FINITE AND INFINITE 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.

Since finite games can be played within an infinite game, infinite players do not eschew the performed roles of finite play. On the contrary, they enter into finite games with all the appropriate energy and self-veiling, but they do so without the seriousness of finite players. They embrace the abstractness of finite games as abstractness, and therefore take them up not seriously, but playfully. (The term “abstract” is used here according to Hegel’s familiar definition of it as the substitution of a part of the whole for the whole, the whole being “concrete.”) They freely use masks in their social engagements, but not without acknowledging to themselves and others that they are masked. For that reason they regard each participant in finite play as that person playing and not as a role played by someone.

Seriousness is always related to roles, or abstractions. We are likely to be more serious with police officers when we find them uniformed and performing their mandated roles than when we find them in the process of changing into their uniforms. Seriousness always has to do with an established script, an ordering of affairs completed somewhere outside the range of our influence. 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.

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.

There is, however, a familiar form of playfulness often associated with situations protected from consequence-where no matter what we do (within certain limits), nothing will come of it. This is not playing so much as it is playing at, a harmless disregard for social constraints. While this is by no means excluded from infinite play, it is not the same as infinite play.

By relating to others as they move out of their own freedom and not out of the abstract requirements of a role, infinite players are concrete persons engaged with concrete persons. For that reason an infinite game cannot be abstracted, for it is not a part of the whole presenting itself as the whole, but the whole that knows it is the whole. We cannot say a person played this infinite game or that, as though the rules are independent of the concrete circumstances of play. It can be said only that these persons played with each other and in such a way that what they began cannot be finished.

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.

James P. Carse, Finite and Infinite Games
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