Books : reviews

James P. Carse.
Finite and Infinite Games.
Ballantine. 1986

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 28 May 2001

A friend who knows I am interested in complexity and emergent properties recommended this deeply weird and fascinating little book to me.

A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.

The "games" referred to are the ones we play in our lives: from sporting contests, through our jobs, family roles, societies, art, and religions, to war. His discussion of the infinite games is more abstract -- maybe necessarily so, given his surprising conclusion (which I definitely disagree with ... I think).

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

Carse contrasts finite games -- scripted, theatrical, constrained, limiting, and serious -- with infinite games -- creative, dramatic, open, surprising, playful. It is not hard to determine which he prefers! The contrast can be summed up as a final destination versus a continuing journey. He also has an interesting perspective on evil, as being whatever stops us playing the infinite games.

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

Much of what Carse says resonates deeply with me -- I definitely find the kind of infinite games more fascinating, and more fulfilling, than the finite ones, and I appreciate the kinds of contrasts he is trying to make between the parts of our lives that are finite and infinite. Yet I disagree with some of his classifications.

For example, towards the end he contrasts (finite) machines and (infinite) gardens. He claims machinery is finite because it lacks spontaneity (he must never have used a certain operating system!), because of the way it limits us, forces us to behave under its constraints. His main example is that a car insulates us from the surprises available by travelling (and that we are constrained to travel along roads), merely depositing us untouched at our destination. He shows that we are controlled by our machines because, say, if a friend is unreachable by whatever machines we have available to reach them (car, telephone, ...), then we will choose a new friend. He contrasts this with the open possibilities of a garden, saying that "gardeners kill nothing", that they instead harvest, and celebrate variety and spontaneity.

I disagree with both of these extremes, the machine aspect more so. So let me dispose of the gardeners first. Gardeners certainly kill. No matter how much spontaneity and creativity they are encouraging, every gardener encourages it in a certain direction (otherwise they are doing nothing, and cannot be considered a gardener) -- and hence limits and "kills" those directions not encouraged. Every slug drowned in a beer trap, every weed pulled and composted, every ant stepped on whilst walking around the garden, every direction discouraged, is a degree of death.

As for machines -- yes, we are constrained by them to some degree, but we are also given more possibilities by them. We can be constrained even more by their absence. I do not need to use the car only to bypass travelling to get me to a destination -- I can use it to exchange some low-surprise travelling (along some familiar route) to move me further along my journey and allow me an increase in possible behaviours as I continue my travelling yet further afield. And yes, we are clearly constrained to have friends only within the group we can communicate with. But machines can make that group so much larger. For example, the friend who recommended this book to me lives on the other side of the planet, and we have only ever "met" via email and the Web. So without those particular devices, I would never have met that friend, never have had some surprising conversations, never have rethought some boundaries, and never read this book.

Any book that causes both deep resonances and deep disagreements must certainly be worth reading.