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

jbone at jbone at
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 
infinite players.

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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