This is a comprehensive summary of the book Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility by James P. Carse. Covering the key ideas and proposing practical ways for achieving what’s mentioned in the text. Written by book fanatic and online librarian Ivaylo Durmonski. Supporting Members get access to a deluxe printable of the summary.
The Book In Three Or More Sentences:
In a world where winning by obtaining a prize is considered the final, most-desired destination, it’s hard to imagine that there is an alternative. In this book, however, James P. Carse argues that for a person to become a true Master Player, he should not play for the purpose of winning. He should play for the purpose of continuing to play. Finite and Infinite Games is a manuscript full of short, but extremely powerful timeless aphorisms that can completely revamp the way we look at life. A truly masterful work that questions everything we know and offers a Zen-like way of approaching our existence.
The Core Idea:
There are two distinct groups of people. The first, called finite players, are focused on anticipating what might happen, the results, the titles, the praise they might get from others when they win. The second, the infinite players, expect to encounter uncertainty. They know that not knowing is part of the process and they don’t reject this fact. Infinite players don’t compete, they don’t play to obtain power. They do the things they consider important for the purpose of eternal growth.
- The world is a playground and we are either playing a finite game (focus on the outcome) or an infinite game (focus on the activity).
- You can be breathing but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re fully living. Conversely, a dead person can still live as a result of the deeds he did when he was alive.
- Improving societies happens from within. By enriching the culture. By continuous education and pursuing an ever-expanding horizon.
7 Key Lessons from Finite and Infinite Games:
- Lesson #1: If you Must Play, You Cannot Play
- Lesson #2: Eventually, You Will Deal With Situations Beyond Your Reach
- Lesson #3: Titles Are Timeless But Effective Only When They Are Visible
- Lesson #4: Societies Have A Narrow Horizon. Cultures, Ever-Expanding Horizon
- Lesson #5: Let Go of The Past and Don’t Let It Sabotage Your Future
- Lesson #6: Acknowledge Your Falsehood To Adopt a New Perspective
- Lesson: 7: Play For The Purpose of Continuing to Play
Lesson #1: If you Must Play, You Cannot Play
Infinitive players choose to play, they don’t force themselves to play. It’s an internal conviction when they are participating in a game – a job, a calling, a particular long-term task. The contrast is evident compared to the finite players.
They, the finite players, must be selected in order to play. They are involved in a game not because they want to be in the game. They enter a game, perform a job, because someone picked them amongst a group of people and because they need to play. Therefore, the desire to enter a game is never truly theirs. They simply obey the set rules created by society to continue doing the job.
But this is just part of what the author wanted to portray when he writes, “If you must play, you cannot play.”
When you are “forced” to play, because you need a job – any job – to provide for your family, for example, you are never giving 100% of yourself. Since you’re forced, you’re not performing the task with full enthusiasm. You’re simply coping with the rules of the job. And, this also means that you are not 100% yourself. You simply play a role while being fully aware that you play a role.
Plainly, when we are playing a finite game, we are not ourselves. We morph into people who must pretend to care only to win the game (get a salary).
The author explains that to become a teacher, you must see yourself as a teacher. There is a degree of seriousness involved. An act of forcing yourself to be, and be perceived by others as a teacher. The same thing is with actors. An actor will adopt the persona of the person they are mimicking. They will quite consciously separate their true selves from the performance.
In contrast, infinite players win, and continue to win by being themselves. They don’t wear masks. They don’t turn into other people to do the things they do. They approach their tasks with a degree of playfulness and openness.
An infinite teacher is not seeing himself as a “teacher.” He describes himself mainly as a person who shares what he knows with others while fully accepting the fact that there is still much to learn.
“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…. To be serious is to press for a specified conclusion. To be playful is to allow for possibility whatever the cost to oneself.” James P. Carse
Lesson #2: Eventually, You Will Deal With Situations Beyond Your Reach
It might sound strange to a lot of people, especially professional athletes, but being fully prepared for an event, a meeting, a business venture is never truly possible.
You can’t anticipate all possible complications that might occur. You cannot foresee all possible issues and swiftly equip your body and mind with ammunition of all sizes. You can’t pick the right tools from the outset. Not because you can’t do good research. Not because you can’t work extremely hard to prepare your muscles from the fractures that will surely occur if you enter a battle on a stage, but because things are in a constant transition period.
Finite players are married to the idea that adept preparation and superior excellence are a must. They want to be perfectly skilled, fully equipped, before entering a fight. They want to be convinced that nothing can surprise them before entering production-mode.
Not that this is bad. It’s quite logical to want these things. To supply yourself with the needed instruments in order to dominate an industry or win a boxing match. The better you prepare, the higher the chance you have at reaching your desired outcome.
But because the actions of finite players stem from their desire to win, they fail to acknowledge what really happens in life – full preparation is impossible.
You can’t be perfectly trained. You can be well-trained. Fully capable of dealing with most of the problems, but unforeseen things you never anticipated will surely happen.
Infinite players know that they cannot predict, nor fully control the future. They fully realize that perfection is a never-reachable state that shouldn’t be pursuit. It’s a delusional, mission impossible labor practiced by procrastinators.
Infinite players expect to meet surprises. To deal with the dreadful consequences. They don’t hide their moves. They admit their mistakes. Infinite players show their vulnerabilities. Discuss them with others and allow uncertainty better prepare them for the (even more) uncertain future.
“A finite player is trained not only to anticipate every future possibility, but to control the future, to prevent it from altering the past. This is the finite player in the mode of seriousness with its dread of unpredictable consequence. Infinite players, on the other hand, continue their play in the expectation of being surprised. If surprise is no longer possible, all play ceases.” James P. Carse
Lesson #3: Titles Are Timeless But Effective Only When They Are Visible
If you’re in a possession of a title, this means you participated, and won, a particular game with certain rules and procedures.
For instance, if you are promoted, it will mean that you have played successfully according to the rules of the company you work for. And, you have also managed to prove that you are somehow better than the people around you in your organization with whom you have previously shared the same occupation. Now your promotion gives you a title and puts you in a new game with new rules.
Your title, the importance of how you are called in the organization, however, is only acknowledged and respected if it’s visible to others.
New recruits, for example. If they don’t know that you’re a boss of some sort, will surely pass you by as your title is still not visible to them. And furthermore, a title in an organization rarely gives you extra credit outside the organization itself. You can be very influential in the office and during working hours, but this title will barely mean anything when you’re in a different environment – waiting in line to buy a burrito.
James Carse argues that the correct way to live is not by chasing titles, but by making sure that your actions in life make you alive in death.
An idea that requiring extra unpacking.
Carse explains that, “there are two ways in which death is commonly associated with the fate of the body: One can be dead in life, or one can be alive in death.”
Death in life is a mode of existence where you no longer play. You are simply an observer of what’s happening around you. A responder of life, not in active pursuit of some higher purpose that can be beneficial for the world we live in. Dead in life are the ones who have surrendered. People who reach a certain state of knowledge, or a lifestyle, and now focus solely on consuming. They rebel against change and don’t ever try to create something that can potentially outlive them. They simply exist to stay alive.
Alive in death is about acquiring a title that is remembered and respected even after you are no longer breathing. You live practically forever because the title you obtained when you were alive cannot be forgotten.
The example the author uses in the book is of a soldier who fights to save the nation. When a soldier aiming to save a nation dies, he is declared unforgettable. His deeds in his life continue to support his name and title in his afterlife. He’s granted with internal respect from the living.
“Soldiers commonly achieve a life in death. Soldiers fight not to stay alive but to save the nation. Those who do fight only to protect themselves are, in fact, considered guilty of the highest military crimes. Soldiers who die fighting the enemy, however, receive the nation’s highest reward: They are declared unforgettable. Even unknown soldiers are memorialized—though their names have been lost, their titles will not be.” James P. Carse
Lesson #4: Societies Have A Narrow Horizon. Cultures, Ever-Expanding Horizon
James P. Carse explains that we shouldn’t enrich societies, we should enrich our culture. By becoming more open to other cultures, more open to different ideas, we’ll expand our worldview and thus treat each other better.
Society is simply a bunch of people occupying a certain terrain. A culture, on the other hand, is how people behave in society. How people think and how they act.
When a society is not culturally erudite, it pursues the wrong incentives. It focuses on expansion and acquisition, rather than on enlightenment and fixing the oppressing issues inside society.
But how can someone create a better culture?
Based on the observations of the author, art, and artists, are the people who can transform a vain and blind-folded public constantly in pursuit of money and fake status symbols into a conscious and well-educated group of beings who move towards an ever-expanding horizon.
Art, and artistry, give people the opportunity to grow continuously.
Sadly, this is not what society promotes. Society promotes ownership of art and the consumption of art.
However, these superficial desires rarely help people move forward in the right direction. According to Carse, if art becomes a property, it loses its real value and purpose. “Property is never art,” he claims. Because “property draws attention to titles, points backward toward a finished time.” Then, he further elaborates, “We do not watch artists to see what they do, but watch what persons do and discover the artistry in it.”
In this sense, you cannot be trained to become an artist, you simply are an artist. An artist doesn’t allow the boundaries set by society to limit his view. He plays with them. He acknowledges the existence of the rules, but this is not saddening or oppressing for him. This is a way for the artist to better position himself and move forward in the future.
And if society feels oppressed by the rules and the regulations. A culturally educated man is defined by his ever-expanding horizon.
When a culture moves towards the horizon, a new horizon arises. It’s a never-ending process. That’s why an infinite player never arrives at the destination, his life is a constant journey towards uncovering a new horizon.
In contrast, society, and the finite players, are defined and oppressed by the set rules. They want to reach an ending and when they can’t, they go to war with either other societies or with their own.
Plainly, society offers a limiting world-view where conflicts are likely. Culture, on the other hand, is about enrichment and a desire to alter what exists – to make it better.
“For infinite players, if it is possible to wage a war without killing a single person, then it is possible to wage war only without killing a single person; Finite players go to war against states because they endanger boundaries; infinite players oppose states because they engender boundaries.” James P. Carse
Lesson #5: Let Go of The Past and Don’t Let It Sabotage Your Future
Early in our lives, time seems abundant. We are young and generous. As we have all the time in the world. There are rarely obligations that require our attention and we are encouraged to try different things even if failure is part of the game.
As we grow older, the room for errors significantly decreases. The potential paths for an adult shrink. The need to make correct, well-informed decisions becomes of extreme importance.
This can be a daunting realization.
But not everyone translates gray hair with fewer opportunities.
The author explains the desire for faultless, errorless existence as a misunderstanding of the way we look at time.
A finite player is not allowing the past to be past. He holds dearly what happened in the past and allows it to control his future. For example, a person who was praised by his peers when he was in school, or someone who was a chairman of an organization, will constantly re-live these moments. He will, quite literally, live in this delusional previous state where the past is fixated for him.
We can even go as far as saying that some people live in the past and don’t want the future to take away what they won years ago. For a finite player, time has defined parameters and it is viewed as something constantly trying to take away what they once had.
Infinite players look at time from a different angle. They don’t consume time, they generate it. They see time as a beginning. They don’t hold the past too dearly. They realize that the past is most definitely past and that one should not end up chained at a certain point in time. They don’t talk about how much of their work they have completed. Rather, how much of it remains incomplete. Though it might sound depressing. For an infinite player, the things that remain undone are the things that birth even more enthusiasm.
“Each moment is not the beginning of a period of time. It is the beginning of an event that gives the time within it its specific quality. 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. An infinite player does not begin working for the purpose of filling up a period of time with work, but for the purpose of filling work with time.” James P. Carse
Lesson #6: Acknowledge Your Falsehood To Adopt a New Perspective
In a world where knowledge is sitting at our fingertips, countless resources offering logical and rational explanations of how things should be, it seems strange that people are still acting, quite often for that matter, irrationally.
According to the author, this is not an anomaly.
He explains that people can’t accept – they cannot even consider accepting – a new perspective until they have realized that what they currently know about the world is false.
For the misunderstood, their point of view is correct. And unless a person realizes that he is mistaken, on his own, he will remain deaf for the rational explanations regardless of who is speaking.
Carse writes, “Explanations succeed only by convincing resistant hearers of their error.”
So to successfully transmit a truthful fact that is based on hard evidence, you shouldn’t start with explaining why something is true. In order for you, and your audience to arrive at the same place in terms of knowledge, they first have to realize and “see” their misinterpretation. To be convinced that what they currently know is wrong.
“If you will not hear my explanations until you are suspicious of your own truths, you will not accept my explanations until you are convinced of your error.” James P. Carse
Lesson: 7: Play For The Purpose of Continuing to Play
The book starts with the description of the two games Carse thinks are the only games we play: “A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.”
What does this mean?
Plainly, finite games are short-term games where the ending is not valuable neither for the player nor for the surrounding people. Whereas infinite games are long-term crusades. Endeavors that don’t have an ending. An endless pursuit towards a better future for everyone around the player.
If we are playing finite games, we are only searching for games that we can potentially win. We approach tasks not because we enjoy doing the actual tasks, we participate only because we want the prize that is supposed to come at the end.
We can see finite players involved in finite games everywhere around: When the brand we’re using is more focused on selling us the product rather than making sure that the product is up to date; When the person we’re interacting with is more focused on gaining something from us rather than creating a strong relationship with us; When we are picking weaker opponents so we can call ourselves winners; When we’re consuming only sweet, delicious meals even though we know that these foods are “hurting” our bodies.
In modern times, finite players take loans, consume short-form content, involve themselves in theatrical social media games so they can bring more attention to their persona. These folks concentrate on quick wins so they can, temporarily, satisfy their need to feel good about themselves.
The strategy of infinite players stands in the sharpest possible contrast.
They are not so interested in social validation by their peers. They are more eager to pursue tasks that are joyful for them. Tasks that won’t have immediate returns, but such that will be noticeable years from now.
We can also see them everywhere around us: When a brand is more focused on creating a stable and efficient product even if this will negatively impact their revenue now; When a person is actually interested in your emotions and desires; When you deliberately choose stronger opponents and harder tasks to improve your skills; When you abstain yourself from vain pleasures in order craft a healthy body and mind.
It’s noticeable which one is more respectable and more worthy of following. At the same time though, we can also sense why the infinite games are less practiced.
As human beings, we want to feel that our actions matter. We want to receive constant feedback about where we stand on the social ladder. Sadly, participating in short-term games won’t lead to anything valuable. If we want to create something genuinely precious, we can only do it by keep playing.
As impossible as it may sound, we should prevent our minds from obsessing (only) over the possible immediate gains. And, concentrate on the joy that comes from participating in a game without an end.
“Infinite players cannot say when their game began, nor do they care. They do not care for the reason that their game is not bounded by time. Indeed, the only purpose of the game is to prevent it from coming to an end, to keep everyone in play.” James P. Carse
- Don’t be well-trained, be well-educated: Finite players suspect that training for something, for example learning how to paint, will fixate their future and will excuse them from further exploring the subject. The mentality of training means that you do something here and now, and you become better in the future – forever. In this view, the future is fixated, you don’t suspect to need more training. You think that you’re already trained and prepared. Meaning that when complications occur – situations that are different from what you have trained for – will stall your progress. A well-educated person knows that training is a continuous process. You never reach a condition where you are trained for everything. You are educated enough to know that complications will definitely occur. And when they do, you don’t collapse, you simply train more. As the author writes, “Education leads toward a continuing self-discovery; training leads toward a final self-definition.”
- Create a better culture: States and societies set boundaries. Not only because they don’t aim for the long-game, but because this gives them the opportunity to protect themselves from the unknown, from the uncertain. Cultures, on the other hand, in the form of art strive towards a never-reaching horizon. Infinite players oppose the boundaries set by society, not because they want to battle them, but because these laws are always limiting. They are set to impose a certain behavior almost always favorable for the State, not the people. An act, that removes creativity. Yet, only by being creative we can adequately move forward and handle the uncertainty that is always constant. Therefore, the right way to progress is about playing with the boundaries set by the State. You don’t break the laws, you use the laws creatively to build a better culture.
- Don’t let machines control you: The author argues that the more we use machines, the more we become them. While machinery greatly aids us in performing tasks, the person using a machine adopts the function of the machine. Therefore, becomes one. This can hardly be considered a bad thing since we use machines every day, all day. But it comes at a cost if we think about it. The more we relate ourselves and adopt the functions of the different tools we use, the more we become tied to them. The more we can’t live without them. Or in other words, we don’t become freer when we use them, they give us delusive freedom. In reality, we become more dependent on technology and modern tools.
- Seeing differences is a gift: You can be an audacious traveler but if you don’t open your mind to the new cultures and relationships it will hardly make a difference where you’re going. Genuine “travelers” can stay in the same place and still “travel.” The idea is to see your surroundings with different pairs of eyes. If, and when, your mind is prepared, your eyes will start noticing even the slightest changes around you. Thus, you will never be bored. Zooming in will allow you to see the increasing skills, the progress, the contribution you are doing. Precisely these small, seemingly unnoticeable changes that happen around will help you move forward and continue advancing in the endless game you’re participating in.
- Choose the infinite game: A finite player is always striving to end the game by winning. Paradoxically, even if he wins, he will never be satisfied as he finds comfort only in the ending, not in the process. Meaning that he needs to enter another game when the previous ends. Another game where he will strive to win. As we can conclude, this is a vicious cycle because the player is never satisfied. In contrast, infinite players focus not so much on the outcome but on the purpose of playing. These performers find joy in what they do, and they don’t wish this activity to cease. Quite the opposite, they are doing everything they can to continuing to play.
Commentary and My Personal Takeaway
While short, this book is so deep and thought-provoking that it’s hard to define the spectrum of the content. It’s about how to approach life, but it’s also about much more than that.
Finite and Infinite Games is a book about everything. A philosophical examination of how we live our lives and how we are to live our lives.
Carse presents the world as a playground where you’re either a finite player or infinite. The first group, is focused solely on winning the game – on the outcome, the gains from the end result – whereas the second is more interested in the continuation of the game – the process, doing the actual activity.
While finite players pursue rewards that are solely chased to give them titles so other players can see them as more than what they are. Infinite players, in contrast, focus on doing things that will be remembered even long after their gone. They are not interested in how others perceive them. They are more concerned now the world can benefit from their deeds.
Infinite players, also referred to as Master Players, don’t perceive the limitations set by society as obstacles. They see them as part of the game. Therefore, they play with the rules, they don’t feel oppressed by them.
But these are just part of the insightful concepts presented in this short, but intriguing book.
If you want to carve your own path and find a worthy game to involve yourself in, this book will surely aid you. If you consider yourself an expert, a guru loved by everyone, you’ll surely reject the ideas inside. Not because they are not true, but because they will take away the (false) perception you’ve built for yourself.
A finite player trains to be prepared. He believes that his preparation will be enough to get him the prize he so desperately desires. The infinite player knows that preparation is good but also realizes that you cannot be fully prepared. He is perfectly aware that he will be surprised, no matter how hard he trains.
“Every move an infinite player makes is toward the horizon. Every move made by a finite player is within a boundary. Every moment of an infinite game therefore presents a new vision, a new range of possibilities.” James P. Carse
“We are players in search of a world as often as we are world in search of players, and sometimes we are both at once.” James P. Carse
“For the finite player in us freedom is a function of time. We must have the time to be free. For the infinite player in us time is a function of freedom. We are free to have time. A finite player puts play into time. An infinite player puts time into play.” James P. Carse
“One is never ill in general. One is always ill with relation to some bounded activity. It is not cancer that makes me ill. It is because I cannot work, or run, or swallow that I am ill with cancer.” James P. Carse
What to read next:
- Amusing Ourselves To Death by Neil Postman [Summary]
- To Have or to Be? by Erich Fromm [Summary]
- The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler & Robin Hanson [Summary]