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Reflections on Finite and Infinite Games December 7, 2009

Posted by allenb120 in [Books] Ways of Thinking.

While I enjoyed Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse, based on the class presentations, I believe there are more useful books to read for the “Ways of Thinking” assignment.  The thesis is that “[t]here 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 play.”  In terms of the goals of our course, I think this book would apply to Assumptions and Mental Models.

Examples of finite games include careers, soccer, football and elections.  Finite games have a beginning and an end.  Play continues until the players are convinced the game is over.  A finite game has boundaries or rules.  There is a winner and a loser.  While finite games must be played voluntarily, players must be selected for play, and a finite game cannot be played alone.   An infinite game also must be played voluntarily.  However, there is no beginning or end.  An infinite game can have many finite games included in it.  The rules of an infinite game deal with threats to the continuation of play.

The author draws several distinctions to distinguish between finite and infinite games.  For example: theatrical vs. dramatic.  Theatrical play is scripted and performed for an audience.  Dramatic play keeps possibilities open, making scripts useless.  The author provides the following example of this distinction: performing the role of mother is theatrical and is a finite game while choosing to be a mother is dramatic and is part of an infinite game.  Another example is the difference between contradiction and paradox.  A finite game includes the contradiction that the purpose of the finite game is to end the game.  The infinite game includes the paradox that the purpose of the infinite game is to start something you cannot finish and to continue play for others.  A further difference is between explanation (finite) and narrative (infinite).  “Explanation sets the need for further inquiry aside; narrative invites us to rethink what we thought we knew.”

In connection with the infinite games and continuing play, the book included the following:

  • “Genuine travel has no destination. Travelers do not go somewhere, but constantly discover they are somewhere else.”
  • “‘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
  • “[T]he very liveliness of a culture is determined not by how frequently these thinkers discover new continents of knowledge [explanations] but by how frequently they depart to seek them.”


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