Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility

Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility



The Pequod Review:

James Carse’s thesis in Finite and Infinite Games is that our experiences in life can be divided between two types of games — finite games (played for the purpose of winning, with a defined beginning and end) and infinite games (played for the purpose of continuing the game, with no fixed time limits or rules). This distinction has profound implications, and ultimately Carse argues for us to approach life as an infinite game. Finite games are limited, competitive, and power-focused; they have fixed rules, fixed pies divided up between winners and losers, measured achievements, and accumulated possessions. Infinite games are expansive, limitless and more fulfilling; they are playful, allow for multiple winners, invite collaboration rather than competition, and above all they are never mastered.  

While Carse sometimes strains to classify too much of intellectual life into these two rigid categories, he has intelligent insights:

Infinite players do not oppose the actions of others, but initiate actions of their own in such a way that others will respond by initiating their own.


Finite players avoid surprise and try to plan around them, infinite players expect to be surprised and continue their play in pursuit of it.


The finite play for life is serious; the infinite play of life joyous.

Or this on training (a finite game) versus education (an infinite game):

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.