Reading notes 2: Infinite play

Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse

🎧 Podcast version

I finished this book and immediately started reading it again.

“It is an invariable principle of all play, finite and infinite, that whoever plays, plays freely. Whoever must play, cannot play.”

I don’t know what else to say. It makes my brain hurt a little bit, but in a good way? Is that a thing? Yes. That is a thing. It is stunning.

“Infinite players cannot say when their game began, nor do they care. They do not care for the reason that their game is not bounded by time. Indeed, the only purpose of the game is to prevent it from coming to an end, to keep everyone in play.”

It’s another case of the absolute right book at the absolute right time, so maybe it’s not the right time and you’ll look at it and think, Meh, but maybe it is the right time for you, so at least give it a try.

Because it is fucking amazing.

“Finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play with boundaries.”

If you have too many books on your to-read stack, you can podcast-read it instead. There are a few lengthy discussions/summarizations of the book: here’s one from Made You Think and here’s one from Stuff to Blow Your Mind (who names these podcasts?) and here’s an interview with author James Carse.

“At which point do we confront the fact that we live one life and perform another, or others, attempting to make our momentary forgetting true and lasting forgetting? What makes this an issue is not the morality of masking ourselves. It is rather that self-veiling is a contradictory act—a free suspension of our freedom. I cannot forget that I have forgotten.”

The idea of wearing masks, or playing roles, is one that keeps coming up for me. Must be something I need to learn here.

Jung mentions that the individuated person can step in and out of roles at will.

Carse echoes with the statement that finite play isn’t possible without “self-veiling” of some kind, which means stepping into a role, performing, acting a part, wearing a mask in one sense or another:

“The issue here is not whether self-veiling can be avoided, or even should be avoided. Indeed, no finite play is possible without it. The issue is whether we are ever willing to drop the veil and openly acknowledge, if only to ourselves, that we have freely chosen to face the world through a mask.”

There’s a naïve view that says, “Let’s all be perfectly honest and completely real all the time with each other and drop all the masks and the roles.”

Perhaps that’s the ultimate goal, but getting there is a process. Getting there requires first being completely honest with ourselves, and that’s not easy. There’s no deception like self-deception.

“…all the limitations of finite play are self-limitations.”

The important distinction between infinite players and finite players is not that finite players wear masks, and infinite players do not. Rather, it’s that infinite players realize consciously what they are doing; they don’t take it seriously.

“Since finite games can be played within an infinite game, infinite players do not eschew the performed roles of finite play. On the contrary, they enter into finite games with all the appropriate energy and self-veiling, but they do so without the seriousness of finite players. They embrace the abstractness of finite games as abstractness, and therefore take them up not seriously, but playfully.”

Finite players, on the other hand, forget that the role is a role, that the mask is not the face behind the mask. They get lost in the parts they play. They forget that they can unmask, that they can step out of any role, or change it at will. They forget that their identity, or self, is not contained in a role but that a role is simply a way to play with other selves.

“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—when, in fact, no one has an outcome to be imposed on the relationship, apart from the decision to continue it.”

Carse extends these basic concepts of finite and infinite play into all the big areas of life, and that’s where it gets really interesting. Relationships, politics, economics, property, patriotism, sexuality, health, all these games we play with ourselves and each other: understanding them in terms of finite and infinite play is eye-opening.

There’s a path here towards that ideal of openness, honesty, realness. I like how Carse describes openness as vulnerability, as an ongoing process of growth and play with others. It’s not about rejecting privacy. It does not require unrestrained emotional vomiting or masochistic exposure.

“Because infinite players prepare themselves to be surprised by the future, they play in complete openness. It is not an openness as in candor, but an openness as in vulnerability. It is not a matter of exposing one’s unchanging identity, the true self that has always been, but a way of exposing one’s ceaseless growth, the dynamic self that has yet to be.”

It is about getting to your own core, and then operating from that core. It’s about seeing that the limitations of finite play (thus: any system, any role, any mask) are all self-limitations. Then choosing freely how to play with those limitations, put on and off those masks, step in and out of the roles, and use those games as opportunities—not to win, not to defeat, not to manipulate or control or hide or deceive, but to play.

“To be playful is not to be trivial or frivolous, or to act as though nothing of consequence will happen. On the contrary, when we are playful with each other we relate as free persons, and the relationship is open to surprise; everything that happens is of consequence. The finite play for life is serious; the infinite play of life is joyous.

Infinite play resounds throughout with a kind of laughter.

It is laughter with others with whom we have discovered that the end we thought we were coming to has unexpectedly opened. We laugh not at what has surprisingly come to be impossible for others, but over what has surprisingly come to be possible with others.”