Bookcover - Finite and Infinite Games

Finite and Infinite Games

by James P. Carse

Rating: 8/10


Humans play all kinds of games with each other and with themselves. Most of human activity can be looked at through this lens of "games that we play". There are status games, money games, games of friendship and family.

Games can be divided into two broad groups.

  • Zero Sum Games, where we compete with other players for some limited amount of resources and the game ends if one player got all of the resources for themselves.
  • Positive Sum Games, where through the act of playing the game the amount of resources grows and the game continues, potentially forever.

In the book these ideas are mapped onto their time aspect. Positive sum games are infinite games. There are no winners or losers, since there is fundamentally no end to the game.

All finite games on the other hand, are self-defeating. Their purpose of playing is to stop playing as soon as possible. The earlier the game stops, the sooner the result of the competition is known. Finite games are fundamentally concerned with how to end themselves. And this makes not much sense for a game. A game that you play, only to stop playing it as soon as possible, is not worth playing at all. It has to be a horrible game, otherwise, why would you want to stop playing it?

Rules and Boundedness

Finite games have a fixed set of rules, whereas in infinite games the rules have to change over time. The landscape of the game changes, because people evolve what it means to play the game, through their participation.

People are limited by these rules, when playing finite games, you are self-limited, because you accept the rules as given, and need to abide by them if you want to win the game. Winning the game comes with some form of reward, a title. Winning a finite game, also always means, there is a loser on the other end. Finite games are motivated by how good it feels to win, but also by how bad it feels to lose. We are afraid of losing, hence we compete as hard as we can. Often feeling, like we compete for life and death, even though that is rarely the case. In a way, finite games are not really playful. They are not spontaneous, but rigid, and hard, anxiety and stress provoking.

Only infinite games are worth playing, since their goal is not self-defeating. Infinite games want to be played as long as possible. The challenge comes from pushing yourself to ever greater lengths of play, further challenging yourself, pushing the boundaries of what's possible and improving things, forever. The central idea then is to play only games that are positive sum in their nature.

The Only Game

Finally, there is only one infinite game: The game of life itself. Perpetuating life, and helping to perpetuate it, as best as we can, is, in the end, the only game worth playing. All other infinite games derive from that, they are sub-games (you could totally think of them as "quests") to this prime game of life itself. Even finite games are embedded subgames within this infinite game. Being aware of the infinite game is a paradigm shift.