Finite And Infinite Games

Dazed, Confused & Ultimately Transcendent

This is not an instruction manual, it is a wake up call!

Finite And Infinite Games. Graphic

Finite And Infinite Games - Setting The Scene

Over this past week I have read Professor James Carse's highly regarded "Finite And Infinite Games - A Vision Of Life As Play And Possibility" from cover to cover several times.

Carse uses game theory as an analogy for two alternative views of how to play the game of life.

This is a strange and challenging book. It has no introduction and offers no context or scene setting.

The professor steps up into his pulpit, adjusts his glasses and gazes down at his assembled readership, and with no preamble or pause for dramatic effect, launches straight into it as he opens with the following lines:

    “There 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.” 

Finite And Infinites Games Are Very Different

Finite And Infinites Games Are Very Different. Graphic

By employing the analogy of game theory Carse offers a view of life as seen through the lens of these two very different games.

The usual take on all this, as seen from an extensive perusal of online articles and reviews of the book, is that Carse is talking about mindsets and is covering similar territory to Carol Dwek's Growth Mindset.

However, Carse was writing 20 years before Dwek and was a professor of the history and literature of religion whereas Dwek is a psychologist.

My personal view is that, when seen in the context of his full body of published work, Carse's use of the analogy of game theory as a view of life is largely a metaphor that he uses to serve a distinctly transcendent purpose.

But more of that later, for now lets dive into some of the key specifics of each of these two very different perspectives on how to play the game of life.

Finite Games

Finite games have rules, timeframes, boundaries and are predictable, like chess, baseball, basketball or bridge and are played to win.

Passing exams and gaining qualifications and accreditations are also examples of finite games.

Any activity, in any area of life, that has a beginning and an end, and where there is an identifiable winner or loser, is a finite game.

  • Finite games are played to win.
  • There are players and observers in a defined field of play.
  • The rules for the games are set, and known by the players.
  • There is referee to judge how well you play by the rules.
  • It is easy to see who wins.
  • After the game, no one argues about the score.

Infinite Games

Infinite games are open and less defined. Marriage, productivity, health, personal growth and development, preparedness to cope with continual change [living antifragile] are all examples of infinite games.

They have no fixed rules, timeframes, or boundaries and are unpredictable

The purpose of an infinite game is to keep on playing.

  • There are no winners or losers in the infinite game.
  • Everyone can play in an infinite game, and the field of play is not clearly defined.
  • The rules of the game are not constant, they change all the time and are devised to keep the game going infinitely.
  • There are no external judges or referees.
  • The players are accountable to themselves and each other for their behavior in the game.

Contrasting Games

Carse says that there is only one similarity between the two games and that is that the players of each game must only play because they freely choose to play.

Finite And Infinite Games Competing. Graphic

    Other than the freedom to play, infinite and finite play stand in the sharpest possible contrast...

  • Infinite players cannot say when their game began, nor do they care because their game is not bounded by time.
  • There are no spatial or numerical boundaries to an infinite game.
  • Anyone who wishes may play an infinite game.
  • While finite games are externally defined, infinite games are internally defined.
  • The time of an infinite game is not world time, but time created within the play itself.
  • Since each play of an infinite game eliminates boundaries, it opens players to a new horizon of time.

The Qualities Of Finite And Infinite Games

The Qualities Of Finite And Infinite Games. Graphic

Having set out his stall for finite and infinite games in the opening lines of his book Carse then devotes the remaining 139 pages to looking at the qualities of each game in a wide range of scenarios and arenas. These include sex, zen, politics, nature, evil, drama, and given his area of expertise, philosophy and metaphysics.

To give you a flavour of the scope and insights offered, here is a very small selection of some of the contrasting qualities of finite and infinite games [I have either quoted or paraprased Carse's own words]:



Infinite play is inherently paradoxical, just as finite play is inherently contradictory.

  • Because it is the purpose of infinite players to continue the play, they do not play for themselves.
  • The paradox is that they play only when others go on with the game.
  • Infinite players play best when they become least necessary to the continuation of play.

The contradiction of finite play is that the players desire to bring play to an end for themselves.

Surprise And Infinite Possibility

Finite games are scripted and theatrical moving towards a known conclusion.

  • A finite player is trained not only to anticipate every future possibility, but to control the future, to prevent it from altering the past.
  • To be prepared against surprise is to be trained.
  • Surprise causes finite play to end.

Infinite games are improvisational and dramatic, playfully moving into a space of increasing possibility.

  • Infinite players, on the other hand, continue their play in the expectation of being surprised. If surprise is no longer possible, all play ceases.
  • To be prepared for surprise is to be educated.
  • Surprise is the reason for infinite play to continue.

To be prepared against surprise is to be trained. To be prepared for surprise is to be educated.


Finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play with boundaries.


  • Death, in finite play, is the triumph of the past over the future, a condition in which no surprise is possible.
  • Infinite players offer their death as a way of continuing the play.
  • For that reason they do not play for their own life; they live for their own play.
  • But since that play is always with others, it is evident that infinite players both live and die for the continuing life of others.
  • It is a kind of play that requires complete vulnerability.

One can be dead in life, or one can be alive in death.

Power And Strength

Strength is letting other continue play. Where the finite player plays to be powerful the infinite player plays with strength.

  • All the limitations of finite play are self-limitations.
  • 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.
  • A strong person is one who carries the past into the future, showing that none of its issues is capable of resolution.
  • A powerful person is one who brings the past to an outcome, settling all its unresolved issues.

Power is concerned with what has already happened, strength with what has yet to happen.

Power refers to the freedom people have within limits, strength to the freedom people have beyond limits.


  • The infinite player does not consume time but generates it.
  • Because infinite play is dramatic and has no scripted conclusion, its time is time lived and not time viewed.
  • As an infinite player one is neither young nor old, for one does not live in the time of another. There is therefore no external measure of an infinite player’s temporality.
  • Time does not pass for an infinite player. Each moment of time is a beginning.
  • For an infinite player there is no such thing as an hour of time. There can be an hour of love, or a day of grieving, or a season of learning, or a period of labor.
  • Work is not a way of arriving at a desired present and securing it against an unpredictable future, but of moving toward a future which itself has a future.

Work is not an infinite player’s way of passing time, but of engendering possibility.

Horizon & Vision

Every move an infinite player makes is toward the horizon. Every move made by a finite player is within a boundary.

  • A horizon is a phenomenon of vision.
  • One cannot look at the horizon; it is simply the point beyond which we cannot see.
  • There is nothing in the horizon itself, however, that limits vision, for the horizon opens onto all that lies beyond itself.
  • One never reaches a horizon. It is not a line; it has no place; it encloses no field; its location is always relative to the view.
  • To move toward a horizon is simply to have a new horizon.
  • Every moment of an infinite game therefore presents a new vision, a new range of possibilities.

What will undo any boundary is the awareness that it is our vision, and not what we are viewing, that is limited.

Finite And Infinite Games - Dazed, Confused & Ultimately Transcendent

Dazed, Confused & Ultimately Transcendent. Graphic

It's like trying to grab a bar of soap in a warm bath in the dark...

"Finite And Infinite Games" is an impenetrable read comprising about 1,000 aphorisms packed into 140 pages.

Many of Carse's aphorisms are similar to zen koans in that he juxtapositions concepts in a way that confounds and confuses.

After reading a few lines you get stopped, it's like a punchbag smacking you in the face, and you're left asking yourself: "What the hell did he just say?"

Sometimes the light bulb comes on and the followup response is: "Wow!"

Most times its more a case of: "What!?" as Carse numbs your brain with statement after statement of seemingly tortuous semantics. Take this for instance at the beginning of section 88:

"The opposite of resonance is amplification. A choir is the unified expression of voices resonating with each other; a loud-speaker is the amplification of a single voice, excluding all others. A bell resonates, a cannon amplifies. We listen to the bell, we are silenced by the cannon."

Carse continues: "...ideology is the amplication of myth... the metaphysicians have found the meaning of their myths and announced those meanings without their narrative resonance."

Phew! So that's alright then.

I got stuck on the first sentence. The opposite of resonance is not amplication it is dissonance.

James Carse was an American academic who was Professor Emeritus of the history and literature of religion at New York University and as a highly cultured and educated man obviously knew that amplification is not the opposite of resonance. So why did he say it?

I have taken extracts from the text and sliced them and diced them trying to get to the essence of what he is really saying and still it eludes me.

It's been like trying to grab hold of a bar of soap in a warm bath in the dark...

So what's his game? Why does he present his ideas in this manner, what is his intent?

The 3 Keys To Understanding Carse's Intent With "Finite And Infinite Games"

To Be Prepared Is...

After wider reading of other published material from James Carse, and considerable reflection, I have come to see that there are three potential keys to understanding Carse's true intent with "Finite And Infinite Games".

James Carse

[1] "I am a teacher"

The first clue is to be found in his book: "The Mysticism Of Ordinary Experience" [p28]:

"I am a teacher. When I enter the classroom in the usual, nonmystical way I want something extraordinary to occur there and believe it will happen if I make it happen."

    "I do it by attempting to interrupt the familiar paths of my students’ thought with well-defined but provocative ideas, whether I am teaching existentialism or the philosophy of religion or even mysticism. If I do it correctly they cannot avoid making their own thoughtful way through them."

"I am a classroom atheist. I advocate none of these ideas; or, perhaps, I advocate them all equally. What students choose to do with them I want them to do as freely as possible."

It is also well worth noting that Carse's style of writing in this book is very different to the games book.

In "Breakfast At The Victory" he writes beautifully and movingly as he interweaves deeply personal stories drawn from his own life with insights shared in an interesting and compelling narrative style of writing that is often quite poetic.

This contrast in presentation, together with his self identification as teacher, leads me to the second key.

Language As Metaphor

[2] Language as Metaphor

In "Finite And Infinite Games" [section 72 p 102] Carse states that:

"At its root all language has the character of metaphor, because no matter what it intends to be about it remains language, and remains absolutely unlike whatever it is about.

That language is not about anything gives it its status as metaphor. Metaphor does not point at something there."

    "It is not the role of metaphor to draw our sight to what is there, but to draw our vision toward what is not there and, indeed, cannot be anywhere."

In his interviews and other writings Carse refers a number of times to the Tao Te Ching which opens with the words:

"The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The unnamable is the eternally real."

The written style of the Tao Te Ching can take your your breath away with the poetry of its aphorisms and then leave you scratching your head with the apparent irreconcilable contradictions they contain, which is a similar experience to reading "Finite and Infinite Games"!

Quite clearly, the purpose and meaning of the Tao Te Ching lies in the truth to which it points, and in my view the same can be said of "Finite and Infinite Games".

In Lost For Words? Experience Truth we noted that there is often a gap or disconnect between the meaning intended in words articulated and the meaning received:

"What I mean to say and what you hear may not be the same thing!"

We also noted that the concepts we employ, the categorizations we apply, and the words we choose and use to articulate a direct experience put us in a double bind, and it is this:

"For all that we gain by being able to speak about an experience we lose a greater amount of the full meaning of that experience by speaking it."

Words are not the meaning they are the pointers to the meaning.

This begs the question:

"What is the meaning, or truth, to which Carse's words point?"

The Tao

[3] Final Words

As I have been writing this article I have continued to read a great number of articles and reviews on this book, I have also now watched a number of videos and listened closely to  several intervews with Carse shortly before he died, and I have also read and studied some of his other published material.

In my view nearly everyone misses his point, and especially Simon Sinek who has gained great traction with his theories about how to apply "Finite and Infinite Games" to the world of business.

Whilst I agree that we can change our mindset to a values based long game, and yes we can live antifragile, and we can generate considerable benefit to others and ourselves for doing so, but in doing this we are subverting the infinite game and turning it into just another finite game.

Adjusting, modifying and realigning our approach to life to accommodate infinite games is all "jolly good stuff" [as we Brits like to say] but we are metaphorically shuffling the deck chairs on The Titanic.

It is my view that Carse has a transcendent purpose.

This book is not an instruction manual, it is a wake up call.

It seems to me that a finite game takes place in the realm of the mind and is ruled by the ego, the infinite game takes place in the realm of the spirit and is consciousness expressed in human form.

To return to our opening analogy, The Teacher leans forward in his pulpit, he has almost finished.

He removes his glasses, pauses, and then for the last time he fixes his gaze upon all of us, his assembled readership, and closes his exhortation with these immortal words of truth:

"There is but one infinite game."

    Let the Tao be present in your life
    and you will become genuine.

    Only in being lived by the Tao
    can you truly be yourself.

    [Tao Te Ching 54 & 22]

Further Reading:

How To Wake Up - 4 Simple Practices To Help You Wake Up Now

Return from the "Finite And Infinite Games " to: Walking The Talk

Or to: What Is Spirituality - Don't Throw The Out Baby With The Bathwater!

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