Michael Byrne, ND, MA
Psychotherapist, Naturopathic Physician
Seattle Healing Arts Center
9730 3rd Ave. NE, Suite 208
Seattle, WA 98115 [map]
(206) 428-2067
Finite and Infinite Games

Finite and Infinite Games

This is the title of a fabulous little book by James P. Carse, written almost 20 years ago, that I just found again in my basement. I can still remember the excitement I felt reading it for the first time in my early 20’s. What a vision of possibility it opened. What an playful invitation! “A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility.” I highly recommend it.

It is not a long book. It does demands a certain kind of attention, but it also leads you along playfully. James Carse constructs a logical argument/discussion that at first might seem simplistic and abstract, but if followed, leads to truths as profound and concrete as any. The style might not be for everyone, but the message is one to be appreciated by all. Ultimately, this book is about being inclusive in life, about having power with others rather than power over others, and about understanding how we limit ourselves – how all true limitations are self imposed limitations. The book is so elegantly written that I feel nervous even considering discussing it, or trying to share some of it’s essence in a few words. None-the-less, I will continue forth. It is out of genuine appreciation that I wish to share it.

James opens his book with this:

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 play.

Throughout the book, Mr. Carse describes these two types of games in stark contrast , and in the process touches upon questions of politics, healing, power, sexuality, community, nature, evil and life (to name just a few). Finite games are ones with an end result in mind, such as becoming a doctor, becoming the #1 soccer team, being a mother, being a good neighbor, etc. The roles that we play in life are our participation in various finite games. There are rules to each of these games, boundaries of acceptable behavior. The rules cannot change in these finite games, otherwise a different finite game is being played. One can play any number of finite games, and usually plays many. An infinite game is different. Since the purpose of an infinite game is to avoid having it end, it has a very different approach to rules. In infinite games, rules are changed to prevent the ending of play. There is not an end goal in mind, or a final achievement. The point is to include everyone, to have no winners and losers (which would indicate an ending to that particular game), and to see what possible futures open up if we are curious about them. So…

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

James Carse says so much in so few words, that to try and summarize is pointless. Let me shift to simply sharing some of the insights I have taken away from reading it:

  • the roles that we play in life, we play freely – even if it does not seem that we have a choice, we do
  • playing these roles is not a problem, but forgetting that we are playing them can be
  • being an infinite player, and playing an infinite game, is an ongoing act of compassion, creativity, discovery and challenge
  • being an infinite player, and promoting an infinite game is inclusive
  • infinite play is concerned with, and excited by, new possibilities, futures unknown, and never ending discoveries; while the finite games we play are for particular desired outcomes

Another quote:

The finite play for life is serious; the infinite play of life is joyous. Infinite play resounds throughout with a kind of laughter. It is not a laughter at others who have come to an unexpected end, having thought they were going somewhere else. It is the laughter with others with whom we have discovered that the end we thought we were coming to has unexpectedly opened. We laugh not at what has surprisingly come to be impossible for others, but over what has surprisingly come to be possible with others.

And more…

Evil is the termination of infinite play…. Evil is never intended as evil. Indeed, the contradiction inherent in all evil is that it originates in the desire to eliminate evil.

Again, James Carse wrote this book as ” a vision of life as play and possibility.” He shows us the games that we play, why we play them, and how we can enjoy them more, while also encouraging the most satisfying game of all, the one infinite game of life. We are all both finite and infinite players. The more seriously we take the finite games we play, the less we can see the infinite game there is to play. It is clear to me that the greater the seriousness that we take in playing our finite games, the greater our suffering and lack of awareness of possibility.

This is not to say that we do not take life seriously, or that there are not serious matters to contend with in life. It is rather to say that we can be more graceful in dealing with challenges if we can see them for the games that they are. An infinite game requires much more humility, flexibility, creativity and vulnerability than any finite game we might play. To find ways to include everyone rather than strive to decide who the winners and losers are (including how we view ourselves), that is a challenge I think James Carse is putting forth. John Lennon’s song, Imagine, comes to mind. In it, he too challenges us to imagine a world not so entrenched in finite games that perpetuate a sense of winners and losers, but rather as a place in which we are “sharing all the world.”

So for those of you who love wordplay, who enjoy following logical discussions, who envision a more just world, and who yearn for a greater sense of freedom, awareness and possibility in their life, I cannot more highly recommend this book. Enjoy!

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