(by James Carse, 1986)
A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.
If a finite game is to be won by someone it must come to a definitive end. It will come to an end when someone has won. We know that someone has won the game when all the players have agreed who among them is the winner. No other condition than the agreement of the players is absolutely required in determining who has won the game. … There is no finite game unless the players freely choose to play it. No one can play who is forced to play. It is an invariable principle of all play, finite and infinite, that whoever plays, plays freely. Whoever must play, cannot play.
We can speak of finite games as having temporal boundaries. Players must agree to the establishment of spatial and numerical boundaries as well. That is, the game must be played within a marked area, and with specified players.
To have such boundaries means that the date, place, and membership of each finite game are externally defined. The world is elaborately marked by boundaries of contest, its people finely classified as to their eligibilities.
Only one person or team can win a finite game, but the other contestants may well be ranked at the conclusion of play.
In one respect, but only one, an infinite game is identical to a finite game: Of infinite players we can also say that if they play they play freely; if they must play, they cannot play. Otherwise, infinite and finite play stand in the sharpest possible contrast. Infinite players cannot say when their game began, nor do they care. There are no spatial or numerical boundaries to an infinite game. While finite games are externally defined, infinite games are internally defined. The time of an infinite game is not world time, but time created within the play itself. Since each play of an infinite game eliminates boundaries, it opens to players a new horizon of time.
Finite games can be played within an infinite game, but an infinite game cannot be played within a finite game. Infinite players regard their wins and losses in whatever finite games they play as but moments in continuing play.
If finite games must be externally bounded by time, space, and number, they must also have internal limitations on what the players can do to and with each other. To agree on internal limitations is to establish rules of play. It is, in fact, by knowing what the rules are that we know what the game is. The rules of a finite game are the contractual terms by which players can agree who has won.
The rules must be published prior to play, and the players must agree to them before play begins. The agreement of the players to the applicable rules constitutes the ultimate validation of those rules. They are valid only if and when players freely play by them.
If the rules of a finite game are unique to that game it is evident that the rules may not change in the course of play--else a different game is being played. The rules of an infinite game must change in the course of play. The rules are changed when the players of an infinite game agree that the play is imperiled by a finite outcome--that is, by the victory of some players and the defeat of others. The rules of an infinite game are changed to prevent anyone from winning the game and to bring as many persons as possible into the play. If the rules of a finite game are the contractual terms by which the players can agree who has won, the rules of an infinite game are the contractual terms by which the players agree to continue playing.
The rules of an infinite game are always designed to deal with specific threats to the continuation of play. Infinite players use the rules to regulate the way they will take the boundaries or limits being forced against their play into the game itself. The rule-making capacity of infinite players is often challenged by the impingement of powerful boundaries against their play--such as physical exhaustion, or the loss of material resources, or the hostility of nonplayers, or death. The task is to design rules that will allow the players to continue the game by taking these limits into play--even when death is one of the limits. Finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play with boundaries.
Although it may be evident enough in theory that whoever plays a finite game plays freely, it is often the case that finite players will be unaware of this absolute freedom and will come to thin that whatever they do they must do.
Last modified 19 September 2022