A Finite Game Can’t Ever Be Won

A finite game can’t ever be won, even though it’s all about ‘winning’, even though there is no point to it if we can’t win it.


If we can’t win at a finite game then it isn’t actually a game – for a game to be a game has to be possible for us to win it, after all! For a task to be a task it has to be capable of completion – what would you call a task that no one can ever complete? It’s just a futile endeavour in this case and what does a futile endeavour have to recommend it? What incentive is there for is to launch ourselves into it, for us to take it on? Just as a task which isn’t possible to complete isn’t a task, a game that we can’t ever win isn’t a game – it’s just a pointless struggle, it’s just futile striving…


So the interesting thing about finite games is that they can’t ever be won. And yet for most of us playing finite games is just about all we ever do. That’s it, as far as we’re concerned – that’s what life is all about! As James Carse states:


It may appear that the prizes for winning are indispensable, that without them life is meaningless, perhaps even impossible.


Life itself is a finite game as far as we’re concerned. We struggle to bring about a predetermined outcome; we strive to obtain what we (and perhaps others too) see as being ‘the advantage’. This is so normal to us that we don’t think anything of it. What else would life be about?’ We say (or rather, we would say if we were pushed efficiently to focus on what it is exactly that we are actually assuming re the question of ‘what life is all about’). Generally speaking of course, we assume that life is about striving to attain predetermined outcomes but at the same time we don’t give the matter much – if any – thought.


Very few of us (extraordinarily few of us) will ever stop to consider that finite games are ‘impossible to play’, therefore. This is just never going to occur to us. On the contrary, it seems abundantly clear to everyone that predetermined goals can be attained, and – in fact – are being attained by people all the time. What we completely fail to observe is that the attainment of predetermined goals is an impression that we obtain as a result looking at things in a very superficial away, and that this superficial way of looking at things does not accord with the reality of the situation. We don’t see that no one ever really ‘attains their goals’, and that this is in fact pure fantasy!


One way to explain why goals can’t be attained would be in terms of the transience of all things (which is something that can hardly be denied). Even a proton – which might be considered are remarkably stable ‘physical object’ – has a half-life (= 1.67 × 1034 years, according to the Wikipedia entry). Protons admittedly have a far greater power of endurance than that of a mountain range, or even a star, but they eventually decay just the same. This is important because an awareness of the principal of transience (Heraclitus’s Universal Flux) shows us that there is no such thing as ‘the attaining of a goal’, at least not in absolute terms, and it is absolute terms that we are accustomed to thinking in. All of our thinking is done ‘in absolute terms’ (which is to say, all of our thinking is fundamentally lazy).


This is one way of getting at the idea that finite games are quintessentially unwinnable (and therefore ‘unplayable’). How can there be any ‘winning’ as far as Universal Flux is concerned? ‘Winning’ is a ‘freeze-frame’ and there is no freezing of the frame when it comes to Universal Flux! Another approach to this subject is to look at the idea that there is such a thing as a ‘state of affairs which can be known in advance’ (which is of course pretty much inherent in the idea of goals). A goal would not be a goal if it came as a complete surprise to us; a goal wouldn’t be a goal if it wasn’t what we expected! The whole point of a finite game is that the unexpected is excluded from happening, as James Carse makes clear. This is problematic however since the only thing that can be ‘known in advance’ (or indeed known in any sense of the word) as if the thing in question is an abstraction.


An abstraction is a kind of ‘make-believe’ reality – it’s ‘make-believe’ because it can be ‘exhaustively described’, because it can be ‘known in all its parameters’, and nothing real can be ‘exhaustively described’, nothing real can be ‘known in all its parameters’. To say that this can happen is just pure and utter fantasy. When we play a finite game we are playing with abstractions therefore, and since abstractions aren’t real, neither are our ‘winning’ or our ‘losing’. There is no meaningful difference between ‘the abstraction called winning’ and ‘the abstraction called losing’, therefore. The upshot of all of this discussion is that finite games cannot be ‘won in reality’ therefore and if they can’t be ‘won in reality’ then they can’t be won at all!


This is somewhat subtle argument – it’s a somewhat subtle argument in the sense that we don’t have to live our lives in any different way if we were take the principle of transience into account, but rather that we wouldn’t live our lives for the sake of attaining final goals, that we wouldn’t use finite game playing the sake of creating a sense of security (or sense of identity) for ourselves. This is of course the other way of looking at finite games – instead of saying that a FG is ‘where we strive to attain a predetermined outcome’ or that it is ‘where we exclude the unexpected’ (and thereby put ourselves in an impregnable or unassailable position) we may just as well say that ‘a FG is how we create a fixed, unchanging sense of identity’. These are the two complementary ways of saying the very same thing.


It’s actually more helpful to express matters the other (and much less familiar) way around. It sheds more light on things– if we say that a FG is how we get to feel ‘invulnerable’ or ‘totally in control of everything that happens’ then of course we can understand how this represents a major ‘psychological payoff’, but we might still wonder why it is that we have to spend the whole of our lives immersed in non-stop finite game-playing. If on the other hand we were to say that playing finite games is ‘how we create a fixed or unchanging sense of identity for ourselves’, then it gets rid of any trace of puzzlement we might still feel – we all know how intense is the urge for the ego to keep on consolidating itself, we all know just how terrifying the prospect of ‘losing the self’ is for the self! Of course we spend all of our time playing finite game, in this case; this simply reflects what is most important for us – ‘we’ are most important for us, preserving our identity is most important for us!


I might say that ‘life’ is important to me, but what I really mean is that ‘life as it is seen or understood from the vantage point of the fixed or unchanging self’ is important for me, and that’s not really the same thing! Allowing myself to believe (on an unconscious level) that I have achieved some sort of ‘final victory’ is the same thing as allowing myself to believe (on an unconscious level) that there is such a thing as a ‘final’ (or ‘fixed’) self that has achieved this victory. The ‘victor’ and ‘the victory’ are inseparable, in other words, even though we don’t usually see things this way.


The victor and the victory are inseparable and so if there is no such thing as a ‘final victory’ then there is no such thing as a ‘final victory’ either, and that is the nub of what we are saying here. A finite game is all about winning and so if we can’t ever win it then there’s no point in us playing it, and yet playing finite games is (as we have said) just about all we ever do. Society itself is based on finite games and who amongst us looks beyond the way of looking that is presented to us by society? Society is actually the finite game that contains all other finite games. As Carse says:


It is a highly valued function of society to prevent changes in the rules of the many games it embraces. Such procedures as academic accreditation, licensure of trades and professions, synodical ordination, parliamentary confirmation of official appointments, and the inauguration of political leaders are acts of the larger society allowing persons to compete in the finite games within it.


If finite games are games that it is impossible to play then that might prompt us to consider what the situation is with the Infinite Game. Finite games, as we have said, are about striving to put ourselves in an invulnerable position, a position where we can never again be taken by surprise (since to be surprised in a finite game is to lose); the Infinite Game – on the other hand – is when we play in order to be surprised. We play by allowing ourselves to be vulnerable to change, in other words. Finite play is ‘play that is always trying to bring itself to an end’ so that there can be no more developments. Nothing can ever happen to undo what has been done, so ‘the victory’ is less left standing forever; it is ‘written in stone’ (much as a name is when it is engraved on a tombstone).

A finite player is trained not only to anticipate every future possibility, but to control the future, to prevent it from altering the past.

The Infinite Game – by contrast – is played in order to continue the play, and so nothing is ever written in stone.


This makes it easy to see why no finite game can never really be won. How can things ever really be ‘brought to an end’? There is no ‘end’ to reality and so if we do seem to have succeeded in this all we have succeeded at is in losing track of reality! ‘Winning’ means bringing everything to a final end and so it is, as James Carse points out, that finite play is always play that is against itself. Finite play is play that contradicts itself and if something contradicts itself then this shows that it is not real. When we play the Infinite Game however then there is no self-contradiction. It is therefore possible to play the Infinite Game; it is possible precisely because we aren’t trying to achieve a final victory!


A parallel statement to this is to say that it is possible to play the Infinite Game because we aren’t trying to put ourselves in a position of absolute invulnerability – a position from which we can ‘never be surprised again’. This is clearly not a real possibility! The only way that it can be brought about is if we make ourselves unreal, and exist in an unreal world. It is however possible to remain in a vulnerable position, a position in which we are ‘vulnerable (or open) to change’. This is perfectly possible! The only thing about remaining in a situation in which we are ‘infinitely vulnerable (or open) to change’ is that this is NOT the situation of being ‘a self’. When we are vulnerable to change we are no longer have a fixed sense of identity. This is not a situation we tend to look favourably on therefore; having a sense of being a fixed or unchanging self is, after all, what we play finite games for. The invulnerable situation, situation from which we can never be surprised, is the situation of the self, and this – for the most part – is all we are ever interested in. It may – ultimately – be impossible to play the finite game, but this is nevertheless something we don’t ever want to hear…






Art: Marvel vs Capcom, from twinfinite.net






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