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
Read a brief and/or a longer summary here.
Read the whole book here.

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Then, of course, there is school, which plays a crucial role in the loss of all forms of capital: social, cultural, and spiritual. Here again, children progress through a more-or-less preset sequence of steps (the curriculum), their natural desire to explore and create confined to specified times, places, and subjects. They read about the world without experiencing it, reinforcing the notion that knowledge comes from the absorption of information, facts, and data provided by authority, and belittling all the while the very idea that they are competent to really learn for themselves through first-hand observation.

The restrictions we place on children arise out of two related concerns: safety and practicality, both of which boil down to some version of control. It is not as safe to let your children roam the neighborhood or the forest as it is to keep them at home. Prefabricated, programmed “experiences” are safer than real experiences in the world, which is beyond the human realm of predictability and control. Similarly, the education we foist upon our children so that they can learn the skills and gain the credentials necessary for a secure position as a paid specialist also attempts to avoid the inherent uncertainty of life. It makes nature provide instead of trusting nature to provide. It is the old distinction between the agriculturalist working to coax food from the land, and the hunter-gatherer accepting nature’s gifts. In this case, “trusting nature” refers to trusting that the natural fecundity of the child as a creative being will result in survival and even abundance. But there is more, because creativity is risky, as is unfettered exploration of the world. It is safer to keep Junior at home. But why has safety and security seemingly become our society’s highest priority? Just as “homeland security” can and is being used to justify any repressive measure, so also can child safety justify any limitation on children’s freedom to create, explore, and direct their own lives. Really, the emphasis on safety can be seen as a manifestation of survival anxiety, and the assumption that the purpose of life is to survive. From this assumption springs our entire preoccupation with safety as well as the entire technological program to control reality.

How do we keep our children safe? By confining them to a controlled environment where every possible danger has been eliminated. But this essentially takes away the possibility of real experiences, those that haven’t been set up and planned out for them. An experience that is programmed, laid out, all its parameters known by another, is somehow phony, like a public relations pseudo-event. It would seem that we are bent on eliminating risk from life and particularly from childhood. What is risk? It comes from the unknown. Testing the boundaries of our world, which are by definition unknown until we explore them, is inherently a risky activity. Since this is how we learn who we are in relation to the world, the regime of safety, confinement, and supervision in effect prevents children from discovering who they are; it keeps them, that is, from self-realization.

Our controlling of children reflects in two ways the technological program to control nature. First, it implements upon our children the program of security through control, which stems from the survival anxiety implicit in our scientific paradigms and underlying our social structures. Second, and more striking, is this: Our children are nature; they represent the very thing we are trying to bring under control. Their spontaneity, creativity, and playfulness, their unruly nature, is the wild that we seek to conquer or, to use less inflammatory language, that we seek to mold into the “responsible”, “mature” domesticated adult, someone whose behavior rarely sacrifices the rational self-interest of safety, comfort, and security (embodied to a large degree in money) for the creative risks of the unknown. In precise parallel, we use science to subordinate the unknown universe to human understanding, and we use technology to domesticate the world. The motivations for doing so are identical to those we try to foster in the mature adult: safety, security, and predictability.

The subjugation of children to a safe, controlled, programmed semblance of life does not end with high school graduation. By the time we reach adulthood we have become so conditioned to be consumers of a life prepared for us by anonymous others, and so helpless and fearful of creating our own, that we remain forever dependent on fabricated experiences. Another word for experiences fabricated by others is entertainment. In the absence of these, having lost or never developed the capacity for autonomous creativity, we experience the discomfort we call boredom.

In my earlier discussion of anxiety theory, I related boredom to Stephen Buhner’s “interior wound” of separation from nature, a hole in the heart so painful that we constantly crave distraction, entertainment, something to take us away from the pain. At the same time, we try to fill in the hole by acquiring more and more possessions, whether tangible or intangible: a futile attempt to fill up the void inside by adding more to the outside. In the context of the loss of spiritual capital, this hole in the heart is nothing less than life itself, our own life, the life we could create for ourselves but that has been sold off to the demands of technological society.

Charles Eisenstein, Chapter 4.7 Spiritual Capital from The Ascent of Humanity.
Read the whole book here.