James P Carse: Finite and Infinite Games

I found the work of James P Carse very interesting for conflict work and thought a short posting of his approach might be interesting. Here is though it is hard to track down much about him since he left NYU:

Here he is talking. We have come to expect our academic gurus to be fluent, concise, sound bite merchants, often brilliant, but an easy listen or read. James is not this: listening to this hour or so lecture, you need to pay attention, as he is not being concise or glib, but struggling with really interesting insights in front of us and hopefully this roughness actually helps us begin to think differently as he provides no easy answers….


Finite vs. Infinite

With this philosophy text, Carse demonstrates a way of looking at actions in life as being a part of at least two types of what he describes as “games”, finite and infinite. Both games are played within rules, as agreed upon by the participants; however, the meaning of the rules are different between the two types of games. The book stresses a non-serious (or “playful”) view of life on the part of “players”, referring to their choices as “moves”, and societal constructs and mores as “rules” and “boundaries”.

His idea is that when a person sees themselves as “playing” in “games” usually seen as serious events, they are more likely to keep an open mind and find themselves less bothered by things that might have troubled them a lot in the past (although that can be an overgeneralized statement, as Carse frequently stresses that sometimes seriousness is a required rule of play in a finite game).

He regularly uses familiar terms in similar, but more metaphorical meanings – such as his use of the terms boundaries vs. horizons in that boundaries are “rules” that one must stay within when playing a finite game, while horizons move with the player, and are constantly changing as he or she “plays”. The use of “deeper” meanings to everyday words is a common tool in philosophy and academia but the academic or philosophic ethic is to communicate a clear definition of the word being used in the new context.

In short, a finite game is played with the purpose of winning (thus ending the game), while an infinite game is played with the purpose of continuing the play.

Finite games have a definite beginning and ending. They are played with the goal of winning. A finite game is resolved within the context of its rules, with a winner of the contest being declared and receiving a victory. The rules exist to ensure the game is finite. Examples are debates, sports, receiving a degree from an educational institution, belonging to a society, or engaging in war. Beginning to participate in a finite game requires conscious thought, and is voluntary; continued participation in a round of the game is involuntary. Even exiting the game early must be provided for by the rules. This may be likened to a zero sum game (though not all finite games are literally zero sum, in that the sum of positive outcomes can vary).

Infinite games, on the other hand, do not have a knowable beginning or ending. They are played with the goal of continuing play and a purpose of bringing more players into the game. An infinite game continues play, for sake of play. If the game is approaching resolution because of the rules of play, the rules must be changed to allow continued play. The rules exist to ensure the game is infinite. The only known example is life. Beginning to participate in an infinite game may be involuntary, in that it doesn’t require conscious thought. Continuing participation in the current round of game-play is voluntary. “It is an invariable principle of all play, finite and infinite, that whoever plays, plays freely” (p. 4)

PS I love his phrase: ‘The leisure of the theory class’ and his self mocking in his lecture. What gets him out of bed in the morning? His wife and his love of breakfast….


About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
This entry was posted in Conflict Movies, Conflict Processes, Creativity and Conflict, Philosophy of Conflict, Uncategorized, Ways to handle conflict and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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