Book Review

James P. Carse's
Finite and Infinite Games

reviewed by Jacob Davenport


No discussion of game philosophy can begin without understanding the fundamental nature of games. Finite and Infinite Games, by James P. Carse, describes these fundamentals completely and clearly. I have seen no other discussion of games that can touch it.

Carse divides the world of human interaction into "finite games" and "infinite games." Finite games are the distinct games which have clearly delimited beginnings and ends, rules, goals, winners, and winnings. Chess, world wars, working up the corporate ladder, and defensive driving are all finite games.

Infinite games have beginnings but strive to have no ends, flexible rules, no permanent winners, and goals that change every time they are reached. Music, storytelling, childrearing, and friendship may be part of infinite games, although none is in and of itself an infinite game.

I have played finite games all of my life, and I was thrilled to see Carse lay out very clearly what is common to all of those games. It made the book an absolute page turner for me.

As I read, I wasn't quite sure what to make of infinite games, particularly because he wasn't giving any examples of them. However, he constantly compared and contrasted finite games with infinite games so that I felt like I knew the direction he was taking.

By the end of the book, I understood exactly what he meant. Carse drew me in by discussing one of my life's great passions, and ended up teaching me a new way to view the rest of the world. Carse does not add new information to life; he instead shows life in a new perspective.

The book is not perfect. Although I love his terse writing style, some people will be annoyed that every word has meaning and every thought must be understood before the next will make sense. He does give many very good examples which help a great deal, although if you already understand the concept he is stating you may find the example tedious.

He often refers to "contradictions" which I think are more accurately "ironic limitations." For example, he correctly points out that games are played to be ended. Monopoly is played with the intention of ending the game with a winner.

Carse contends that finite games are played so as to stop play, and that this is a contradiction. I contend that this is merely an interesting way of examining the course of the game.

He also often refers to "paradox," which I also think is more accurately "ironically unlimited." You start a friendship with the hope that your friend will be a happier person because of it, even when you are not around. Carse suggests that your friendship is paradoxical because it is successful when you do not need to participate. I suggest that my successful friendships cause some level of inspiration for my friends.

Despite these relatively minor problems, I believe that this is the most important book I have ever read. I have read it several times and have given copies of it to friends of mine who enjoy games as I do. I would recommend it to any contemplative person.

Check out Jake Davenport's webpage at Wunderland,
and the rest of Wunderland's delightful website.

The Life of Games
No. 2  (April 2000)
©2000 Kadon Enterprises, Inc.