Finite and Infinite

Epistemic Status: Really, really informal

After being told I really need to read Finite and Infinite Games for god knows how long, I finally went and did it.  I’m still processing.

In my earlier post I described a polarity between “survival thinking” (which is physical-reality-oriented, man-vs-nature, serious, and non-competitive) vs “sexual-selection thinking” (which is social-reality-oriented, focuses on the human world, frivolous, and competitive.)

James Carse, in Finite and Infinite Games, sets up a completely different polarity, between infinite game-playing (which is open-ended, playful, and non-competitive) vs. finite game-playing (which is definite, serious, and competitive).

Like a lot of philosophical thinkers, he’s rather negative on trying to win social games, and believes that humanity-wide survival problems require us to set such games aside.  He’s also quite positive on thinking — self-awareness, going meta, asking “do I want to be doing what I’m doing?”

The distinction with my earlier post is that he believes the key alternative to unproductive social-status games is playfulness and open-endedness, rather than seriousness, strenuousness, survival-level urgency.  I think this is possible; it’s also possible that both playfulness and survival pressure provoke people into abandoning social-status jockeying; it’s possible that there are many other things that do so.

My Understanding of what James Carse Wants

Playing an infinite game, in my own words, means “Let things continue and get weird”.

Culture has a tendency to get “out of hand”, to shift definitions, to break once-hallowed rules.  Living things evolve over time. Languages shift. Peoples migrate.  Individuals don’t fit perfectly into demographic or ideological categories.  As I understand it, an infinite player embraces change and tries to keep life/culture/humanity going, knowing that whatever future form it takes will be unfamiliar.

In human relationships this would mean keeping lines of communication open and trying to allow space for deep, weird, vulnerable, unfamiliar, or surprising interactions to arise.  It would also mean questioning or poking fun at fixed or narrowly competitive behavior patterns.

In grammar this would mean being descriptivist rather than prescriptivist.

In art this would mean playing with new forms and dialoguing with old formalisms.

In technological social-engineering this would mean trying to design platforms that promote unexpected and fertile rather than reliable and predictable behavior.

In politics it would mean actively seeking to preserve diversity, questioning the assumptions of nationalism or officialness, lots of meta stuff combined with a desire not to lock anybody out of the discourse.

Carse’s examples of evil are genocides: the permanent silencing of an entire people.  He’s against absolutism because it will try to destroy those parts of reality that don’t fit its system. Sometimes those parts are people.  The Native Americans, or the Romany, or the Jews, didn’t fit into somebody’s system.

If you imagine actually being a 19th-century Anglo-American, and imagine that you don’t really like Indians — they’re often pagan, they’re not of your civilization, they cause you a not-insignificant amount of danger and inconvenience — and imagine what it would be like to think “yes, but they’re people, they exist, they have a point of view that may matter, it’s worth trying to work things out with them rather than utterly destroying them” — I think that gives something of the flavor of what Carse wants people to do. Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood is a good example of what cooperating with literal outer-space aliens would feel like — cooperating and trading and negotiating with creatures whose values you cannot empathize with at all and which seriously creep you out.  “Mutual benefit” sounds nice when you have easy sympathy with the other party; it is stranger and less intuitive when you don’t.  To keep playing with the truly alien seems to be part of what infinite games are about.

My Resistance to FIG

I have some inner resistance to pretty much all philosophical or spiritual thinkers, and Carse is no exception. He’s favorably disposed to thinking, and unfavorably disposed to most temporal rewards, like pretty much all philosophers. I like temporal rewards, and am less inclined towards detached meta-level thinking than most of the people who like these kinds of books.  I like a hot meal and a soft bed and a cat to pet.  So that’s one thing.

I also don’t like any creed which requires me to have unbounded energy, and “playfulness” or “openness to change and ambiguity” are both things that cost energy. (The latter because it takes cognitive effort to wrap one’s mind around complex or unpredictable things.) Carse complains that traveling in airplanes and hotels insulates you from change, from truly experiencing the foreignness of foreign places. He’s not wrong. It’s just that if you are very tired, you do not want anything to surprise you if you can possibly avoid it.  I am usually tired, so an ideal of the world as being eternally surprising sounds exhausting.  Finite games end, and that is a great deal of their appeal; after they’re over, you get to stop playing.

I do appreciate the message of “if you want to simplify your life, you don’t get to do it by controlling other people.”  Trying to live in such a way that you don’t ruin other people’s games just because you don’t want to play.

Actual Flaws in FIG

I don’t think he has a complete theory of property. He’s talking about property as primarily a finite game that involves fairness and competition intuitions.  I don’t think that’s all it is. There’s also property-as-territoriality (something that even animals have), and property as an incentive-stable way of allocating resources.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a complete and satisfying theory of why we have property and how far it can/should extend, even Locke, but I really think it’s not disposed of as easily as Carse does.

I also think the “technology is limiting, gardens are infinite-game-like” stuff could use a little more nuance.  Not all technology is oriented towards centralized/standardized behavior patterns.  I think Carse would have been rather interested in blockchains and 3d printers if they had existed when he wrote the book.


In a comment on my earlier post, Komponisto said “The correct dichotomy, it seems to me, is not “work” vs. “play/gossip”, but rather “work/play” vs. “gossip”.” This also seems to be something Carse would agree with.  The creative stuff he values is play-like; he thinks seriousness is usually a “theatrical” device that’s basically used only for gossip-oriented status-games.

I think I was just wrong to imply that work is always serious.  (And certainly if I gave the impression that art is always frivolous, that was wrong! But I’ve never really believed that.)

I like Carse’s idea of storytelling as contrasted with lecturing; using communication to open up possibilities or food for thought rather than to shut down unwanted behaviors.  I was much more into that in the past (in my current state of constant exhaustion I normally don’t want to open up any future possibilities because then I’d have to deal with them) but it is genuinely beautiful to create a world for people to play in.

15 thoughts on “Finite and Infinite

  1. It’s just that if you are very tired, you do not want anything to surprise you if you can possibly avoid it. I am usually tired, so an ideal of the world as being eternally surprising sounds exhausting.

    Is this why babies are so upset and sleepy?

  2. Playfulness costs a certain amount from your current position in mindspace. The cost varies in other parts and it is worth gaining access to some of the low cost places.

  3. My reading of Carse is that real work is never serious, and that the serious bits are strictly make-pretend. Basically, rent-seeking and adversarial contests that only redistribute rather than create. I think this is clearly mistaken as logistics is a real thing that is serious in this way. Using ‘logistics’ in a broad sense that includes time-allocation might very well exhaust all real work that is not play.

  4. >> I am usually tired, so an ideal of the world as being eternally surprising sounds exhausting. Finite games end, and that is a great deal of their appeal; after they’re over, you get to stop playing.
    If the thing that bothers you about infinite games is their pace, can’t you slow them down? If counting up the number line is making the numbers go too high too fast, you can count by tenths instead.

  5. That book seems very much like a product of its time. Its unstated assumption seems to be that the reader is high on Maslow’s hierarchy; basic needs like food and rent are easy to satisfy. The reader has time and resources to spend on play. That was never a great assumption, but the current job market is a lot tougher than it was in 1986. The Red Queen’s Race is faster now, and just staying on the treadmill takes more effort.

    • It does seem useful to draw a relationship between where you are on Maslow’s hierarchy and what kind of game it *feels* like you’re playing, though. As someone who’s been on the relatively high portion for most of their life, I imagine that someone with far fewer resources than I feels like their life is more like a finite game.

      In life, there are conditions which are like losing, but are not actually an end to the game – things can go very poorly without you dying. It might be better to model life as consisting of many sub-games, or levels; higher levels tend to be more enjoyable and have more options. A soft loss means going from a higher level to a lower one; if I go from owning a house to eating out of the trash, I’m still alive, but I’ve lost access to parts of life that I may have valued, probably for a long while.

      Someone who is already on a low level has less room to maneuver; they are playing a smaller game, and as such feel the pressures of a finite game more strongly. If bad luck befalls them, or they make a mistake, they can easily be cast into an even lower level; since these lower levels are generally smaller games still, there are few options to even regain their original position. Someone on a high level has less to worry about; they have many options in their current game which are safe, and many more possible reactions to bad luck or mistakes. If they fall, well, that’s unfortunate, but the level below theirs isn’t too terrible, and it’s not too difficult to climb back up.

    • It wasn’t as life-changing for me as it is for some. But it’s short, so why not. You can read it in one sitting.

  6. I think you can have survival or thrive paradigms within a survivalist ethos or a thrivalist ethos!

    Survival paradigm + survival ethos = being poor, hunkering down, winter with a few twigs left for the fire, resting to recuperate from illness, defensive-oriented war. The stereotypical parts of WW1 (by no means all of it.) Winter.

    Thrive paradigm + survival ethos = being well-off and jolly, picking tremendous quantities of cherries and stuffing your face, going off in a warband to fight another tribe and coming back to dance around a fire with their severed heads on poles, trapping huge quantities of salmon from a run and drying them out for later freely eating what you want of the excess. Rommel’s romp through France, his Afrika korps during their glory days. Harvest season.

    Survival paradigm + thrivalist ethos = being SOCIALLY poor, low-status, clawing for any scrap of recognition you can get, working hard, ‘hustling,’ being prole. The modern era lumpenprolefaces, not concerned about starvation or war or anything practical, merely with mostly fruitless scrabbling to become Mr. Big.

    Thrive paradigm + thrivalist ethos = being on top of a thrivalist society. High status people in modern era. Politicians, successful actors and musicians. Young and handsome/beautiful partygoers. Essence of narcissism and hedonism.

    My hate and contempt is laser focused on thrivalist ethos, what I regard as essentially a behavioral tumor plaguing the human species. This doesn’t mean I am anti-fun, anti-joy, anti-thriving. I recognize that survival in the long run REQUIRES times of vast excess, spectacular success, in order to balance out those hard times that will come along as well. Being Mr. Hardass literally all the time has a foul loser stink. The successful have room in their mein for the ecstasy of victory, and the vigorous optimistic pursuit of long shots.

    Carse’s examples of evil are genocides: the permanent silencing of an entire people

    Life is inevitably a combination of additive and and subtractive manufacturing. Everything about you that works works because of the steady obliteration of those who didn’t function quite as well. Do you like that your hands grasp? Do you like that your lungs breathe, that your heart beats, that you eyes see? All these things work because of a ‘genocide’ that has now been slowed or halted, the constant destruction of the flawed.

    To be anti-genocide, full stop, is to be anti-life. To replace form and beauty with shapeless, directionless, helpless blobs. Life only becomes functional through the constant pruning of the vast majority of shoots and runners – and the replacement of the old with those few that escape pruning by their virtues.

    You may conceivably replace the red glory of old with Giver-style ‘releasing,’ and forestall annihilation – but why? Why is the avoidance of pain, without the avoidance of what pain was built to signify, any sort of good? Qualia are the map, not the territory. If I am to die, I would rather know it, rather than dissolve into nonexistence blind.

    Love, beauty, sugar and spice and everything nice in this world was brought here by life as it really is. To deny fairy-tales or the modern ‘secular’ hippy-dippy nonsense ideology is not to be in grimdark frowntown all the time. So one might as well face up to reality.

      • Hm, as I saw the word used, it seemed like ‘paradigm shift’ means a change in how a society or a field looks at things, of the sort that happen not frequently but not terribly rarely, a once in a few generations thing. Like going from Newton to Einstein is a ‘paradigm shift.’ I thought that generalized to, say, ‘the black plague caused a paradigm shift in European society.’ That kind of usage is a lot more marginal than I thought! Mostly people only use ‘paradigm’ with regard to how people are thinking or talking about something. Anyway, that’s what I meant – a paradigm as like, the overall way things are being done. The temporary but not very temporary character of a group of people and their activities.

        Survival paradigm means we’re forced by circumstances to hunker down, doesn’t mean so much about our inclinations or values. That’s where we have to be. We down low! Struggle city!

        Ethos, on the other hand, I feel less bad about. Ethos is your ethics, your values, your character and spirit. It’s what you’re, like, about, man. A survivalist ethos means that the way you look at the world when you wake up, you are bound by your physical health – how am I gonna increase my chances of getting a great, physical payout – in the form of crop yields, or a nice buffalo kill, or whatever, and how am I gonna decrease my chances of getting a terrible, physical ill – in the form of disease, not having enough fuel for the winter, gettin injured (perhaps gored by a buffalo!)

        A thrivalist ethos means you’re beyond that survival shit. Your physical survival isn’t a concern, that doesn’t even enter into your mind. You’re purely concerned with what is left when that shit is irrelevant, disregarded – meaning primarily the social world, but also much more of your internal emotional world. You want to be liked, loved, respected – and also, you want to be haaapy. If you have it all but you’re not happy – what’s the point?

        That’s basically the whole first world. You can only suffer significant malnutrition or exposure through pride or mental illness. Pride gets a lot of lumpenprolefaces – ‘I’m not gonna eat out of the garbage! I’m not gonna go to the soup kitchen or food bank! What if somebody sees me!?’ They work hard sometimes for very little money and have trouble making ends meet, and so one might be forgiven for seeing them as being in the survivalist paradigm – but the only thing that keeps them from free shit is pride. That’s not, like, invalid – they don’t have a lot of status to spare, and being low status is pretty horrible. But it doesn’t make their struggle a legitimate survival struggle. And I am interested in policing that distinction, because I believe legitimate survival struggles (and, to be clear, legitimate voluntarily embarked survival moonshots) can lead to real progress in humanity’s ability to survive and thrive in reality – and pretty much nothing else can.

        To be clear, the survival struggle being legitimate is necessary but not sufficient for progress. You can legitimately struggle for survival in a way that progresses nothing, of course. But when minds come up with truly life changing things, it’s when they are grappling with death – with war, with disease, with thirst and starvation and exposure. The rest is window dressing.

        I love the moon landing, I love the space race. Why did that whole endeavor wither on the vine? Because we weren’t trying to kill anyone. If we were trying to kill people with spaceships* and succeeded in even a minor way, I believe we’d be sailing among the planets right now. Blasting each other’s brains out.

        Musk’s idea is less good but still better than what animated the space race. A backup plan for humanity. Maybe a way to escape the unwashed masses and fulfill utopian dreams, as with the old New World. That’s something. Enough? I’m not sure.

        I definitely think once enough people are skyside they’ll start shooting at each other, and that will drive the real explosion in progress. Problem is shoving enough apes up there. Go Elon, go.

        * Don’t we kill people with spaceships already – like, ICBMS? No, not really. To be a spaceship IMO, you’ve gotta be meant to be in space for more than bouncing in and out like a dolphin. There was an idea for making ICBMs that would loiter in orbit, but they nixed even that by treaty. If the gloves came fully off it would be profitable to have lots of nukes always in orbit, both for interception and reduced warning time. Once that’s the case, well – there’s a very powerful impetus to have as much of a space presence as possible, both in primary forces and in maintenance craft. All very expensive and very rich in opportunities for technical progress. Problem is the Soviets and the Americans just weren’t bloodthirsty enough. Some fascist-leaners would blame ideology, but I don’t. I think our problem is maybe 1/4th philosophy 3/4ths lifestyle.

      • ah ok. that clears things up. like, “company culture” is paradigm, “company mission” is ethos.

  7. A thrivalist ethos means you’re beyond that survival shit.

    I should have said, means you THINK you’re beyond that survival shit, you consider that survival shit incidental and beneath you. The survival ethos is alien to you. No-one is actually beyond ‘survival shit.’ What fills your mind when you think ‘omg I’m gonna die’ is humiliation, loss of status, pain. It isn’t usually something that will really kill you.

    Holding such an ethos, your paradigm – whether you’re just survivin’ or thrivin’ – is dictated in these terms.

    I am claiming that this ethos is corrupt and foolish, and you should always be concerned with ‘survival shit.’ It is comical to imagine a plane crash survivor emerging from the wreckage meticulously re-applying her lipstick – I claim that this is merely as foolish as we’re all being, it’s just that the threats we desperately need to deal with are less obvious.

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