Finite and Infinite Games

I recently read Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse. Technically, I read it twice because I had to make two passes to catch it all due to it being, you know, philosophy. But, again because philosophy, I scoured the internet after my first pass looking for some writing that summarized the book in a way that confirmed or adjusted my understanding. What I found instead was writing on two ends of a spectrum: summaries comprised largely of copy/pasted quotes and rephrasings that didn't expand my understanding, and writers who got a lot out of Carse's ideas but only referenced the book's points to support an idea focused on another topic.

I'm hoping I can write something here that lands somewhere closer to the center of that spectrum, if for no other reason than to help the next struggling armchair philosopher who comes looking for what I did.

A quick synopsis

"Games" is a broad term Carse uses to cover most human activities, not just baseball or poker or Fortnite. Finite games are played for the purpose of winning. Infinite games are played for the purpose of continuing the play. Finite games have boundaries; infinite games play with boundaries.

That might not make total sense yet. It's a general statement and he means it to be, because it applies to many activities that involve interaction between people.

The idea for the book came about when Carse, a professor and philosopher, was involved in an ongoing conversation with a group of academics about game theory. Since he had no background in math or science, his is focus tended toward the nature of play itself, and the idea of life as play, hence the use of the word "games."

Examples help

These are probably not perfect examples of Carse's points, but they're what I'm using to help understand it for myself:

Baseball is a finite game. There is always one winner and one loser.

Putin's war in Ukraine, in which a primary goal is to expand Russia's borders, is a finite game. The goal is to win the game by winning control of Ukraine.

A committed relationship or friendship in which the partners' shared goal is to stay together indefinitely is an infinite game. The goal is to continue the game of relating, which typically means regularly expanding the boundaries of play to allow each other the growth necessary to become fully-realized individuals.

Police control of Black bodies, in which the goal is to reinforce a clear hierarchy of races and classes—winners and losers relative to each other—is a finite game.

Parenting by supporting and discovering a child's true self and letting their identity and personality expand and evolve is an infinite game. The goal is to expand the field of play.

Raising a child to become an ideal version of a person according to the parent's rules or preferences about sexuality, beliefs, politics, education, career or societal standing is a finite game. The goal is to draw a boundary around the possibilities of life.

Colonialism, and the spread of a single set of religious beliefs and practices is a finite game. When a certain set of expectations are applied to people because they are seen as superior by the colonialists, the game ends when they have "won" by converting all people.

Focusing on long-term physical health is an infinite game. The goal of good health is to help continue the play, for yourself in your longevity and quality of life, for your gene pool, and by setting an example for healthy habits that can have ripple effects in your community.

Players in a finite game are not playing if they did not agree to the game

This, to me, is one of the most critical and challenging points in the book: whoever plays a finite game plays freely. A person who is forced to play a finite game is not actually playing it. Because they did not agree to the rules of the game beforehand, and may not want to engage in an activity that may make them a loser, their participation is a choice. There may be terrible repercussions for choosing not to play, but the choice is there.

What I understand this to mean, by way of more examples:

The child whose parents are forcing them to become a doctor when they want to be a musician may or may not realize that their parents are setting the boundaries of a finite game. There may be severe repercussions for the child if they fail to meet their parents' expectations. But if the child understands that it's a finite game and chooses not to play, their parents may still be disappointed and see the child as having lost (quite literally being a loser), when the child sees themselves as simply not having played the game. The repercussions might be the same, but the mindset is different. You aren't a loser if you haven't agreed to play.

Black slaves in the American South were held captive and forced to work for free, defiance punishable by injury or death. They could choose to participate, to believe they had no way out, thus becoming players in a finite game that to many slaves seemed unwinnable. Indeed, for many it was not won within their lifetime. Or they could choose not to play the finite game of slavery, in favor of the infinite game of freedom by way of revolt, sabotage, or escape. They could have died as a result, and many did, but because the goal of the infinite game is to continue the play, they did not play for themselves but for all the players whose borders of play could expand as a result. They chose to continue the play. This is what I take John Lewis to have meant when he talked getting into "good trouble, necessary trouble."


In these examples, it's incredibly important to acknowledge the difference between understanding that the mindsets are the choice, not the personal outcomes, even when outcomes are severe. Otherwise this can become a way to blame victims for suffering harm for not choosing to stop playing. This is a toxic mindset, and one I wish Carse had addressed more directly. Regardless, his point as I understood it was that you may suffer anguish, injury or death by opting out of a finite game, but if you choose the infinite game instead, you see the world in a different way, and help that game to continue even after the demise of any individual. Participation in the infinite game increases the possibility of bringing beauty and continual positive change into the universe.

This book messed with my head, in a good way. If you're looking for something to bend your philosophical/ethical mind a bit, it's a short read (even if you have to read it twice!) that may change the way you view life and the ways you choose to play it.

published 2022-05-22