As part of my graduate school program, I was assigned the task of exploring a chosen experiential issue I was curious about. I chose PLAY. I thought I didn’t do much of it, and wanted to change that; I did discover (among other things) that play is a huge subject. We were supposed to choose a site to which we would return over and over for this exploration. I thought the Albuquerque Zoo sounded like a place to find some play.

Pretty quickly I realized that, despite my decades of trucking children to zoos around the country, I was dead wrong. The zoo held almost no examples of play, with the exception of children running around in the grassy open area; the kids must have supplied that particular element. Mostly on that day I found that adults were hoping to educate their children with information, with facts and figures, while everyone got out of the house for a few hours, which surely holds a vague element of play for the average citizen in my culture. They were, more tragically, proving to their children that animals are ours to do with what we like. We are the dominant species, despite our many inferiorities.

The only possible examples of play were 2 sloths doing a slow motion entangled dance, like a furry animated sling, in their dimly lit display, and sea lions circling their pool with a measure of spiraling grace.

Shocked, I sat on a shaded bench near the pond and diligently took notes in my book. I did hear play in the nearby waterfall, yes. And some children who had been tugging on parental arms were playfully running pell-mell up and down the grassy hills. I bowed my head in stunned contemplation.

And then I noticed the feeling of play in the chirping house sparrows that flitted in and out of the bushes next to my bench. A baby bunny hopped at my feet, completely unconcerned with my presence. A roadrunner ran across a wall. In these common and unremarkable uncaged little beings,  I found the play I was looking for; I breathed it in and relaxed, grateful to have found it. We pay to see the remarkable, the white tiger and the boa. We make much of the exotic, in part precisely because we have invested time and money and effort in maintaining it. It is ours, it is valuable, it is unique (to us), it is worth pursuing, we possess it, and thus it cannot be free. But we ignore the play of the cosmos in that which is common, that which costs nothing, that which is as close as our breath. Our brains tell us the everyday is background noise, and surely there is some beauty in that belief as well.

What I was sniffing for at the zoo was what James P. Carse calls infinite play.

Oh, there are sooo many reasons to read this book: Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility, by James P. Carse. Though it appeared when I was still young- first copyright 1986– I did not read it until about 10 years ago. When it came out, I thought “Oh god, another head tripping theoretical exposition from some guy who plays chess.” That says something about my life history.

Well, it’s definitely logical, but it’s not just that; it’s actually alchemically balanced, arguing for the connectivity and subjectivity that characterize the feminine archetype. And despite my latent discovery of its charms it is now one of my most recommended reads.

And it’s not a long book at all- my tiny paperback has only 177 pages. It can be gotten cheaply used, since it was a bestseller with a number of editions. Carse has described therein two ways of operating, exactly the split that Bill Plotkin describes in his developmental theory I talked about a few blogs back. Basically, finite games are “ego” games, the competitive, dualistic mindset, while infinite games are, well, everything else. The split is the same between the elder brothers and sisters in the fairy tales I interpret, and the third, the youngest, the foolish one, the simpleton.

That’s simple enough, right? Why read the book then? Carse has explored the manner in which these two modes of operation appear in everyday human  life, and in doing so, he untangles lots of conditioned B.S. for us. For myself, I will never forget the wool he pulled off of my eyes in regards to my victimhood as an artist, the idea that “People don’t understand and/or value art”. Why are they such PHILISTINES?

Carse goes into the matter of “art” to a wonderful degree, and he answered my question forever; to whit, it is impossible for creativity in the cosmic, infinite sense to have a goal, to be possessed; to end. No wonder there are issues with selling art! For ownership is a sense of ending, of “done”, which is part of “mine”. This ending is one of the things that is being avoided when other cultures pass things around more freely, rather than defining land and other “things” according to the ownership thereof.

It’s hard to grab something from the middle of the book to present to the uninitiated, though. Carse’s philosophy has a logical trajectory, and it begins with very basic rules. The first one is on the book cover above: “There are at least 2 kinds of games. Once 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”.

Notice Carse’s language; at least 2 kinds of games” “one could be called”. In this way of speaking, he leaves an escape hatch, he creates the space for more, for that which is beyond his words; he is leaving room for continuing the play. This way of speaking represents the infinite worldview. It’s pretty awesome that all you have to do to step out of the “small mind” competitive reality is to stop defining things! Or rather, that you define, but lightly; at the same time you stay open to the possibility that something else can show up. Definition in the sense that we use it in my society as “facts” is just a way to end the game, which is why some children have an aversion to my culture’s education style. They can still smell freedom, and its end-game opposite. “OK, we know what THAT means. Done. Signed, sealed, and delivered. Don’t come around here trying to tell me you have other ideas about it.” This is how wars are started on all levels; this way of being in the world that believes in definitions, in done, end of play, end of story. Dig the idea below, that the rules of infinite games always change; same thing. Notice that the rules are not as important as inclusion, as making sure that everyone gets to create. THE RULES CHANGE SO THAT EVERYONE CAN PLAY.

The third section of the book includes musings on the subject I Am The Genius of Myself. “It is I, not the mind, that thinks. It is I, not the will, that acts. It is I, not the nervous system, that feels… A robot can say words but cannot say them to you.” If that seems esoteric or confusing, like I said, excerpting is difficult. BUT Carse is arguing for an aliveness, for relationship, for an experience of connection and oneness, that will bring healing to the sadly disconnected and competitive culture I inhabit. He argues for a much bigger picture, a picture that eases the tension, that deepens experience, that changes the game.

You may recognize a similar sort of philosophy  described in Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching; the above philosophy is an esoteric point in the Asian internal martial arts. But I guarantee that Carse’s presentation is unique in the universe. And one of his objectives is to let us understand that we all are that: unique in all the universe.