recommend here (though often it is simply that the obvious/trite is couched in the language of profundity), but it would have been better had he left infinite games as implied.

He also gets into problems due to his definition of "game" being something that must be voluntary. Which leads to:

" Society remains entirely within our free choice in quite the same way that finite competition, however strenuous or costly to the player, never prevents the player from walking off the field of play."


"There are, to be sure, games in which the stakes seem to be life and death. In slavery, for example, or severe political oppression, the refusal to play the demanded role may be paid for with terrible suffering or death. Even in this last, extreme case we must still concede that whoever takes up the commanded role does so by choice. Certainly the price for refusing it is high, but that there is a price at all points to the fact that oppressors themselves acknowledge that even the weakest of their subjects must agree to be oppressed."

Which made me think of Kanye...

But some things I liked:

"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…What will undo any boundary is the awareness that is it our vision, and not what we are viewing, that is limited."

- the point here, of course, being that a horizon moves as I move, whereas a boundary stays fixed.

"Finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play with boundaries.”

"The outcome of a finite game is the past waiting to happen. Whoever plays toward a certain outcome desires a particular past. By competing for a future prize, finite players compete for a prized past."

"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."

You see some of the rhetorical issues he gets himself into in that last one. You can almost hear him getting carried away by the rhythm...

A quote to give an indication of some of the muddle re casual use of Wittgenstein and Heidegger:

“World exists in the form of audience. A world is not all that is the case, but that which determines all that is the case.

An audience consists of persons observing a contest without participating in it.

No one determines who an audience will be. No exercise of power can make a world. A world must be its own spontaneous source. "A world worlds" (Heidegger). Who must be a world cannot be a world.”

I get the sense here these references (one explicit, one by allusion) are intended to add weight to his pronouncements, but in the context of the work as a whole, I do not see how the work of either philosopher has much relevance. What Heidegger means by "world", and what Carse means by it, for example, are very different.

Another example of him getting into a mess, though for different reasons:

"Since being your own genius is dramatic, it has all the paradox of infinite play. You can have what you have only by releasing it to others. The sounds of the words you speak may lie on your own lips, but if you do not relinquish them entirely to a listener they never become words, and you say nothing at all. The words die with the sound. Spoken to me, your words become mine do with as I please. As the genius of your words, you lose all authority over them. So too with thoughts. However you consider them your own, you cannot think the thoughts themselves, but only what they are about. You cannot think thoughts any more than you act actions. If you do not truly speak the words that reside entirely in their own sound, neither can you think that which remains thought or can be translated back into thought. In thinking you cast thoughts beyond themselves, surrendering them to that which they cannot be."

I mean, either I am too dumb to understand the complexity of his thinking, or that is both muddled and wrong.

And then there is stuff like this:

"Sexuality is not a bounded phenomenon but a horizonal phenomenon for infinite players. One can never say, therefore, that an infinite player is homosexual, or heterosexual, or celibate, or adulterous, or faithful-because each of these definitions has to do with boundaries, with circumscribed areas and styles of play. Infinite players do not play within sexual boundaries, but with sexual boundaries. They are concerned not with power but with vision.... Infinite sexuality does not focus its attention on certain parts or regions of the body. Infinite lovers have no "private parts." They do not regard their bodies as having secret zones that can be exposed or made accessible to others for special favors. It is not their bodies but their persons they make accessible to others.”

To which I will just say, "ugh"....

And I would also say "ugh" to things like this:

"One is never ill in general. One is always ill with relation to some bounded activity. It is not cancer that makes me ill. It is because I cannot work, or run, or swallow that I am ill with cancer. The loss of function, the obstruction of an activity, cannot in itself destroy my health. I am too heavy to fly by flapping my arms, but I do not for that reason complain of being sick with weight. However, if I desired to be a fashion model, a dancer, or a jockey, I would consider excessive weight to be a kind of disease and would be likely to consult a doctor, a nutritionist, or another specialist to be cured of it."

All of which comes, I think, from his obsession with that dichotomy.

But, to end more positively, a couple more quotes I quite liked (though they do err too much on the side of the new-agey for my taste):

"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"

"We are playful when we engage others at the level of choice, when there is no telling in advance where our relationship with them will come out-- when, in fact, no one has an outcome to be imposed on the relationship, apart from the decision to continue it."

“Because infinite players prepare themselves to be surprised by the future, they play in complete openness. It is not an openness as in candor, but an openness as in vulnerability. It is not a matter of exposing one's unchanging identity, the true self that has always been, but a way of exposing one's ceaseless growth, the dynamic self that has yet to be.”
Profile Image for DJ.
317 reviews239 followers
March 23, 2009
"Play" has saddled up alongside "innovation", "social entrepreneurship", and "network" as a buzzword for the early 21st century. Written decades before, however, Carse's book is a unique and fascinating attempt to adopt the "game" as a framework for all of human behavior.

The essential dichotomy is between those who play "finite games" for results, prizes, and recognition and those who play "infinite games" for the sheer joy and challenge.

I read this on a plane ride over the Pacific and loved the first section but was not in the proper mental state to decode some of its more cryptic elements. The book is written in a style meant to be more quotable, playful, and thought-provoking than direct. Rather than offering polished philosophy, it offers loosely defined ideas from which the reader is expected to draw meaning.

For some, Carse will be the wordsmith who puts many old thoughts of their own into words. For others, Carse will offer a challenging yet fascinating world view that enables them to grow with the book. For the rest, Carse will simply by an eloquent charlatan, pumping out more fluff than Durkee-Mower.

I'm reserving my judgment until after a second, more cognizant reading.
Profile Image for Keytrice Castro.
22 reviews9 followers
April 12, 2011
Finite Games and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility by James P. Carse was definitely an exciting read for me, and if you consider yourself a “thinker,” you’ll love this book too. It takes philosophy to another level you’re not used to, thinking of ideas you’re not used to in your PHI classes in college. The whole idea of seeing everything as either a finite or infinite “game” in life brings a new understanding to relationships, too—an understanding that might actually HELP you nurture your relationships in a healthier way. Even if you didn’t read the book cover-to-cover, there are still small concepts heading the 101 sections in the book that are so profound, they can have an impact on your way of thinking if you just sit on them for a while, letting them simmer in your brain. My favorite three are “finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play with boundaries,” “a finite player consume time; an infinite player generates time,” and “the finite player aims to win eternal life; the infinite player aims for eternal birth.”
Profile Image for David Rubenstein.
816 reviews2,584 followers
February 21, 2012
This book is about Carse's personal philosophy, told in a uniquely striking way. This little gem of a book is an easy read, but very deep. Carse does not try to convince the reader of his philosophy. He simply presents it, and lets the reader sort it out. Carse seems to take pleasure in taking an issue and standing it upside-down. As a result, reading this book really provokes you think about life: Life is an infinite game that provides no rules or boundaries. There are no winners or losers. Only finite games have definite rules and winners and losers.
Profile Image for jasmine sun.
139 reviews156 followers
April 9, 2020
i was pretty disappointed overall - big "i'm 14 and this is deep" vibes, or a Naval tweet that went way, way too long. i would probably recommend the first chapter "there are two kinds of games," but think it gets worse as it goes on (or maybe more tiring). but also i get the sense that this is a love/hate kind of book, so maybe i'm wrong.

Carse starts with a fundamental distinction:
- finite games: zero-sum competitions played to win / outrank
- infinite games: non-teleological scenarios played to play

of course, he argues that infinite games are always preferable. I'm pretty convinced by this / personally have always leaned this way: principles over tactics, journey over destination. he then makes a bunch of other distinctions connected to this first one, like garden vs. machine, stories vs. explanations.

the thing is, this book is basically a bundle of aphorisms. the writing style is pretentious, repetitive, and has no grey areas. Carse makes sweeping claims about sociology, war, Freud, ecology, sex, and Evil, then layers new claims on top without warranting the first. most of the arguments aren't especially new, and honestly made better in other books (the garden stuff in Seeing Like A State, the adaptability stuff in Antifragile, etc).

there's also something to be said about the neglected role of privilege in playing infinite games. this book is very "master of your own destiny" stuff, which just isn't reality for most people, especially when carse is so derisive about finite players who feel constrained by the competitive nature of capitalistic society - carse says that slaves agreed to oppression, for god's sake!!

anyway, i will say that his metaphors can be useful mnemonics, and most people who read this will find a few that resonate enough to remember and apply. the book is short and obviously not meant to be an empirical investigation or anything like that. it is provocative, if nothing else. it just didn't work for me.
Profile Image for John Gamboa.
3 reviews10 followers
November 17, 2012
Finite and Infinte Games is simply one of the most important books I have ever read. Until I found this book in a thrift store I had never heard of the author. It was one of the happiest discoveries of my life. Carse has invented a completely intact and utterly elegant system for determining which people are adding selfish chaos to the world and those who create harmony and order. I consider this work to be a gift, I have read it more than any other book I have ever encountered, I keep finding more and more in there and feel that this book is a model for the application of study, reflection and creativity and work for anyone who wishes to add something lasting and valuable to this world.
Profile Image for ΔRT.
58 reviews37 followers
April 17, 2022
Zero fitted fancy stories.
Zero references to already-read-by-everybody-pop books.
Zero apple-microsoft-etcetera ceos 'analysis'.

Plethora of orthogonal, thought provoking, and impactful takes. Now we're talking.

Usually, the most interesting references steam from the least expected places. This one was buried in a semi-technical discussion on Reddit. Thank's, Mr. Buterin jr, thanks Kevin Kelly.

This is a cohesive, deep, and philosophical but at the same time practical work, that blends:
- signaling theory
- non-conformity theme
- process vs goals dichotomy
- internal vs external locus issue
- meta-patterns
- delicious game theory flavor

- style of chunks similar to approach of Scott Adams/Derek Sivers
- incentivize reflecting a lot
- terse narrative, steel nutcracker is needed
- belongs to my 'demanding' shelf
- 0.28 high highlights/total_pages ratio: every third page has a highlight
- might be attributed to level of wisdom:

Tastes like a dry flour for some, but would be ambrosia for others.
Profile Image for Robert.
77 reviews3 followers
November 24, 2007
The themes of this book are not without their wisdom... but rarely have these wisdoms been presented so poorly and so uninvitingly. Mindless sentence by sentence inversions do not recreate the Hegelian style of sophistry he is clearly trying to mimic, and endless quoting of better minds and texts only reinforces the weakness of this one. Skip this for the real stuff...
Profile Image for Apio.
32 reviews
December 11, 2010
REVOLUTION AS AN INFINITE GAME: Some thoughts on Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games

Although James P. Carse did not write his book as revolutionary theory (far from it), the ideas he puts forth provide useful tools for conceiving what an anarchist revolution might be. In particular, his ideas point to why an anarchist revolution, or for that matter, any true revolution, cannot be a finite game, i.e., why it cannot operate within the logic of work. The logic of work is the logic of winners and losers, of success and failure. As soon as a revolution reverts to this logic, it has ceased, because the past has fixed the future, defined its parameters, and this guarantees that the revolution will defeat itself—or rather, this constitutes that defeat. In every revolutionary situation, many of those who take part in the events begin playing the situation as an infinite game. This manifests in the vast array of experimentation, exploration, humor and festivity that manifests in every revolutionary situation. But in every revolution there are those—mostly very sincere revolutionaries who lose themselves in their role—who see a revolution as a thing to win, and who therefore seek power in order to win it. In this way, they transform it in to a finite game, and though they might win themselves or their party a title with the power it brings, in the process they destroy the revolution and establish its end—a new state.
Profile Image for Max Nova.
420 reviews172 followers
December 5, 2016
I started this book expecting a popular treatment of game theory. I was in for a surprise! Contrary to what the title might lead you to believe, "Finite and Infinite Games" is essentially an extremely dense religious/philosophical text. The insights-per-paragraph rate is insane.

Carse - a religion prof at NYU - tends to set up dualities: power vs. strength, culture vs. society, language vs. history, machine vs. nature, and - most crucially - finite vs. infinite. He often inverts language in strange ways: "A finite player puts play into time. An infinite player puts time into play." This makes his book particularly difficult to grok, especially when considering all of the complex topics he covers. While meditating on the nature of time and evil, Carse packs into a tiny 150 page book startlingly radical ideas about everything from sexuality and property to war and poetry.

This is an odd book and I'm still trying to figure out what I really think about it. I'll need to re-read it before I can decide whether this is an important book or a bunch of hooey. A comment from someone in book club was, "I would gladly sign up for a religion based on this book." Not sure I'm there yet, but we'll see what a re-read yields!

Full review and highlights at http://books.max-nova.com/finite-and-infinite-games/
Profile Image for Dan.
46 reviews
October 15, 2007
Continually pushing my personal horizons, Carse reminds me of what I often choose to forget: that everything of importance is rooted in personal choice, and that choice and joy are inseparably connected.

It is daunting to write a review of a book that almost causally overturns much of the conventional view of society and its attendant honors. Yet that very self-consciousness is a reminder that genuine communication is only achieved through vulnerability.

A kind of of wild freedom, impossible to capture in simple text, nevertheless hovers just outside the edges of this book. It incites without compulsion and cuts without malice. It sings, stings, worrys, gnaws, and finally sleeps. It doesn't care what you do, but only the withered in spirit can be left unchanged.

The writing is straight-forward and unadorned (though it may rely a bit too much on chiasmus at times). The thoughts are succinct, but require consideration before they come easily. Of the four books I read in one three-week period, this was the shortest and took the longest to finish.
Profile Image for Michael Nielsen.
Author 12 books1,074 followers
August 8, 2022
A difficult book to review, because:

+ At the core is a simple, rather obvious idea
+ But that idea is extremely important, and rarely recognized as worthy of extended study
+ The writing is mostly terrible and obscure, with occasional moments of great lucidity
+ Carse really has thought hard about this, and so it's worth sticking with him

On balance: excellent. But you may be bored occasionally.
Profile Image for Dave Maddock.
383 reviews36 followers
April 3, 2012
Carse is a whore for needless semantic paradox. The first 20 pages are an interesting description of a rather artificial and naive world view of life as a set of games--some which must end and some which must forever continue. The remainder of the book is a tedious exposition of examples wherein Carse blithely redefines words to force various concepts into his dualistic model.
5 reviews
February 5, 2013
I think this is one of those books that I will read with profit every couple of years. This book, along with James Carse's, The Religious Case Against Belief, The Inner Game of Tennis (W. Timothy Gallwey) and True and False, by David Mamet are among my favorites in making me think about how to think.
Profile Image for Manu.
365 reviews49 followers
January 16, 2016
The last book that fundamentally affected my way of thinking was 'Antifragile'. It altered my perspective on ownership, planning, and in general, the approach to various events and things. It remains a favourite. But this book took my thinking to a different plane altogether, and has probably altered it irrevocably. Credit goes to James P Carse for at least two things - one for the thinking that clarified everything around us to this level of 'simplicity', and two, for explaining it in a manner that makes it easy to absorb.
"There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite." From politics and wars to sports and business, finite games are all around us. They are played to be won, and are over when there is a victor. There is only one infinite game and its only purpose is continuing the play. In both, "whoever plays, plays freely."
The author brings out the wonderful nuances that differentiate the two, through (just) semantics - rules and boundaries vs horizons, power vs strength, theatre vs drama, society vs culture, and so on. The applications are practically across all domains - sexuality, history, science, wealth, religion, society - and once one understands the concept, it is easy to see how it manifests across everything. (look vs see)
"What will undo any boundary is the awareness that it is our vision, and not what we are viewing, that is limited". If I could give only one book to a person, this would be it.
Profile Image for Chip Huyen.
Author 8 books3,243 followers
July 2, 2023
The first page contains perhaps 90% value of the book
Profile Image for Taylor Pearson.
Author 4 books733 followers
January 26, 2019
One of my all-time favorite books. This was my third read through. It starts with a bang:

“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.”

Carse insists that there is a persistent illusion in our society that boundaries and rules exist outside of ourselves, but they do not.

“There is no finite game unless the players freely choose to play it. No one can play who is forced to play.”

“Rules are not valid because the Senate passed them, or because heroes once played by them, or because God pronounced them through Moses or Muhammad.”

“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.”

All rules, Carse shows, are self-imposed, even if they seem absolutely universal. Seen in another way, every boundary is an ever-expanding horizon.

(If you get bogged down, the first and last chapters are the best so don’t feel guilty skimming or skipping the middle)
Profile Image for Jimmy Ele.
234 reviews90 followers
May 27, 2015
A masterpiece of thought. One of those rare books that expands our perceptions. I like to visualize this philosophy as more than just "thinking outside the box. This philosophy is examining, analyzing and acknowledging the box, then "thinking outside the box", and then realizing that even though you have stepped out of the box, you are still in another box, albeit a bigger more expanded box which still contains you and your subjective perception, as well as the box you were previously in. One seems to get the idea of a Russian Troika doll but in reverse. A truly groundbreaking book of which I quoted most of the best parts of on the GoodReads site. I could not help it, I know that I will go back to reading the quotes in order to gain more inspiration and freedom of thought. I recommend this book to any body who wants to shatter their perception's boundaries and break through into a wider expanse. A perceptive expanse that plays with boundaries and not within boundaries.
Profile Image for Tristan.
88 reviews7 followers
October 28, 2018
Profound and insightful but frustrating. It was as if the author was more interested in being quotable than being readable. This is a shame because beneath the unending stream of aphorisms Carse clearly has some wisdom.

I highlighted a lot of brilliant passages, some of which were:

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

"Evil is never intended as evil. Indeed, the contradiction inherent in evil is that it originates in the desire to eliminate evil."

"We do not relate to others as the persons we are; we are who we are in relating to others."

"Metaphor is the joining of like to unlike such that one can never become the other."

But also had to wade through a bunch of muck, like the following:

"Rather society is a species of culture that persists in contradicting itself, a freely organized attempt to conceal the freedom of the organizers and the organized, an attempt to forget that we have willfully forgotten our decision to enter this or that contest and to continue in it."

"The physicists who look at their objects within their limitations teach physics; those who see the limitations they place around their objects teach 'physics'."

I like to think of myself as a good reader, but Carse doesn't seem to care whether I can follow him or not. In writing this book, perhaps he should have stepped out of the infinite game just long enough to make a bit more sense.
Profile Image for Sai.
97 reviews11 followers
May 28, 2017
I naively picked this book up as a text on game theory. It's not about game theory!

It's roughly a philosophy book, with heavy use of metaphor. It's short, but impossible to read fast, since the ideas presented required a lot of slow rumination to capture the range of meanings being offered.

I thought the experience of reading this book was rather spiritual, unlike any other book I've ever read. It's a heady mix of psychological ideas, early childhood development studies, world religions and morality, political commentary, ideas of love and romance, and everyday philosophy.

Overall, it ends up being practical advice on approaching life situations, but required effort to follow along.

If you've enjoyed The Prophet, by Khalil Gibran, or Art of War, by Sun Tzu, you will definitely like this.
Profile Image for Anu.
388 reviews60 followers
February 3, 2021
Book of philosophy written by a professor of religion and history. Incisive, expansive and truly thought provoking. One of my favourite aspects of the book was how he elucidates basic vocabulary like society, culture, world etc from first principles to illustrate what they signify and how they are nuanced.
Infinite players are lifelong learners that play for the joy of the game and to construct something of value that others can carry forward. Gardeners tend to their garden through seasons of harvest and winter, allowing each plant to bloom and grow on its own terms, thereby being a part of the infinite circle rather than being an external operator of a machine. It’s a nudge toward long term thinking via a growth mindset and independent thinking via intrinsic desire to learn rather than extrinsic desire to compete. Worth reading twice.
Profile Image for Milanimal.
79 reviews
October 14, 2021
Although the distinctions between finite and infinite activities can sometimes read like zen koans, after rereading this, Carse's observations about evil, sexuality, resentment, waste, machines, property, art etc still ring true.

On some topics he is guilty of oversimplification--attributing a broad range of social activity to a singular property of finite games. He endows people with 'genius', yet his social commentary gives short shrift to human agency within the finite game. Humans are either unbounded and infinite or veiled and finite, and never the twain shall meet. And yet I find it easy to forgive illogical or mystical tendencies in a book that sets out such a novel re framing of human activity. It's a joy to read
Profile Image for Philonous.
22 reviews
June 15, 2017
It's like an ink-blot test in book form: full of misty concepts and nebulous analogies that suggest intricate shapes and deep meanings while being just vague enough to allow the reader to fill in the blanks with their own ideas and experiences, permitting them to feel deeply understood.

But the book doesn't explain anything; the power of an explanation isn't in what it permits, but in what it forbids. At first glance it might seem as though the book defines something, but all its damarcations turn out to be vacuous.
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