Saturday, May 4, 2019

The Contrast Between Finite Games and Infinite Games

James Carse's book Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility is divided into seven chapters that contain 101 numbered passages. The first passage briefly explains the book's premise and defines its two key terms:
There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite.
A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play. 
The rest of the book expands upon and explores this premise and those key terms. For instance, Carse declares that the only common trait of both kinds of games is "Whoever must play, cannot play."

He adds, "Finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play with boundaries." According to Carse, in a finite game, only one person may win, but the other contestants may be ranked at the end. The rules of a finite game cannot change but the rules of an infinite game must change.

Carse's text contains numerous axiom-like statements, such as, "To be prepared against surprise is to be trained. To be prepared for surprise is to be educated" and "Power is always measured in units of comparison. In fact, it is a term of competition: How much resistance can I overcome relative to others?"

Carse also writes, "It is in the interest of a society therefore to encourage competition within itself, to establish the largest possible number of prizes, for the holders of prizes will be those most likely to defend the society as a whole against its competitors."

The overarching theme Carse's book is not explicitly expressed but is evident upon a close reading: life is an infinite game without boundaries and the road to happiness is not paved merely by winning a series of finite games but rather by making choices/decisions based on higher values/beliefs or, put another way, by taking a long term, big picture view as opposed to taking a short term, small picture view. This is not a novel viewpoint but Carse's method of describing this viewpoint is thought provoking.

Carse provides an interesting perspective on many subjects. For instance, consider his take on knowledge: 
Knowledge, therefore, is like property. It must be published, declared, or in some other way so displayed that others cannot but take account of it. It must stand in their way. It must be emblematic, pointing backward at its possessor's competitive skill.

So close are knowledge and property that they are often thought to be continuous. Those who are entitled to knowledge feel they should be granted property as well, and those who are entitled to property believe a certain knowledge goes with it. Scholars demand higher salaries for their publishable successes; industrialists sit on university boards.
Here, Carse describes the power of speech:
The victorious do not speak with the defeated; they speak for the defeated. Husbands speak for wives in the finite family, and parents for their children. Kings speak for the realm, governors for the state, popes for the church. Indeed, the titled, as titled, cannot speak with anyone.

It is chiefly in magisterial speech that the power of winners resides. To be powerful is to have one's word obeyed. It is only by magisterial speech that the emblematic property of winners can be safeguarded. Those entitled to their possession have the privilege of calling the police, calling up an army, to force the recognition of their emblems.
Carse discusses what it means to travel:
Genuine travelers travel not to overcome distance but to discover distance. It is not distance that makes travel necessary, but travel that makes distance possible. Distance is not determined by the measurable length between objects, but by the actual differences between them. The motels around the airports in Chicago and Atlanta are so little different from the motels around the airports of Tokyo and Frankfurt that all essential distances dissolve in likeness. What is truly separated is distinct; it is unlike. "The only true voyage would be not to travel through a hundred different lands with the same pair of eyes, but to see the same land through a hundred different pairs of eyes." (Proust)
Simon Sinek explains the difference between finite games and infinite games this way: Sinek believes that the Soviet Union played a finite game in Afghanistan because the primary Soviet goal was to defeat the rebels as quickly as possible, but the rebels played an infinite game and were thus able to outlast the Soviets. Of course, one could interject that the advanced weaponry provided to the rebels by the United States also played a role in the outcome, but Sinek's point is that people, businesses and nations that take a longer term, more flexible view are more likely not just to survive but to thrive than are people, businesses and nations that exert a lot of energy to pursue short-term, limited victories.

Sometimes, Carse tries too hard to be profound or to use cute word play at the expense of clarity. Overall, though, Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility is an interesting read and the thoughtful reader will find within it much that is worth consideration. If nothing else, contemplating Carse's point of view on various subjects has the effect of shaking one out of complacency and forcing one to consider the implications of how society is structured and functions. It should be obvious that dividing everything into just two categories--finite and infinite--is an oversimplification of a complicated reality but oversimplification is an inescapable result of any theory or philosophy; the nature of trying to describe complex phenomena is to (over)simplify in an attempt to achieve at least a basic level of discernment/understanding.

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