Eli Dourado

Finite and Infinite Games

I recently read Finite and Infinite Games, by James Carse, poolside while on vacation. Excerpt:

Seriousness is always related to roles, or abstractions. We are likely to be more serious with police officers when we find them uniformed and performing their mandated roles than when we find them in the process of changing into their uniforms. Seriousness always has to do with an established script, an ordering of affairs completed somewhere outside the range of our influence. We are playful when we engage others at the level of choice, when there is no telling in advance where our relationship with them will come out—when, in fact, no one has an outcome to be imposed on the relationship, apart from the decision to continue it.

To be playful is not to be trivial or frivolous, or to act as though nothing of consequence will happen. On the contrary, when we are playful with each other we relate as free persons, and the relationship is open to surprise; everything that happens is of consequence. It is, in fact, seriousness that closes itself to consequence, for seriousness is a dread of the unpredictable outcome of open possibility. To be serious is to press for a specified conclusion. To be playful is to allow for possibility whatever the cost to oneself.

The book is obviously not about game theory, and it lives up to its subtitle, “A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility.”

It is a book that I wish were more widely read, not merely because I enjoyed it, but because it would enable for me a new mode of discourse. In the short time since I read the book, I have found myself on numerous occasions wanting to say, “So-and-so is playing a finite game,” and be understood. When Tyler invites Krugman to come out and play, and Paul responds with “This is not a game,” Paul is playing a finite game. When Mike Elk trashes bloggers in general and Matt Yglesias in particular, Elk is playing a finite game.

I read the book as pro-blogging, even though it was written before the invention of blogging, and pro-anarchism (of a certain kind), even though I doubt Carse has read the anarchism literature. More broadly, it promotes bottom-up processes not on Hayekian or consequentialist grounds, but on the grounds of meaning and personal satisfaction.

I recommend the book to people who are highly Open (and to a lesser extent non-Conscientious) on the Big Five personality model.