Ric Amurrio
14 min readDec 20, 2018



James Carse’s vision of Life as Play and Possibility.

James Carse makes the case that the world and our experience of it can be divided into at least two different types of games — finite and infinite games. We cannot play alone, in finite games, we must have an opponent to play against and usually teammates to play with. One cannot be human by oneself. There is no selfhood where there is no community. We do not relate to others as the persons we are; we are who we are in relating to others.”

Only one person or team can win a finite game, but the non-winners could be ranked at the end. Not everyone can be a CEO, but there are other positions.If you must play a game, you cannot play a game. Finite games can be played within an infinite game, but an infinite game cannot be played within a finite game.


A Finite Game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.” As its name suggests, a finite game has a definitive end and a defined number of players.

Finite games are those instrumental activities — from sports to politics to wars — in which the participants obey rules, recognize boundaries and announce winners and losers.

Take push versus pull. While not a perfect match, finite games tend to be won by push strategies. Push type” means Make to Stock in which the production is not based on actual demand. “Pull type” means Make To Order in which the production is based on actual demand. … Supply chain models of “Push type” and “Pull type” are opposite in terms of a demand and supply relationship.

While an infinite game rewards those who pursue pull strategies. Push requires predictability and limits while pull draws out potential in unexpected ways without limit.

Whoever plays a finite game plays freely, but it is often the case that finite players will be unaware of this freedom and will think that whatever they do they must do.

  • No one is forced to be a lawyer, but once you decide to be a lawyer, there are rules you must follow to continue being a lawyer.
  • Since you play a finite game to win, every move must be in the goal of winning, and so you believe you must make whatever moves are necessary to win.
  • It may seem that the prizes of winning are indispensable, that life is meaningless without them.

The fields of play do not impose themselves on us, all limitations of finite play are self-limitations.

A degree of self-veiling (self-deception) is necessary in all finite games, since we must forget they are optional in order to be motivated to win. This is true with all roles. You step freely into the role of mother, but once in it, you must suspend your freedom to give the role the attention it requires.

The desire of all finite players is to be a “Master Player,” one who is perfectly skilled at the game and who can play as if they already know the outcome.

“A finite game is within a world. The fact that it must be limited temporally, numerically, and spatially means that there is something against which the limits stand. There is an outside to every finite game. Its limits are meaningless unless there is something to be limited, unless there is a larger space, a longer time, a greater number of possible competitors.”

We are players in search of a world as often as we are world in search of players. Some worlds pass quickly in and out of existence, some sustain for longer, but no world lasts forever. There is an indefinite number of worlds. Finite play also occurs within a time frame. Time is a diminishing quantity. For the finite player, freedom is a function of time. We must have time to be free.


Infinite Games in contrast transcend time and invite anyone who is willing to play to join in. Ceaseless change is not a discontinuing, change is the continuity, only that which can change can continue, this is the infinite player’s principle.

The infinite player does not consume time but generates it. Because infinite play is dramatic and unscripted, its time is time lived and not time viewed. An infinite player does not begin working for the purpose of filling time with work, but for the purpose of filling work with time. Work is not an infinite player’s way of passing time, but of engendering possibility. Work is a way of moving towards a future which itself has a future.

The fluidity of change gives us a challenge: how to keep all of our finite games in infinite play. This is misunderstood as needing to find room for playfulness within finite games.


The rules of a finite game are set in advance and cannot be changed. The rules of a finite game are the contractual terms by which the players can agree on who won. These are not laws, in that they don’t mandate certain behaviors, but they restrain the freedom of players, allowing for choices within those restraints. Rules are valid only if and when players freely play by them. In a finite game, the rules are fixed until there is a winner,


On the other hand, the rules of an infinite game can and must evolve to ensure the continuation and expansion of the game. In an infinite game, the rules must change during the course of play. The rules of an infinite game are changed to prevent anyone from winning the game, and to bring as many other persons as possible into play.


The rules of a finite game are like the rules of a debate. The rules of a debate dictate how the debate ends,


An infinite game, like language. The rules of language ensure language continues.


In a similar vein, finite games are all about competing for stocks of knowledge and goods


infinite game is all about participating effectively in flows to draw out potential and possibility. Infinite players cannot say how much they have completed in their work or love or quarreling, but only that much remains incomplete in it. They are not concerned to determine when it is over, but only what comes of it.


while finite games treat resources as a given, shifting the focus to stocks.


An infinite game is about fluidity and growth, motivating participants to seek flows


“Finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play with boundaries.” Finite games are ways to cope with uncertainty — they impose boundaries and rules. In doing so, they also shorten one’s time horizons, set people in direct conflict with each other and erode trust.

Society is defined by its boundary. A boundary is a phenomenon of opposition. A horizon is a phenomenon of vision. You cannot look at it or reach it, you can only extend it. Every move an infinite player makes is towards the horizon. Every move a finite player makes is within a boundary.

Distant Horizon

An infinite game counteracts these cognitive biases by focusing players on distant horizons and highlighting the potential to make greater progress by striking a productive balance between competition and collaboration. An infinite game promotes trust and therefore makes it easier to participate in flows


Similarly, A finite Game has a beginning, middle and end while


the latter is open-ended and invites expanding participation by others. Carse devotes quite a bit of time to stories and myths and their role in both finite and infinite games.


The true believer knows exactly what the destination is and the path required to get there — think of adherents to fundamentalist religions and many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. This form of passion naturally tends to view life as a finite game — the game ends when the destination has been reached and there are clear rules or ways to proceed in order to reach the destination.


The explorer is passionately committed to making an increasing difference in a selected domain but has no destination in mind and certainly has no pre-determined pathway. The explorer is focused on drawing out potential and possibility and thus naturally drawn to viewing life as an infinite game. An infinite game nurtures both the questing and connecting dispositions that are the defining elements of the passion of the explorer.


Finite players seek predictability while infinite players embrace unpredictability. Finite players avoid surprise and try to plan around them. To be prepared against surprise is to be trained,


“Surprise causes finite play to end; it is the reason for infinite play to continue.” Infinite players expect to be surprised and continue their play in pursuit of be prepared for surprise is to be educated. Training regards the past as finished and the future to be finished. Education leads toward a continuing self-discovery; training leads toward a final self-definition.

Titles and Power

Titles point backwards in time, they’re based in an unrepeatable past. To speak of a person’s power is to speak of what they’ve already done, to see power is to look backward in time. It’s bestowed after play is complete.

Schools are a form of finite game, to the degree that they give ranked awards to those who win degrees from them. Those awards qualify graduates for competition in still higher games, like prestigious colleges, and then professional schools beyond that, with a continuing sequence of higher games in each profession, and so forth.


Finite games are ultimately power games — acquiring power, expanding power and retaining power. Finite play requires perception of great power


Infinite games are not about power but strength.

“Strength is paradoxical. I am not strong because I can force others to do what I wish as a result of my play with them, but because I can allow them to do what they wish in the course of my play with them.” Finite play requires perception of great power while infinite play encourages expression of vulnerability — “exposing one’s ceaseless growth, the dynamic self that has yet to be.”


Finite games are serious. Seriousness always has to do with an established script, an ordering of affairs completed somewhere outside the range of our influence. To be serious is to press for a specified conclusion


an infinite game is playful.

What confounds a society is not serious opposition, but the lack of seriousness altogether. Generals can more easily suffer attempts to oppose their warfare with poiesis than attempts to show warfare as poiesis.

We are playful when we engage others at the level of choice, when there is no telling in advance where our relationship with them will come out . . . . seriousness is a dread of the unpredictable outcome of open possibility. To be playful is to allow for possibility, whatever the cost to oneself. Infinite players do not avoid finite games, they enter into them with the appropriate energy and self veiling, but without the seriousness of finite players. They embrace the abstractness, and take them up playfully.


Winners, especially celebrated winners, must prove repeatedly that they are winners. The script must be played over and over again. No one is ever wealthy enough, honored enough, applauded enough.

This does not mean that infinite players are politically disengaged; it means rather that they are political without having a politics, a paradoxical position easily misinterpreted. To have a politics is to have a set of rules by which one attempts to reach a desired end; to be political — in the sense meant here — is to recast rules in the attempt to eliminate all societal ends, that is, to maintain the essential fluidity of human association.


A culture is sometimes opposed by suppressing it’s ideas, but this is bound to fail, since it confuses the creative activity (poiesis) with the product (poiema) of that activity.

This is why every new participant in a culture both enters into an existing context and simultaneously changes that context. Each new speaker of its language both learns the language and alters it. Each new adoption of a tradition makes it a new tradition — just as the family into which a child is born existed prior to that birth,


Explanation is an antagonistic encounter that succeeds by defeating an opponent. It possesses the same dynamic of resentment found in other finite play. I will press my explanations on you because I need to show that I do not live in the error that I think others think I do.


Knowledge and property are so close that they’re thought to be continuous. Those who are entitled to knowledge feel they should be granted property as well, and those entitled to property believe some knowledge goes with it.


The measure of a finite speaker’s discourse is in what precedes its utterance, what is already the case and is the case whether or not it is spoken.

An infinite speaker’s discourse lies in what comes of its utterance, whatever is the case because it is spoken.

Storytellers invite us to return from knowledge to thinking, from a bounded way of looking to a horizontal way of seeing.


Finite games are theatrical, necessitating an audience; We display the success of what we have done by not having to do anything. The more we use up, the more we show ourselves to be winners of past contests. Those who society does not want to forget are given prominent eternal monuments at the heart of capital cities, taking up considerable space, making people go around them.

It is apparent to infinite players that wealth is not possessed as much as it is performed.


infinite ones are dramatic, involving participants.


Whoever chooses to compete with another can also choose to play with another. Sexuality doesn’t have to be bounded, it can be horizontal. Infinite players do not play within sexual boundaries, but with sexual boundaries. They cannot be said to be heterosexual, homosexual, etc.

The triumph of finite sexuality is to be liberated from play into the body. The essence of infinite sexuality is to be liberated into play with the body. In finite sexuality, I relate to you as a body; in infinite sexuality, I relate to you in your body.


The result of approaching nature as a hostile other whose designs are inimical to our interests is the “Machine” “Machine” is inclusive of technology and not an example of it. The machine is driven by a force which must be introduced from without, the garden is grown by an energy which originates from within itself.

To operate a machine is to operate like a machine, we not only operate with each other like machines, we operate each other like machines.

Machinery is meant to work changes without changing its operator, while gardening transforms its workers. You learn how to drive a car, you learn to drive as a car, but you become a gardener.

We make use of machines in the belief we can increase the range of our freedom, and instead only decrease it, so we use machines against ourselves.

We do not buy an automobile to own some machinery, but rather what it will let us do: move rapidly from one place to another, show wealth, hide from the weather.


The result of learning to discipline ourselves to consist with the deepest discernible patterns of natural order is the “Garden”

“Garden” is not a garden someone lives beside, but a garden one lives within. It is a place for growth, maximum spontaneity. Gardening is a horizontal activity.

The more power we exercise over natural forces the more powerless we become before them.

Infinite players understand that the more complex a garden, the more numerous its sources of change, and the more vigorous its liveliness. Growth promotes growth. We understand nature as source when we understand ourselves as source. We abandon attempts at explanation of nature when we see that we cannot be explained, when our own self-origination cannot be stated as fact.

A garden is not something we have over which we stand as gods. It’s a poiesis, a receptivity to variety, a vision of differences that leads always to a making of differences. The poet joyously suffers the unlike, reduces nothing, explains nothing, possesses nothing.


The importance of reducing time in travel is that by arriving as quickly as possible we need not feel as though we had left at all. Neither space nor time can affect us, as if they belong to us and not we to them. Genuine travel has no destination, travelers do not go somewhere, but constantly discover that they are somewhere else.


Travel is not measured in distance, but in actual difference. The motels around the airports in Frankfurt and Tokyo are very similar. True travel is to see the same things through different eyes.


Waste is not the result of what we have made, it is what we have made. Waste is unveiling, when we find ourselves standing in garbage, we realize it is garbage we have chosen to make, and so we could have chosen not to make it. So we remove it, we place it out of sight.

The more waste a society produces, the more revealing that waste is, and the harder they work to hide it.


A story attains the status of myth when it is retold, and persistently retold, solely for its own sake.

Resonance vs Amplification

The opposite of resonance is amplification. A choir is the unified expression of a voice resonating with each other, a loudspeaker is the amplification of a single voice, excluding all others. A bell resonates, a cannon amplifies. We listen to the bell, we are silenced by the cannon.

The loudspeaker, muting all other voices and therefore all possibility of conversation, is not listened to at all, and therefore loses its voice and becomes mere noise.

How to play an infinite game in a world of finite games

One conclusion stands out. It warns us of the dysfunctional behavior engendered by limits and at the same time it highlights the extraordinary opportunity that arises when we embrace potential and possibility

Our institutional architectures — everything from corporations and non-profits to schools and governments — are built on push-driven, finite game views of the world. If one wants to pursue an infinite game instead, what does one do? Do you take these institutional architectures head-on and seek to oppose and/or transform them?

This is an issue that Carse addresses only in passing. He provides a clue with this observation: “Infinite players do not oppose the actions of others, but initiate actions of their own in such a way that others will respond by initiating their own.”

Or, in my words, pull, don’t push. By going into opposition with finite game players, it is easy to get sucked into a finite game. Far better, if possible, to avoid direct confrontation and find ways to pursue infinite game play on the margins or edges of finite game institutions or in the white spaces not yet occupied by finite game institutions.

By drawing attention to horizons that have not yet been explored and demonstrating the ability to make progress in drawing out more potential and possibility, infinite game players have a greater chance of shifting the game and attracting other players. By building parallel institutions and practices that pull others into their game, infinite game players can attract enough critical mass so that they can pursue their quests with lower risk of intervention from the finite game players who view such actions as deeply subversive.

The point of all this? Ah, to be the Player of the Infinite Game, not the Master of the finite ones.

‘’I am the genius of myself,’’ Mr. Carse says, proclaiming everyone’s potential; infinite players are ‘’aware that their reading of the poetry is itself poetry.’’ Infinite players are not serious actors in any story, but the joyful poets of a story that continues to originate what they cannot finish.

“There is but one infinite game.”