My Favorite Nonfiction Book

Finite & Infinite Games

Today’s Nat’s Notes is very special to me, because I did a deep-dive on my favorite non-fiction book, Finite and Infinite Games.

What I love about this book is how much it inspires reflection on ideas you might have deeply entrenched in your psyche and never thought to analyze.

Ideas about work, life, love, time, energy, or anything that might be important to you.

And when you’ve digested some of its ideas, you have this powerful new lens to view the world through.

Are you a finite player? Or an infinite player?

I hope you enjoy this one!

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Finite vs Infinite Games

“There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.”

This is the core dichotomy of the book that all the other ideas derive from. Everything we engage in is a sort of “game,” and some of those games are limited in nature while others are infinitely expansive.

The games you choose to play, consciously or not, significantly impact the direction and character of your life.

All Limitations are Self Limitations

“Rules are not valid because the Senate passed them, or because heroes once played by them, or because God pronounced them through Moses or Muhammad. They are valid only if and when players freely play by them.”

We often think that we have to follow laws or rules, but we are ultimately choosing to follow them. We could just as easily choose to ignore them.

But when you’re in a finite game you’re blind to, you’ll often forget this fact:

“…it is often the case that finite players will be unaware of this absolute freedom and will come to think that whatever they do they must do… Fields of play simply do not impose themselves on us. Therefore, all the limitations of finite play are self-limitations.”

And often when we think we’re struggling against the world, in reality, we’re struggling according to the world:

“We are not defeated by floods or genetic disease or the rate of inflation. It is true that these are real, but we do not play against reality; we play according to reality. We do not eliminate weather or genetic influence but accept them as the realities that establish the context of play, the limits within which we are to play. If I accept death as inevitable, I do not struggle against mortality. I struggle as a mortal.”

The Importance of Playfulness

“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.”

But this playfulness shouldn’t be confused with “fake” play:

“The executive's vacation, like the football team's time out, comes to be a device for refreshing the contestant for a higher level of competition. Even the open playfulness ness of children is exploited through organized athletic, artistic, and educational regimens as a means of preparing the young for serious adult competition.”

One of the core aspects of true playfulness is how open you are to surprises:

“A finite player is trained not only to anticipate every future possibility, but to control the future, to prevent it from altering the past. This is the finite player in the mode of seriousness with its dread of unpredictable consequence. Infinite players, on the other hand, continue their play in the expectation of being surprised. If surprise is no longer possible, all play ceases. Surprise causes finite play to end; it is the reason for infinite play to continue.”

And a characteristic of being an “infinite player” is not being a serious actor, but a joyful poet:

“Infinite players are not serious actors in any story, but the joyful poets of a story that continues to originate what they cannot finish.”

Strength vs. Power

We should aim to be strong, not powerful. Power is inherently finite, but strength is infinite:

“Power will always be restricted to a relatively small number of selected persons. Anyone can be strong.”

Power is also backwards-looking:

“The more powerful we consider persons to be, the less we expect them to do, for their power can come only from that which they have done. After athletic contests in which major titles have been at stake, it is common for the audience to lift the winners to their shoulders, marching them about as if they were helpless-in the sharpest possible contrast to the physical skill and energy they have just displayed.”

And the more you compete over power, the more you limit your own freedom:

“One cannot be free by opposing another. My freedom does not depend on your loss of freedom. On the contrary, since freedom is never freedom from society, but freedom for it, my freedom inherently affirms yours."

Finally, instead of competing with people, consider playing with them:

“Who chooses to compete with another can also choose to play with another.”

Perspectives on Wealth

Wealth is fundamentally something that must be performed. We do not have it if we do not demonstrate it:

Consumption is an activity so different from gainful labor that it shows itself in the mode of leisure, even indolence. We display the success of what we have done by not having to do anything. The more we use up, therefore, the more we show ourselves to be winners of past contests… It is apparent to infinite players that wealth is not so much possessed as it is performed.”

And once we win wealth, or any other contest, we must continually re-win it to prove ourselves to be winners. One win is never enough:

“The more we are recognized as winners, the more we know ourselves to be losers. That is why it is rare for the winners of highly coveted and publicized prizes to settle for their titles and retire. Winners, especially celebrated winners, must prove repeatedly they are winners. The script must be played over and over again. Titles must be defended by new contests. No one is ever wealthy enough, honored enough, applauded enough. On the contrary, the visibility of our victories only tightens the grip of the failures in our invisible past.”

Time is a Matter of Perspective

“Early in a game time seems abundant, and there appears a greater freedom to develop future strategies. Late in a game, time is rapidly being consumed. As choices become more limited they become more important. Errors are more disastrous… For the finite player in us freedom is a function of time. We must have time to be free.”

But infinite players have a very different attitude towards time:

“The infinite player in us does not consume time but generates it. Because infinite play is dramatic and has no scripted conclusion, its time is time lived and not time viewed.”

And they see their use of time in work very differently:

“An infinite player does not begin working for the purpose of filling up a period of time with work, but for the purpose of filling work with time. Work is not an infinite player's way of passing time, but of engendering possibility.”

We Can’t Fight Nature

“The contradiction in our relation to nature is that the more vigorously we attempt to force its agreement with our own designs the more subject we are to its indifference, the more vulnerable to its unseeing forces. The more power we exercise over natural process the more powerless we become before it. In a matter of months we can cut down a rain forest that took tens of thousands of years to grow, but we are helpless in repulsing the desert that takes its place. And the desert, of course, is no less natural than the forest.”

Instead of trying to control natural things that are beyond our control, we should see ourselves as part of them. As tenders to a Garden, not operators of a Machine:

“The most elemental difference between the machine and the garden is that one is driven by a force which must be introduced from without, the other grown by an energy which originates from within itself.”

Machines are attempts to change the world. Gardens are a way to let the world change us.

“While machinery is meant to work changes without changing its operators, gardening transforms its workers. One learns how to drive a car, one learns to drive as a car; but one becomes a gardener.”

The Infinite Traveler

Most of us have the wrong idea about travel, or we’re “finite” travelers:

“Genuine travel has no destination. Travelers do not go somewhere, but constantly discover they are somewhere else. Since gardening is a way not of subduing the indifference of nature but of raising one's own spontaneity to respond to the disregarding vagaries and unpredictabilities of nature, we do not look on nature as a sequence of changing scenes but look on ourselves as persons in passage.”

The Power of Stories

Finally, the power of myths versus forced narratives.

“That myth does not accept the explanations it provokes we can see in the boldness with which thinkers in any territorial endeavor reexamine the familiar for a higher seeing. Indeed, the very liveliness of a culture is determined not by how frequently these thinkers discover new continents of knowledge but by how frequently they depart to seek them.”

The definition of a good story is our compulsion to retell it:

“Our first response to hearing a story is the desire to tell it ourselves-the greater the story the greater the desire. We will go to considerable time and inconvenience to arrange a situation for its retelling. It is as though the story is itself seeking the occasion for its recurrence, making use of us as its agents.”

And a story forced upon us never resonates:

“The opposite of resonance is amplification. A choir is the unified expression of voices resonating with each other; a loudspeaker is the amplification of a single voice, excluding all others. A bell resonates, a cannon amplifies. We listen to the bell, we are silenced by the cannon… The loudspeaker, successfully muting all other voices and therefore all possibility of conversation, is not listened to at all, and for that reason loses its own voice and becomes mere noise. Whenever we succeed in being the only speaker, there is no speaker at all.“


Thank you so much for reading.

If you learned something, please forward this to a friend.

I’ll return next week with another fascinating book to share.