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Bernie DeKoven's Playful Path

Reviving the True Spirit of Play and Gamesmanship

by Steve Cooperman

Bernie DeKoven
Bernie DeKoven has followed "the Playful Path" for almost 40 years.

You wouldn't think that a conversation about Follow the Leader and Duck Duck Goose could be intellectually stimulating, let alone transformative, but it is when the conversation is with Bernie DeKoven.

Bernie DeKoven has been pursuing what he calls “the Playful Path” for almost 40 years. He has written two books, The Well-Played Game and Junkyard Sports; has designed award-winning games for Ideal Toy Company, CBS Software, and Mattel Toys; has conducted workshops for such organizations as Southwest Airlines, Buckminster Fuller Institute, and Apple Computer; developed the Games Preserve, a retreat center in Pennsylvania; serves as adjunct faculty in the Multimedia Division of the USC School of Cinema-Television; and is the creator and granter of the Major Fun Awards to games of all kinds. Apparently, his version of the Playful Path doesn’t allow for a lot of time for sitting around doing nothing.

I recently spoke to Bernie about the notion that there is great wisdom in understanding the nature of games, play, and fun. In May, he will be sharing some of this wisdom in Fairfield, offering two workshops and leading games as part of 1st Fridays Art Walk on May 2 (www. fairfieldartwalk.com/).

Steve Cooperman: Let’s start by talking about your book, The Well-Played Game, which really changed the way I engage in activity with others. Explain the concept of the well-played game.

Bernie DeKoven: The “well-played game” is a game that becomes excellent by virtue of the collective excellence of the players. “Excellence” means going beyond the normal limitations. Shared excellence means, in a competitive game, that both sides have been able to perform excellently. We may believe that the real goal of the game is to win, but if you win against people who aren’t really playing their best, then winning is empty, winning doesn’t bring satisfaction. The well-played game celebrates the joy of playing fully.

The concept applies to more than just games. When I started doing games workshops with adults, we’d play a little bit and talk a little bit, and some remarkable insights were generated not just about the purpose of games, but what teaching is about, what parenting is about, what work is about, what a successful relationship is like, what life is about. We thought we were talking about games and ended up talking about every aspect of life.

How did you come to write the book?

In 1968, the Philadelphia school district asked me to develop an elementary school curriculum for theater. I thought I was going to have the kids do real theater, so I started with theater exercises—playing with imaginary balls, pretending you’re an ice cube melting, exercises from Viola Spolin’s Improvisation for the Theater.

I was trying to bring kids the experience of creating theatrical experiences together. In doing that, I decided it was important that it be their theater. So the test was: could I go out of the room for 90 seconds, and, when I came back, would the kids still be doing the same activity? They had fun with the theater exercises, but none of the things I tried really succeeded—when I came back, they’d be running amok.

So I started looking for something that they would engage in. I thought, maybe if we played regular kids’ games as a warm-up to the theater games, that might be a better way to start. I started this experiment with a first grade class. I asked them what game they wanted to play, and they said, Duck Duck Goose. When I left the room and came back, they didn’t even notice I had been gone. So I left for three minutes, and when I came back, they were still playing. It wasn’t theater, but it was something they could maintain, effectively stage, and produce.

Then they asked me to play, and that’s when I began to understand the theater of games. When you don’t want to be picked, what do you do? Or if you want to be picked, how do you achieve that? If you appear too eager, you won’t be picked. And when you’re doing the picking, do you pick a kid you want to be friends with? Do you pick a kid you know you can beat? Do you pick a kid no one else picks, so you can demonstrate how caring and kind you can be?

I realized that kids’ games are theater of a more abstract and profound kind than my training had led me to believe. I started studying games all over the world, and I wound up writing a children’s games curriculum—five volumes containing 1,000 kids’ games—which was published in 1971.

Then I started teaching adults how to use this curriculum, helping them learn how to decide what games might be appropriate, how to facilitate games, and, most important, how to understand what goes on in children’s games. This isn’t an easy thing to doadults have lost contact with the value of play, and few adults have been sensitized to the transformative powers of a shared experience of fun.

Intuitively, I got it, but verbalizing this so other adults could understand it helped me get clear that there was something beyond, that there were other criteria besides who won and who lost.

In some games there are no winners and losers. Like kids playing Follow the Leader, there’s this strange dynamic. How do you win? By being the leader? By being a good follower? Well, it turns out a good game of Follow the Leader happens when the leader is sensitive to the people following him or her, continually enticing them with something to do. You, the leader, have to make them want to follow you. To do this, you have to be able to change the level of challenge to the shifting interests of the people following you.

We tend to focus on winning and losing. If you’re a kid playing soccer, somebody asks,“Did you have a good time?” and the expected response is, “Yes, we won” or “No, we lost.” But if that’s the only criteria, then why play? At least half of the people are losing and not having fun.

Especially in a competitive game, what makes it fun is that competition keeps everyone focused and doing the best they can. It’s a way of maintaining challenge.

When winning or losing is the only criterion, you’re not communicating the value of the game—experiencing a state of flow, going beyond yourself, feeling a sense of harmony with those you’re playing with. That’s why you play a game. Competition and cooperation are just tools to get you to that zone.

How has your thinking about The Well-Played Game changed since writing the book?

The only thing that’s really changed is that I’ve come to believe in the wisdom of my work. I also didn’t know how few people had talked about this before. Most people in our culture have a limited appreciation for play, games, fun, enjoyment. Rather than finding delight in the experience of play, we focus totally on winning, which we believe is something that happens when the game is over.

And yet there seems to be more awareness of the importance of play and fun in the workplace, as a way of fostering creativity and job satisfaction.
When we try, for example, to make a meeting fun, someone usually suggests something like bringing water pistols to the meeting. But the fun of a good meeting has nothing to do with water pistols. It’s the fun of being heard, of being supported, of building plans together, of being challenged to be your best. If you can understand the fun of work, you are able to find the inherent fun in any activity.

I came up with the concept of “CoLiberation.” When you’re at work, and you’re working well with another person, it’s the same as playing well with another person. Each is enlarging the other, making each other more capable, more powerful, more talented. For example, you can be more clear, more concise, because of the way people are listening to you; because of the relationship between you and the listeners, you are meeting well together.

So how do you make a game, or some other situation, more fun?

You start by resensitizing yourself to what fun feels like for you. You really have to start by exploring what it’s like when you’re having fun—what is this game like, what is this job like.

Once you start being aware of what you’re playing for—the transcendent, CoLiberating experience of playing together, of shared grace, of harmony—there’s a lot of ways to reaching that place. One of the easiest ways is to play with the nature of the challenge. You redesign the game, just a bit, so that everyone is free to determine the degree of challenge they want to pursue.

Take, for example, the high jump. Normally in gym class, you see kids standing in line, waiting to try to jump over the bar. The kids who knock it over go into the pool of losers, and there they stay until the game is over. The rest, the very few who have anything like a positive experience, are likely to be the ones who already see themselves as competent and need a positive experience the least.

What Muska Mosston, a physical educator, did was to slant the high bar and tell the kids they could jump wherever they wanted to—everyone could choose exactly the level of challenge that they felt ready to pursue. By allowing kids to negotiate the challenge individually, Mosston made it possible for each player to experience her own excellence.

The only criterion for the success of the experience that we call “play” is that the individual who is playing is engaged—fully and completely. Fun is a totally idiosyncratic experience.

In The Well-Played Game, you introduce the concept of the Play Community. What is that?

It’s being in a game where players decide if the game is good enough for them to want to play—a game that’s fun enough for everyone.

The Play Community experience proved to be as central to the success of a computer game, and to the Internet itself, as it was to the success of a game of neighborhood stickball. When Atari came out with the home version of its computer games, I found here was another media where the question you’d ask yourself about a particular game is, is it good enough for you to have fun?

The Internet is primarily driven by play communities—people coming together only because it’s fun for them, on blogs, being in a chat room, playing Second Life and World of Warcraft, on Facebook. They’re not doing it to get a trophy—the focus is on serving the community. People are deciding whether the technology, the medium, the structure is good enough for them to play; the structure is not deciding if people are good enough to play.

Can we take it a step further? Why not apply this to the communities in which we physically live?

Yes, if we can be conscious of a different agreement––let’s find a game that’s fun for everybody, not just the athletes. Inclusion and engagement are the goal, not just being on a winning team. In such a game, you have to play with all all kinds of people—young, old, people in wheel­ chairs—so you have to find something everyone can play together, something everyone can play well. And if we can do that in games, we can do it at work, at home, in each other’s kitchens and backyards. Not just playing well together, but living well together, whole people with whole families in a whole community.   

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