Book Notes: Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse

The infinite play of life is joyous.
Book Notes: Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse

I was playful as a kid but started taking life a lot more seriously as I grew up.

Too seriously, in fact.

No particular reason, guess that's what you do when you first face the hardships of adulthood.

I finally learned to chill out. But it took me two major identity crises, a number of burnouts, poor financial decisions, mental health issues, losing people I cared about, and a decade of taking everything way too seriously to learn this.

"Don't take it too seriously!"

When you hear this advice from self-help gurus, they give you main reasons:

  • Take it easy, because no one really cares.
  • Take it easy, because none of this really matters.

I wish it was that simple, but when you're in a bad place it doesn't exactly get through. However, there was something that did help me.

When I was in my 20-somethings, I started noticing the desire to approach random situations in life in a more playful manner. And more often than not, doing so made them play out better than if I had been serious about them.

Say, I had to schedule an appointment, approach a stranger to ask something, or talk to the cashier. Back then, I was still super shy, introverted, and self-conscious, and human interactions were always anxiety-inducing for me.

So the desire to treat these situations as a game was new to me. Instead of simply saying whatever I had to say, I imagined myself playing Fallout, having multiple dialog options, and wondering "What would happen if I threw in a joke instead of just asking my question?"

It was a curious feeling, but I didn't think much of it back then. I got back into the rut and forgot all about it. Until I found myself in the therapist's office struggling with my biggest identity crisis and depressive episode yet. And as I was sitting there struggling to share my feelings I suddenly thought "Goddamit, why are you so serious? You're supposed to just be yourself if you want to get help. Let it go, stop being so reserved, and open the fuck up." And I did. And it felt great.

This didn't magically fix all of my problems, but I started approaching other things this way:

  • Viewing job interviews as a game made me more relaxed and perform better.
  • Viewing conversations as a game made me more friendly and entertaining.
  • Viewing the learning process as a game made me more eager to level up.

Then, two years later, I finally stumbled upon Finite and Infinite Games.

And it clicked.

That's exactly what I've been chasing after all along! Playing the big game of life and treating the individual aspects of it as mini-games, not serious challenges.

My main takeaways from this experience were:

  • Life can be tough, but I'm not obligated to be serious about it.
  • Not being serious doesn't mean being irresponsible.
  • I can play the mini-games of life as a character, not as myself.
  • I can stop playing whenever I don't feel like playing anymore.

This was a crazy realization, and it instantly changed my life for the better.

And that's what Finite and Infinite Games is all about.

Why I liked this book

  • The ideas are life-changing. Not being serious about life makes a world of difference. Seeing the challenges of life as games you choose to play, and not as obligations, makes it easier to cope with the inevitable hardships.
  • It's open to interpretation. The book is written in a vague philosophical manner. It may feel daunting at first, but stick with it. This gives you a chance to draw your own conclusions and apply them to your own life.

My favorite ideas from this book

There are finite and infinite games

If you only remember a few ideas, it's these:

  • Finite games are played for the purpose of winning. Winning ends the game.
  • Infinite games are played for the purpose of continuing the game. The game always continues.
  • In both cases, the players play freely. If they must play, they cannot play.
  • Finite games can be played within infinite games, but not vice versa. Wins in finite games are just moments within infinite ones.
  • There is only one infinite game.

I haven't really thought about this concept before, but it makes absolute sense if you wrap your head around it.

When I was younger, I was viewing life as a set of finite games:

  • Study to graduate with a degree. Win the game of college.
  • Apply to jobs to get a high-paying job. Win the game of employment.
  • Start a business to get rich. Win the game of business and money.
  • Meet someone I like to start a relationship. Win the game of love.

Were my decisions to play these games conscious? Did I really want to play?

Not really.

For the most part, these things were expected from me. These were the games everyone around me was playing, so I just did what everyone else did.

But the longer I kept playing, the less I liked them. I wasn't enjoying the process, and even when I managed to win, the satisfaction didn't stay with me for long.

Yet I seemingly couldn't stop playing on my own terms. When I did stop, it was due to frustration, a rage quit of sorts. It wasn't a deliberate decision to stop.

It never occurred to me that I could stop playing these games whenever I desired.

But you can.

You can always stop playing

As finite players, we keep playing finite games for a few reasons:

  • We're unaware of our freedom to stop playing. The restraints and expectations of others may veil this freedom of decision from us.
  • We're often too focused on winning. If we believe we must do everything we can do to win, we forget about our freedom to stop playing.

But that's the experienced necessity to play. We're always free to stop playing, even if the idea of not playing is not something we might be willing to admit to ourselves.

In my case:

  • I was free to drop out of college if I felt it didn't make sense to keep studying.
  • I was free not to pursue a career. In fact, that's how I ended up in business.
  • But I was also free to stop playing the business game once I felt that it was not working out. This realization definitely came way later than it could've come.
  • Finally, I was free not to pursue relationships if I didn't feel like I needed them in my life. Realizing this made me a happier person.

One thing, though:

The decision not to play the game doesn't mean you get to keep enjoying the benefits of playing it. You have to understand the consequences of not playing.

But you can always stop playing.

Playfully seeing the world through the mask

The idea of being free not to play may feel like a contradictory one.

To account for the gap between the seeming necessity to play and the freedom not to, finite players can engage in self-veiling. When we self-veil, we hide the freedom not to play from ourselves.

Finite players take on the role of someone, infinite players play as someone.

Take my identity journey over the past decade plus:

  • I had a job as a software developer, and considered myself one.
  • Then I got burned out and quit to become a freelancer instead.
  • Eventually, I started a business, and became an entrepreneur.

Then my business (empire) collapsed, and I had no other role left for myself:

  • The role of an entrepreneur didn't fit me anymore, so I couldn't take it on.
  • But I also couldn't take on the role of a software developer or a freelancer anymore. Both of these roles were already alien to me.

That's how I ended up in a deep identity crisis. None of the roles from the past suited me, and I couldn't find a new one that felt right.

So I took on the role of a complete failure in life.

I was being a finite player without realizing it:

  • Finite players play finite games seriously, without playfulness.
  • Finite players have to keep proving themselves. A big one for me.
  • Finite players follow a script and press for a specified conclusion.

Infinite players also play finite games, but they do it differently:

  • They freely use masks, but acknowledge to themselves that they're masked.
  • They take on the roles of finite players, but do it without seriousness.
  • They embrace the abstractness of finite games and approach them playfully.

To be playful is to be open to any outcome whatever the cost to oneself. Playfulness isn't triviality, but a harmless disregard for social constraint.

One takeaway I got from my identity crisis was that I don't have to immediately take on a new role. It was realizing that it was fine to just be Martin. Not Martin the Software Developer, not Martin the Entrepreneur, just Martin.

And Martin was free to decide which finite game to play next, and which mask to put on. Playfully.

Are you willing to drop the veil, acknowledge that you've chosen to see the world through the mask, and allow yourself to be surprised by it?

The element of surprise

Surprise causes a finite play to end, but it is the reason for the infinite play to continue.

In most finite games, surprise is a crucial element:

  • Finite games are most likely to be won by surprising the opponents.
  • Master players are finite players so good that nothing can surprise them.

Thus, all finite players desire to become master players and eliminate the possibility of being surprised. They must conceal their moves, be deceptive.

Infinite players play differently:

  • They continue playing expecting to be surprised.
  • They play in complete openness and vulnerability.
  • They are amused and transformed by surprise.

Today, the idea of building, working, creating, writing in public is much more prevalent than it has been a decade ago. You don't toil in obscurity to emerge a winner. Good work isn't created in a vacuum, it's created in groups by contributing to others and by having your work contributed to.

The lone genius is a myth, the scenius is the reality.

When I started my freelancing journey and eventually turned to entrepreneurship, the notion of working in obscurity to eventually emerge as a successful unicorn appealed to me. Wasn't this what all the Silicon Valley billionaires did working from their parents' garages?

I didn't like talking to people much or interacting with the outside world anyway. People were complex, and the outside world was unpredictable, and I hated having to keep adjusting my plans and my worldview to account for the information from the outside.

I hated being surprised, so I went to great lengths to eliminate surprise from my life.

It was a dumb idea, of course. You don't eliminate surprise by shutting yourself out from the world, you're just setting yourself up for an eventual (and much more unpleasant) surprise on a much larger scale.

You don't become a master player by denying reality.

Later in life, I learned to embrace surprise. I'm now open to whatever life has to offer. It made my life more enjoyable, and it made me much better prepared for surprises, good and bad.

Stay open to being surprised, and never stop learning.

Power in titles, strength in names

What one wins in a finite game is the title:

  • Titles are public, visible, and immortal. Numbers of great athletes are retired, achievements are carved into stone.
  • Titles conform to spatial and temporal limits, just like the finite games themselves do.
  • Titles point backward in time, originate in an unrepeatable past, and can't be withdrawn.

Others have to yield and conform to titles.

This makes titles powerful:

  • Power is measured in units of comparison.
  • Power only exists in finite play.
  • Power can only be measured after the play ends.

Therefore, one doesn't win by being powerful, one wins to be powerful. To be powerful is to possess an acknowledged title.

Power is measured in units of comparison, so titles are only powerful as long as others want them. No one can engage us competitively until we fully cooperate and play to win. If we defer to winners it is because we consider ourselves losers.

Yet we don't compete against reality, we play with reality. Therefore we're not powerless before the force of nature, because we don't compete against nature.

In contrast to finite play, infinite play never ends.

So, infinite players don't have titles, they only have names. Having only a name means having an open future, not following scripts. Infinite players look forward, not backward. They don't oppose the actions of others, but initiate their own actions inviting others to act.

Thus, if finite players play to be powerful, infinite players play with strength:

  • Power is about what's happened, strength is about what's yet to happen
  • Power is finite, strength can't be measured.
  • Power is restricted to a set of persons, strength is unlimited.

Infinite players are strong, but not powerful.

You are strong not because you force others to do something, but because you allow them to do something.

Unless you are evil.

Evil is a forced recognition of power

Evil is the expression of power:

  • Evil is the termination of infinite play, which comes to an end in unheard silence.
  • Evil is not the termination of finite play, but an attempt to eliminate the play of others regardless of the rules.

There are silences that can be heard and recovered, but there are those that will never and can never be heard. There is much evil that remains beyond redemption.

Evil is never intended as evil, but originates in the desire to eliminate evil.

Therefore, infinite players don't attempt to eliminate evil in others, but only to recognize the evil in themselves.

Rules, boundaries, horizons

In finite games, rules are internal limitations.

The rules of a finite game:

  • Define what players can do to and with each other, and who has won.
  • Are different between different finite games.
  • Must not change while the game is played.
  • Are are valid because players agree to freely play by them.

If the rules are not observed, the outcome of a finite play is threatened.

The rules of an infinite game are different, and:

  • Can change, although not every rule will change.
  • Are meant for threats to the continuation of the game, e.g. someone winning.
  • Must change during the game if not doing so threatens to create a finite outcome.

Infinite players accept the rules of finite games, but they don't forget that rules are an agreement, not a requirement for an agreement. They see the freedom to agree.

Finite players play within boundaries, infinite players play with boundaries. Every move a finite player makes is within a boundary, every move an infinite player makes is towards a horizon.

And moving towards a horizon means having a new horizon. One never reaches a horizon. Every moment of infinite play is a new possibility.

Who lives horizonally is never somewhere, but always in passage.

Time and work

Finite games don't have time, they exist in the world's time.

In finite games:

  • Time runs out.
  • Time passing increases competitive pressure.
  • Freedom is a function of time. Finite players need time to be free.
  • Victories are timeless, and never to be forgotten.

For infinite games, there's no external measure of their temporality.

In infinite games:

  • Each moment is the beginning.
  • There is no hour of time. There is hour of love, day of grieving, season of learning.
  • Time is a function of freedom. Infinite players are free to have time.

Finite players fill time with work, infinite players fill work with time.

To infinite players, work isn't a way to pass time, but to generate possibility, to move toward a future that itself has a future.

Infinite players don't consume time, they generate it.

Finite vs infinite speech

Finite speech is spoken for the sake of being heard:

  • It commands, it is magisterial speech, victory speech.
  • It ends with a silence of closure, silence of obedience.
  • It informs another about the world. It explains.

Finite speakers come prepared. They explain, and explanation imposes silence on its listeners. Magisterial speech seeks to silence.

Infinite speech is spoken for the sake of listening:

  • It addresses. It is the form of listening.
  • It is not about anything, but to someone.
  • It forms a world around another. It is speech that invites speech.

Infinite speakers need the response of the listener. They don't give voice, but receive voice from others.

Storytellers don't convert their listeners, they offer their vision. Storytelling lets us return from knowledge to thinking, from a bounded way of looking to a horizonal way of thinking.

We are silenced by the cannon, but we listen to the bell.

Machine, garden, nature

We create machines to exercise power over nature:

  • They are driven by the force introduced from without.
  • They have no spontaneity and work according to plan.
  • They are controlled by us, and therefore control and discipline us.

To operate a machine we must operate like a machine. Machines are the extensions of ourselves. Yet we also use machinery against itself. The goal of technology is to eliminate itself, become invisible.

When machine functions perfectly, it ceases to be. And so do we.

In contrast to machines, gardening is a horizonal activity:

  • Garden is grown with the energy from within itself.
  • Gardening is an encouragement of natural spontaneity, not its harnessing.
  • Gardeners don't control the garden, but are transformed by the garden.
  • Gardeners celebrate variety. Growth promotes growth.
  • Gardens don't die in winter, but prepare for the next season.

We garden creatively, unlike operating the machine. We don't bring change to the garden, but come to the garden expecting change.

Nature has neither outside nor inside. It is neither chaotic nor ordered. Indifference to nature leads to machine, indifference of nature leads to the garden.

The more we remind ourselves that we have no power over nature, the more we respect surprise and unpredictability. Gardening prepares us for surprise, not against it.

Since machinery requires the energy source from without, it's always looking for resources of power, resources to be consumed. This leads to waste.

Waste is considered an unfortunate but necessary consequence of machining.

Human waste

Society that creates natural waste also creates human waste.

Waste persons:

  • Are useless as resources to the society.
  • Are placed out of view.
  • Are considered superfluous.

But human trash isn't an unfortunate burden on society. It's not an indirect result of its proper conduct. It's its direct product.

Waste persons are an unveiling of the society, and are therefore purged by it.

Life and death

For finite players, death is abstract:

  • The winner of a finite play is established by a terminal move. This brings death to the opponent as a player.
  • Actual life and death are rarely the stakes of a finite game.
  • Death in life is resigned acceptance of loser's status or liberation from all titles.
  • Life in death is important because titles must not be forgotten. Soldiers achieve life in death.

For infinite players, death is concrete. Infinite players die in the course of play, not in the end of play.

Finite players play to live. Death is a defeat in a finite play. Finite play of life is serious.

Infinite players don't play for life, they life for play. They laugh over what's possible with others.

The infinite play of life is joyous.