Players Of The Game of Life

Life can be viewed as one big game. James P Carse, in his ‘Finite and Infinite Games’ (1986) shows us how people live their lives in two contrasting ways, whether it is love, sex, or warfare. He discusses that finite games (ones where there is a definite end) and infinite games (that lead to never-ending possibilities) are defined by the choices one makes.

He proposes the games of real life have real rules and goals, whereas some games don’t follow rules, nor have winners or losers. However, both finite and infinite games can have a resounding impact on our lives.

All Of Life Is A Game

Every part of life can be viewed as a game adults play. Let us delve into what finite and infinite games are.

  1. Finite Games – Finite games have a clear beginning and have very specific, spatial, numerical, and temporal rules. They also have a clear playing field and a definite number of people playing the game. Apart from these external rules, finite games have certain internal rules and restrictions too. The players, in the beginning, agree upon these rules and comply with them with the aim of winning the game. Once a player wins, the game is over.

    A general election is a classic example of a real-life finite game. The rules are pre-decided, and based on the number of votes; a candidate (or a player) wins. The general rules include only one candidate per party and clearly outline what practices are allowed and what is not.
  1. Infinite Games – These are the absolute opposite of finite games. Infinite games of life are played like one long continuous game. Thus, these do not have any internal or external restrictions, and anyone can participate, anytime, anywhere.

For example, if we see the field of music, there are no definite numbers of players; anyone can participate, anytime, anywhere. Composers do not make music to win or be the best. Instead, one composer winning composition is often inspirations for others to write better music.

More examples of finite and infinite games will help us see how life can be likened to a game.

Finite and Infinite Games by James P Carse - Book Review & Summary
Finite and Infinite Games by James P Carse

Defining Boundaries Of Games

Finite games, along with the aforementioned spatial, temporal, and numerical rules, have certain set boundaries. Consider a case wherein the rules for a general election merely stated that two people can compete and the one with the most votes is the winner.  With this simple definition, even criminals could stand for elections, and the elections could be held on a daily basis!

However, because finite games are regulated by an audience who decides the when and where of the game, and who the players will be, the players are bound by the rules bestowed by the audience. Moreover, they are under pressure to play and to finish the game.

For example, a person writing an exam is a player, who needs to adhere to the timelines of learning and completing the exam on time.

Infinite games, on the other hand, place no boundaries on players. Players, therefore, are the masters of their own time in the game. Infinite games also present the player’s new possibilities, with every moment – that is seen as a new beginning to a new range of possibilities.

Players in infinite gameplay for as long as they wish to, invite others whenever they feel the need to, and play by any rules they create.

Society Versus Culture

Any game in life, whether finite or infinite, has others involved in the game. These other players can be on the same team as the player or opponents. However, how a player perceives others in the game differs on the basis of finite or infinite.

For finite players, there is an end reward. Therefore, they perceive others as part of a society (or life) wherein there are smaller finite games – like school is a definitive finite game within another game. Finite games award titles to winners. For example, the title a finite player will assume for a priest is ‘Father’ (wherein the priest has won the title in a previous finite game).

Titles are to be honored by the players of finite games and can be displayed via property and possession. For example, a player attends law school and opens his own prestigious law firm.

Infinite players on the other hand perceive society as a constantly developing culture. Their focus lies on the future and they do not concern themselves with past achievements. It for this very reason, that infinite players involve others in the quest for the future. They do not seek an end solution.

For example, infinite players would address the root cause of poverty, rather than to try and end it by helping the poor with some amount of charity.

Winning Versus Cohesion

Finite players are defined by the need to win, to take control over others in the game, to compete, and to dominate by winning. It is their end goal, whether it is a conversation with a friend or in the bedroom with their partners. They endeavor to overshadow their opponent and show their superiority. They perceive even the most basic conversation as a game that needs to be won. Their need for convincing others that their opinions are true becomes a title to be won – that is the title of knowledge.

When it comes to sexual relations, finite players perceive them as a means of conquering their partners and at times, can even create elaborate rituals of courtship to emphasize and fulfill their needs of reaching their end goal of winning.

Because infinite players give more weightage to the game itself rather than the end goal, they do not have the need to demonstrate superiority. They value both, listening and talking, and believe that life is about to give and take. For example, an infinite player will perceive a conversation as an opportunity to share knowledge than to explain the truth in their opinion. They prefer to offer their conversations as perspectives rather than the absolute truth.

Furthermore, when it comes to sex, infinite players do not concern themselves with the outcome (of either bearing children or achieving physical pleasure) but see sexual relationships as a means to explore themselves and their partners.

The Past Versus The Future

Finite players feel the need to assume roles designed and defined in the past. They have a fixation on their past because they need to prove themselves. For example, if a finite player is the son of a wealthy family, they will feel the need to safeguard the reputation and the property of the family. Thus the finite player will naturally assume the role of the heir.

A finite game is all about winning, yet, how often a finite player actually wins becomes irrelevant. This is because a finite player wouldn’t really be in a finite game if it wasn’t based on the past. A finite player, though fixated on winning, unfortunately, is a loser, simply because he dwells in the past. For example, a finite player who needs to prove himself to his office colleagues will aim towards winning the title of the best employee.

However, once the achieved title becomes past history, they will set their sights on another achievement, because they consider their past winning selves as a loser, and need to win again. It is their motivation to keep moving ahead in life.

Infinite players, on the other hand, focus on originality, uniqueness, and their own internal genius. Due to this they make peace with the past and focus on the future. The future for them is full of opportunities and endless possibilities, and they look forward to an open-ended game of life. Therefore an infinite player born in a wealthy family will consider it a new opportunity to opening a door full of unlimited possibilities, rather than be constricted by dwelling in the past of the family.

It Is After All A Choice

Life is complicated. Moreover, it could be a combination of finite or infinite games, or a finite game within an infinite game, or vice versa. How one perceives it is after all a choice.

Participating in any game is voluntary, yet finite players feel compelled to participate and win. While being a finite player or playing a finite game requires one to abide by and adhere to certain set external rules, being in a finite game is after all a choice.

For example, a lawyer needs to pass a bar exam and practice law in court regularly to be a successful lawyer. Yet being a lawyer itself is a choice. Sadly, it is often seen that finite players get trapped within the finite game and forget that they can choose to exit it altogether. They get too convinced themselves by the faces they need to adorn to abide by those external rules. For example, the CEO of a corporate forgets that he can take a break and go on vacation.

Playing a finite or infinite game is a matter of choice, and players need to keep in mind that they can play any way they want to as long as they don’t hide behind their masks and don’t get fooled by the masks of other people.