Dr. Carse wrote Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility in 1986, years before blockchains and the internet. This is a feature common to much of the work you will find in Kernel: it is both timely and timeless. It addresses the pertinent issues of the day, but it does so with such insight and wit that the conclusions which can be drawn from it apply across our shared histories.
It would seem that, works which play with time are more likely to become timeless than those which attempt to transcend it. As Ornette Coleman said,
The real truth, the real church is coming to the human being. Ain’t nothing in this world gonna get in your way ‘cause you can’t see it or talk to it. All you can do is experience it. Eternity is not a word, it’s an existence.
Play is ultimately embodied, contextual, and personal. It's only when you're having the time of your life that you can invite others into the kind of game that is worth continuing indefinitely.
Dr. Carse’s book starts with:
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.
Most of us frame the games we play as finite. Finite games include goals such as reaching the top of leaderboards, becoming the top grossing game on the app store, becoming the most funded gitcoin grant, getting some percentage of market share, becoming the next Uber / AirBnb / Amazon.
Dr. Carse's work aligns marvellously with the kind of thinking we would like to cultivate with Kernel fellows. In particular, one point in the book harks back to language and meaningful conversations:
the rules of an infinite game [...] are like the grammar of a living language, where those of a finite game are like the rules of debate. In the former case we observe rules as a way of continuing discourse with each other; in the latter we observe rules as a way of bringing the speech of another person to an end.
This idea of continued discourse, or play, can be found underneath everything we do at Kernel. We do not spurn rules or convention; we just contextualise them appropriately. Rules are not followed as a means of gaining control or power, and we do not care whose turn it is next. Rules exist in order to continue playing increasingly principled games with one another, always in the light of the shared understanding that any rule, any boundary, is just a convention, inviting ever more creative, dramatic kinds of play.
Inasmuch as a finite game is intended for conclusion, inasmuch as its roles are scripted and performed for an audience, we shall refer to finite play as theatrical. Although script and plot do not seem to be written in advance, we are always able to look back at the path followed to victory and say of the winners that they certainly knew how to act and what to say. Inasmuch as infinite players avoid any outcome whatsoever, keeping the future open, making all scripts useless, we shall refer to infinite play as dramatic.
The less effective [the Church] is as a power, the more effective she can be as a celebrant of the mystery.
This quote is taken from an Ivan Illich essay called The Powerless Church, which you can find on page 42 of this pdf. The core idea is simple: if we are to play ongoing, dramatic games with each other on principle, then we need to question the idea that possession of property can or should be translated into power over another human being. Or in Dr. Carse’s words:
Power is a feature only of finite games. It is not dramatic but theatrical. How then do infinite players contend with power? Infinite play is always dramatic; its outcome is endlessly open [...] Infinite players look forward, not to a victory in which the past will achieve a timeless meaning, but toward ongoing play in which the past will require constant reinterpretation.
This insight matches one from David Wengrow and David Graeber's book The Dawn of Everything, where they describe in detail more than one culture in which it simply wasn't possible to exercise power based on material possession. Such societies found the European notion of property - and the way it led people to behave without generosity - to be barbaric anathema, which they self-consciously rejected. The Europeans were a people rich in property, but poor in relationship and in time, and totally lacking freedom.
A way to reinvigorate these lost freedoms is through the kinds of social experiments more readily accessible to us in the realm of ritual play. However, there is a critical element from Dr. Carse's work which is difficult to imagine "in production":
The rules of an infinite game must change in the course of play. The rules are changed when the players of an infinite game agree that the play is imperiled by a finite outcome — that is, by the victory of some players and the defeat of others. The rules of an infinite game are changed to prevent anyone from winning the game and to bring as many persons as possible into the play.
Any rule you create simultaneously creates an incentive for a player to manipulate it. So, if you create rules for who wins and loses–that is, if you create a reward-oriented hierarchy–then, inevitably, people will try to bend the rules to make sure they win and others lose. However, if the rules you design only specify how they may be kept from becoming exclusionary and changed to ensure the game keeps going, then the most likely outcome of any manipulation is greater inclusivity and more robust ongoingness. We call such rules “credibly neutral”.
There is some historical precedent for this in the world of blockchains: just look at the DAO hard fork, or any of Bitcoin's own forks. However, the narrative around these has so far revolved around pseudo-permanence, rather than play.
Play is not a trivial activity. Play is fundamental. Permanence is actually the naive idea in a world premised on transience.
Don't be fooled by any promises of permanence, or the power that possessions seem to afford you. Play with all your heart and you will become like Alobar from Tom Robbins' epic novel, Jitterbug Perfume:
Have you forgotten? Are you to be an individual, a trespasser in territory no-one else has had the wit or nerve to explore, or just another troublesome mosquito to be swatted by the authorities? You’re no longer a king or a warrior, remember, but something new […] who can guess what benefits may result from a new life wholly led?
All of this can be summed up in a very simple idea that is very difficult to imagine implementing (though it is worth every bit of effort you're able to put into it):
Finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play with boundaries.
Dr. Carse's book, Finite and Infinite Games, ends succinctly with:
There is but one infinite game.
Open-ended, and left to our interpretation. Is infinity singular?Remembrance¶
We dedicate this module to the intergalactic memory of Dr. James P. Carse. In remembering this giant on whose shoulders we stand, we quote both his own work and another deep influence of ours, James Baldwin:
Gardening is not outcome-oriented. A successful harvest is not the end of a gardener's existence, but only a phase of it. As any gardener knows, the vitality of a garden does not end with a harvest. It simply takes another form. Gardens do not die in the winter but quietly prepare for another season.
For nothing is fixed,
forever, forever, forever,
it is not fixed;
the earth is always shifting,
the light is always changing,
the sea does not cease to grind down rock.
Generations do not cease to be born,
and we are responsible to them
because we are the only witnesses they have.
The sea rises, the light fails,
lovers cling to each other,
and children cling to us.
The moment we cease to hold each other,
the moment we break faith with one another,
the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.