James Carse: Finite and Infinite Games

[Readings] (03.17.09, 5:34 pm)

Finite and Infinite Games is ultimately a philosophical work, reverberating with a kind of immanent philosophy that might be found in the Tao te Ching. Content of work is really two ways of looking at the world, juxtaposed. These are the finite and infinite games. One can view the world in a finite sense or an infinite sense. In Carse’s view, finite and infinite are literal according to their etymology. Meaning literally with or without end. His aim in the book is to explore these as apply to political, social, sexual, philosophical, and religious lives. My own interest comes from application to games of the digital variety, but also in finding ways to apply Carse’s concepts to a theory of models.

Finite games are played to be won, whereas infinite games are played for the sake of continuing play. Finite games are also distinguished by the role of opposition, where there must be at least one opponent. There may only be one winner of a finite game. Rules in finite games are fixed, but in an infinite game, the rules may and must be changed over the course of play.

There is a complex relationship between past and future in these games. These are discussed as depending on the role of surprise, which is an unexpected occurrence or situation. Surprise is a victory of the future over the past within an infinite game. Surprises are positive things in infinite games, as they reveal new beginnings. In an infinite game the present is not predetermined by the past. In finite games, surprise is usually feared or undesirable. To be prepared against surprise is to be trained, whereas to prepare for surprise is to be educated. Training is the means of removing the possibility for surprises to occur, while education reveals the inherent uncertainty of the past.

At stake in finite games are titles, indicators that one has won a finite game. These titles manifest in power over others, and the goal of a finite game is to obtain that power. Infinite players play to gain freedom and is enabling of others rather than constraining or forcing them.

Carse describes society and culture in opposition, where society is a more finite game and culture is more infinitely oriented. Society is about enabling deviations from the script, whereas society is about sanctioning them. This view is very different from anthropological senses of culture.

Another dimension is between drama and theatricality. The former is an infinite concept, where the latter is a finite one. The essence of drama is something that Carse calls “genius” but is a term that relates more to its etymological root rather than its conventional usage. Genius in Carse’s view means more of the generator or originator of something, and is tied into the concept of spontaneity. To speak as a genius is to speak to somebody. To speak not as a genius is to recite to an audience. Dramatic action is totally original, becoming gone forever once over.

This perspective is interesting in relation to Goffman, who attests that interaction is inherently theatrical, and involves reciting of existing ideas rather than original actions. Goffman’s view can be seen as in the spectrum towards Baudrillard, who argues that due to simulation, there are no spontaneous gestures, only reflections of others, ad nauseam. Carse’s view is also interesting from the perspective of cognition and AI, because his idea of the infinite player asserts a self that is more than its parts. “A robot can say words but cannot say them to you.” (p. 5 in summary)

The infinite perspective reveals that our understanding of the world is ireperably incomplete. Essentially, to see that one’s own view is incomplete is to see at all. This is an extremely important concept and is a cornerstone upon which a theory of models must be built.

Carse compares the idea of the “Master Player” to the eternality of nature. The master player is a finite player who masters all the rules, and the future of a finite game. “It is the desire of all finite players to be Master Players, to be so perfectly skilled in their play that nothing can surprise them, so perfectly trained that every move in the game is foreseen at the beginning. A true Master Player plays as though the game is already in the past, according to a script whose every detail is known prior to the play itself.” (Chapter 16) The Master Player concept is woven into the concepts and assumptions of AI. To some extent, this is necessary, but it reflects a philosophical problem. Games (of the electronic variety) that can be mastered teach the players to be Master Players, to embrace the finite nature of the game.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorCarse, J.P.
TitleFinite and Infinite Games
Tagsgames, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

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