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Finite and Infinite Games

Created: Apr, 2016

Last updated: May, 2016

Book: Finite and Infinite Games; first published in 1986

Author: James Carse

General impression

The book first builds the conceptual fundamentals of finite and infinite games, and then discuss topics such as society, culture, individual, sexuality, nature, language, myth and so on within this framework.

It is a philosophical book with the disguise of the theory about games. While the completeness of the framework is yet to be seen and there is no such “rule-it-all” framework, the book definitely opens a new dimension for viewing the world. But it is not about value judgment.

The writing of the book consists of definition, description and induction (I will not call it deduction). One thing I don’t like (or at least not very comfortable) is that it lacks enough concrete support and reference for what it defines, describes and inducts. It reasons well in later chapters, but often the premises are not very obvious, which makes the conclusion seemingly right but not obvious. For example, the book says “there is but one infinite game” in the end which sounds profound but also puzzling. Good reasoning doesn’t guarantee truth. However, as one may argue, this essayistic writing style is not for exhaustive reasoning with full reference, which is not author’s original purpose.

The book is organized in form of clusters of thought snippets, with links among clusters. Using the language we know becomes difficult because it doesn’t quite represent what author wants to deliver. So the author defines notions with the language which is re-interpreted from its original meanings. There are examples such as “theatrical”, “dramatic”, “powerful”, “strong”, “move”, “touch” and many others in the book.

Personally, I enjoy the first four chapters, while the last three become vaguely out of reach limited by my experience.

Chapter 1: There are at least two kinds of games

This chapter defines finite games and infinite games, and explore their properties respectively.

Keywords: finite games, infinite games, boundaries, rules, freedom, script, veiling, serious, playful, training, education, titles, names, mortality, theatrical, dramatic, contradictory, paradoxical, power, strength, evil.

  • Finite games (FGs for short from now on) are played to conclude/end/terminate for the win; infinite games (IGs for short from now on) are played to continue.

  • FGs are played with pre-defined boundaries. IGs are not.

  • FGs can be played in IGs, but not vice versa.

  • Rules for FG are to persist; rules for IG are to change.

  • FG players choose to play freely (“whoever must play cannot play”), but needs self-veiling, that is, suspending freedom with proper “seriousness”, to play well because FGs will conclude with consequences. IG players are “playful” because there are no concrete consequences and the play doesn’t end. In the end, FGs are referred as “theatrical”, and IGs are “dramatic”. But FGs can be provisionally dramatic in the process before an outcome which makes it theatrical in the end.

  • FG is played with a script. FGs are played best with perfectly skilled “Master Players” who win by controlling the future with past experience, and surprise is not desired. IGs are played with surprise as the past is consistently redefined by the future (“horizon”). FG players are to be “trained”, while IG players are to be “educated”.

  • Surprise brings FGs to an end, but surprise makes IGs continue. Successful FGs are the triumph of past over future, while succesful IGs are the triumph of future over the past.

  • FGs players run for titles, the acknowledgment of winning. Death and life in FGs are interpreted as the ability to continue playing for the win, therefore there are “death in life” (e.g., surrender) and “life in death” (sacrifice of soldiers). Titles are immortal.

  • In contrast, IGs players play as mortals, seeking to make the game continue.

  • FGs are “contradictory” in the sense that players bring the games to end for themselves. IGs are “paradoxical” in the sense that players strive to continue the play in others.

  • Titles are a feature of FGs. Titles are theatrical and “powerful” because they need to be measured with an outcome in which the winners overwhelm other resistance. In contrast, IG players play with “strength”, the ability of carrying the past to the future (as opposed to terminating future in FGs).

  • Power is restricted to the selected few, while anyone can be an IG player and be strong.

  • Evil is the termination of IGs, by achieving “unheard silence”, a situation where listeners ignore the sound in the game. Evil is to eliminate other players regardless of rules, but evil is never intended as evil to begin with.

Chapter 2: No one can play a game alone

This chapter applies the FG-IG framework to understand the notions of society and culture.

  • Humanness is fluid and continuous, thus irreconcilable with the seriousness of FGs. The purpose of playfulness in FGs (time-out, vacation) is not to be playful, but to better prepare for the conclusion of FGs.

  • Humans are relational by nature. Games are played with groups.

  • Most of time, politics can be a FG with enemies and conflicts. IG players engage in politics with clear distinction between society and culture.

  • Society is a big FG with smaller games within its boundaries, and the goal is to win over other societies. Culture is an IG, which constantly creates the future, redefines its past, and is not supposed to comes to an end.

  • In a societal FG, society ranks its powerful citizens within subgames with titles, which are represented in form of property. The crucial necessity of a society is to validate titles to property, and preserve them.

  • Societal title owners have burden of persuading audience to acknowledge their titles or property, and there are two important aspects. The first is worthiness. A title owner must show the efforts to gaining the title as a way of recovering the past in front of audience. The second is frugality. A title owner must consume the title to maintain it. The (sometimes) conspicuous way of consumption is to maintain the validity of title without the laborious efforts since audience expects less from a title owner who had demonstrated his power.

  • Poiesis is tricky for society because it comes from culture which the society is species from, but it may also threat the society with its IG elements. Society treats poietai either by declaring their non-conformity to societal rules, or internalizing them with societal purpose, both of which result in the elimination of real poietai.

  • Society is defined by its boundaries, while a culture is defined by its horizon.

  • Patriotism is a good FG example in a society. It is belligerent by nature because it protects the boundaries which is defined via opponents. On the contrary, horizon in IGs is a vision of future, something IG players have in sight but cannot reach. A society takes moves within boundaries, while a culture takes moves towards the vision of horizon. A game (such as patriotism) that tries to bring horizon within boundaries is inherently evil.

  • Metaphysics of a society is an ideology with boundaries and rules. Poetry of a culture doesn’t have ideology or rules. Metaphysicists and poets are inherently different.

Chapter 3: I am the genius of myself

This chapter discuss individual existence and sexuality in the context of FGs and IGs.

  • The author describes the notion of “genius” with abstracted details. But, as I understand, genius is an IG existence of an individual.

  • To look is a territorial activity with boundaries. To see is to recognize the vision of things beyond boundary from one’s genius. One can both look and see.

  • I am both born into a culture dramtically, and as a citizen of politics theatrically.

  • The genius in oneself knows past is definitely past, but I as a FG player does not allow past to be past which is the source of seriousness in the game.

  • The audience and the player in a FG is contradictorily related. FG players must believe that audience see them as losers in order to gain serious desire to win the game, but the outcome of a game further confirm the correctness of audience that the FG players were losers. The script is repeated in FGs. Thus remembering the humiliating past is the advancing force of a FG.

  • One can be “moved” with a staged theatrical script in a FG. One is touched from genius behind theatrical masks and from within.

  • Touching is a reciprocal participation with each other.

  • Sexuality can be a FG in a society. It has boundaries, and players resume veils as part of societal phenomenon. Players check rules in the process (such as which is desirable). Sexiness is defined against the boundary of offending others. The theatrical nature of the game makes seducers conceal intentions and be deceptive. The goal is to triumph over the other participant as opponent, winning the title which is opponent, in front of audience. Societal sexuality reinforces the pattern of resentment as a FG.

  • Sexuality in an IG is not about seduction and containing of rules. IG players touch each other in the process as free persons and don’t hide. Societal structures may also appear theatrically (such as fathering and mothering), but the intention is dramatic on the way to cultivate children as part of a culture.

Chapter 4: A finite game occurs within a world

This chapter is more of a restatement of the previous: FG players

  • FGs are limited temporally, numerically and spatially within worlds.

  • Worlds exist in the form of audience, and FG needs audience to be played. Both players and audience veil themselves in the game.

  • IG players can play FGs, and can be among audience but as observers at the same time. They know they are audience. They can look instead of seeing, but they know they are looking.

Chapter 5: Nature is the realm of the unspeakable

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