Finite and Infinite Games - A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility
jbone at place.org
jbone at place.org
Tue Dec 2 11:10:00 PST 2003
There's an interesting book I came across a while back that bears
mentioning in conjunction with the game theory / ethics / games among
asymmetric players thread. Though it sounds like a technical title,
it's not: it's not about game theory. It's admittedly a kind of
touchy-feely pop-philosophy book; but it's thought-provoking
nonetheless and might inspire a more rigorous exploration of game
theory in potentially infinite iterated games, so-called "fluid" games,
games with asymmetrical and / or mutually-determined rules, etc.
Here's a write-up:
Finite and Infinite Games
There are at least two kinds of games: finite and infinite.
A finite game is a game that has fixed rules and boundaries, that is
played for the purpose of winning and thereby ending the game.
An infinite game has no fixed rules or boundaries. In an infinite game
you play with the boundaries and the purpose is to continue the game.
Finite players are serious; infinite games are playful.
Finite players try to control the game, predict everything that will
happen, and set the outcome in advance. They are serious and determined
about getting that outcome. They try to fix the future based on the
Infinite players enjoy being surprised. Continuously running into
something one didn't know will ensure that the game will go on. The
meaning of the past changes depending on what happens in the future.
All games are inherently voluntary. There might be consequences of not
playing, but there is always a choice required. Driving in the right
side of the road, shaking people's hands, and paying taxes are games
one has a choice about playing. There are certain rules and boundaries
that appear to be externally defined, and you choose to follow them or
not. If you stop following them you aren't playing the game any longer.
There is no rule that says you have to follow the rules.
All finite games have rules. If you follow the rules you are playing
the game. If you don't follow the rules you aren't playing. If you move
the pieces in different ways in chess, you are no longer playing chess.
Infinite players play with rules and boundaries. They include them as
part of their playing. They aren't taking them serious, and they can
never be trapped by them, because they use rules and boundaries to play
In a theatrical play the actor knows that she really isn't Ophelia. The
audience knows that she really isn't Ophelia. But if she does a good
job, Ophelia can express herself through the actor. The playing is most
enjoyable when it is both clear that it is chosen play, that it is the
actor doing it voluntarily, and at the same time it is so convincing,
following the rules well enough that it seems real.
You can play finite games within an infinite game. You can not play
infinite games within a finite game.
You can do what you do seriously, because you must do it, because you
must survive to the end, and you are afraid of dying and other
consequences. Or, you can do everything you do playfully, always
knowing you have a choice, having no need to survive the way you are,
allowing every element of the play to transform you, taking pleasure in
every surprise you meet. Those are the differences between finite and
These ideas are paraphrased from the delightful book:
"Finite and Infinite Games - A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility"
by James P. Carse
ISBN 0-345-34184-8, Ballantine, $4.95
The book can be had at:
Circling back to the conversation at hand, it's my *suspicion* and
*hope* that as power increases for any individual or civilization, so
does the likelihood of them playing as an "infinite game player" in the
above sense. At the bounds of power, this likelihood could approach
unity: it seems to me that there's no particular reason for it *not*
to approach unity.
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