Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse

Tim Horan's copy of 'Finite and Infinite Games' by James P. Carse.

My wife has told me more than once: “Tim, you like to play games and push other people’s buttons.”

Her observation is accurate. I live my life based on the belief other people will try to influence or contain me, so it is prudent I play some counter moves.

If you feel my attitude is paranoid or small-minded, remember – the universe will not award you a merit badge for “not playing games”. Everyone around you is engaged in some type of game. Denial of the existence of a game simply means you forfeit your turn and are subject to the whims of the other players.

Each of us has a choice. William Blake, the English poet and painter, describes our options:

I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man’s. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.


Another way to parse William’s words is: Design a more appealing game to play if you want to avoid being a player in someone else’s tedious game.

My awareness of the games people play received a serious upgrade after I read Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse. This is a difficult book to describe, but I will try. Every chapter expands on the central premise: There are at least two kinds of games.

Great books inspire you to see the world differently after you read them. ‘Finite and Infinite Games’ by James P. Carse will likely inspire you to live differently in the world.

The author calls one game finite, and the other infinite. Finite players play to win, whereas infinite players play for the purpose of continuing the play. My favorite definition from the book is:

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

Carse, 1986

A relatable example of playing within or with boundaries is the way we use speech. Explanation is combative by nature and its meaning is defined by boundaries. When a finite speaker engages in explanation, they seek to control their subject by asserting what is already accepted as the case regardless of β€œwhether or not it is spoken.”

An infinite speaker’s speech influences what comes after they speak, rather than repeat what society already believes. People are gifted with a new way to look at things, β€œbecause it is spoken.” Think about that next time you feel the urge to explain something to someone! Are you expanding the horizon of those you speak with, or do you try to control them?

The best recommendation I can give this small, yet potent book is I went straight back to the first page after I completed the last. A great book inspires you to see the world differently after you read it. Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse will likely inspire you to live differently in the world.

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