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Bernie De Koven
A Celebration of the Well Played Life, 1941-2018
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Playful World: Section guide


• Bernie Tribute home

• Steven Conway on Bernie
• Excerpt: The Infinite Playground

Stephen Conway was a good friend of Bernie's and a longtime collaborator with him, being promoted to succeed Bernie as the new Major Fun. He is also the force behind The Spiel, a website and podcast about games and the people who love them. He's written this reflection about Bernie which we are honored to share.

 

Our Playful Path: Bernie & Me

My name is Stephen Conway and I'm going to tell you about the playful path I've been walking with my friend and mentor and brother in fun, Bernie “Blue” DeKoven.

Bernie spent his life delving into the serious side of silly and the silly side of seriousness. He began this journey in the 1960s and his work on and in so many areas of fun and games formed the foundation for the world flooded with games we now live in today. Let me give you a taste of his resume over these years.

He wrote a comprehensive index of children's playground games and coded each one in a way teachers could use to help students develop specific social skills.

He founded a commune on a farm in the early 1970s dedicated to games called The Games Preserve where he led seminars on games, teaching groups from corporations, universities, and even prisons how learning to give yourself permission to play, even as adults, especially as adults, is a powerful and potentially transformative experience

He was involved with the New Games Foundation as a teacher, trainer, and developer of new games.

He organized a massive play day for the city of Philadelphia's Bicentennial celebration for hundreds of thousands of people.

He worked for Ideal Toys as a lead game designer.

He worked in the video game industry on games for the Atari, including Alien Garden, considered the first art video game ever made.

He wrote several books including The Well Played Game, Junkyard Sports, The Playful Path and the upcoming title The Infinite Playground.

He worked for Mattel and the Children's Television Workshop developing interactive computer games

And he founded the Major Fun Award nearly two decades ago, an award which celebrates and honors board and card games that are great for kids, families and parties.

After many years of regular play dates, Bernie decided to tap me as his successor, promoting me from Sergeant Screwball to Major Fun.

A little about me. I'm the host and founder of The Spiel, an online media network that explores and reviews the world of games and the people who love them. I've been pursuing my passion for play and fun for most of my life and professionally for over a dozen years. I write and record game reviews and organize interviews and discussion panels with game designers, publishers and scholars at conferences and conventions around the world. I do design, development, and editorial work for publishers in the board game industry. I run a non profit group called The Spiel Foundation that donates bundles of quality games to children's hospitals and senior centers across the country (and soon around the world, we hope!)And I also make films exploring games and playfulness.

***

Bernie lost his life to cancer just one year ago. But over the year leading up to his death, I spent 3 or 4 days a week almost every week filming a documentary with Bernie. It's his life story on one hand but it's also a door into understanding his philosophy of play, his playful path - a path that I've been walking right along side him without even realizing it until we met. The film is still in post production. I hope it will serve as a lasting legacy and memoir for generations to come.

The following thoughts are inspired by wandering along this path with Bernie. They may be my words, but I know they come from a place close to Bernie's soul. I hope the net result might be that you find a new appreciation of the power of play and an invitation to walk your own playful path, wherever it might lead.

Play Matters

Let's start with this simple premise. Play matters. It's not frivolous activity. It's not wasted time. It's one of the first skills we learn as children. Play is a safe space, a rehearsal space, a small world where we can experiment without real danger or lasting consequence, we try on different versions of ourselves when we play and as we learn about ourselves, we learn about the people we play with, too.

Why does play matter?

Play matters because it is a fundamental expression of our humanity. It can be a powerful and positive force that shapes how we relate to the world, to ourselves, and to others.

We start playing using our imagination. It doesn't take much effort for any of us to recall a moment from our early years pretending or dressing up or reenacting some heroic triumph where the back yard or back streets became your kingdom or unexplored island or alien planet for an afternoon.

And as this kind of play starts to take on more structure and boundaries and rules, we slip almost effortlessly into the world of games. Games are in some sense the matter that play creates. They are the artifacts of play. The evidence that play matters can be seen in the almost irresistible impulse foreach human community to create its own games. Games that celebrate skills or values or behaviors that a community cherishes.

But underlying the minutiae of any game's equipment or rules or history is a simple unifying idea - games are vehicles for social interaction. They build bridges between people. They give us a way to interact with each other, to learn from each other, to know each other in a way that is different than the everyday world. The game provides us with safe borders defined by a table, a board or a simple deck of cards.

The tabletop becomes a laboratory. We can invest ourselves in the game, in the decisions we make, we can even lose ourselves in the game... if it's a good one. And win or lose, the lasting fun and joy that comes from games comes from that place - that moment when we are able to lose ourselves to the world of the game. Each game offers a door to this experience, a meeting place - shared, common ground to all players who enter.

And because games are a form of artistic expression (the subject for another talk!) each one will speak to a different audience. Each game opens a door and the path the lies beyond can be vastly different. But the noble goal behind each path is to reach this place of fun and total engagement - the simple joy of play.

I could certainly talk at great length about the endless number of life and academic skills that can be learned through play and games in particular. Practical, real world skills: problem solving on so many levels, applied math, deduction, planning ahead, even deception and learning how and when to bend the rules. There are just too many to list or belabor.

And these are all amazingly useful benefits that you can trot out when someone scoffs at time wasted playing games.
But this misses the point. All these wonderful things are true. But even without them. Play matters. It is an end in and of itself. It need not lead to a skill or bank of knowledge for it to be worthwhile. Play leads us to others and to ourselves. It provides us with... a path. Many paths.

The connections we discover and memories we make along the way through play give us a different way of finding meaning, a different set of scales to measure success. And that matters (to me at least) whether or not I learned something concrete every time I play.

Play is Lifelong

Many of us assume play (and games) are the domain of children. We are encouraged, cajoled and systematically taught to abandon them as we mature. As if there is some magical moment when the switch flips - like a bar mitzvah for your serious soul. You box up these childish things and put them away, fond memories of a time when you knew how to be happy, how to experience joy.

Ok, just take a beat and let that sink in. I'd venture to guess that at some point earlier in life each of us has heard someone utter something akin to this sentiment. Grow up. You're not a kid anymore. You need to start acting like an adult.

Now of course, there's something to be said for maturity and being able to buckle down and work hard. But these tired old phrases, this so-called rite of passage from being a child to being an adult we're supposed to embrace is much more about squashing our instinctive playful nature than it is embracing a new part of ourselves emerging.

Let me just say at this point... what the heck? You can see the deck is stacked against those of us who value play.
I feel it's really important to set the context for my comments about play being a lifelong endeavor by acknowledging the societal bias against play and playfulness. Here's another example: When I explain to folks that I spend my life trying to understand and explore games and make the world a more playful place, they say:

  1. you're joking, right?
  2. seems like a lot of years wasted in school if you ask me (I have 2undergraduate degrees and a masters degree)
  3. good luck making money with that! (play cant be an end in itself, of course, it's all about the cash)
  4. my personal favorite: “when you fail at that, what are you really going to do with your life?”

The essential issue here is that making the choice to play as an adult goes against the grain of so many modern expectations in the world, it's hard for people to know how to deal with it. So they do the most human of all things and that is to attack from a place of fear.

To make play a lifelong pursuit requires a choice and an act of permission. The choice to play is easy as a kid. It's our basic instinct. But this choice grows more profound as we grow older because we have to give ourselves permission to play. It's a quiet act of rebellion in a way, you could even call it a political act if you want and you wouldn't be wrong, since so much of the world around us expects us to keep this part of ourselves locked away -to swallow those impulses to open ourselves up for a chance to have fun--to find joy.

Making this choice, giving yourself permission to be playful does NOT mean setting yourself on a wacky career path like mine. And it doesn't even mean you have to make a resolution to play games every day. Or to play games at all! It really boils down to a choice - choosing to approach the world from a playful posture or perspective.

But the easiest path for adults to take to find their way back to play, to give themselves permission to play is through games.
And now that you're older, you can appreciate playing on entirely new levels. Because you make the choice to play, you almost inevitably start to ask yourself why do I play?

The first impulse is almost always to answer:

You play to win.

The enjoyment and pleasure I get from playing comes from being on top and beating my opponent. And there's no denying it, winning can be fun. But what about all those times you lose? Do you regret playing because you lost? If you're 8, it's likely. But a shockingly high number of adults can't see past winning as the true and only real purpose of play. And it's the reason many serious people look askance at adults who enjoy games. If you give yourself permission to play, and you ask why? You begin to realize there are lots of reasons that have nothing to do with keeping score.

You play for fun.

The game itself, the mental gymnastics you get to perform, the way you get to interact with others, the sensory pleasure of the pieces, the beauty of the board or cards, the elegance of the system you get to be a part of - all of these things are sources of fun and joy and have nothing to do with winning or losing.

You play for memories.

I'm often asked to name my favorite game and my answer always sounds like a dodge until I explain it like this. My favorite game is the right game for the people at the table with me at the time. I want to play something that everyone will enjoy (sort of like a sommelier picking the right wine for a meal, there's an art to serving a memorable playful experience - the right game for the right crowd).

And the reason is this--the thing that has the greatest impact, long after the game is over and the laughs have died down, are the memories you take with you away from the table. So, my favorite game is the one that gives us a chance to create a lasting memory through play. I have hundreds of memories I can recount about a particular night with friends at play and not one of them has to do with who won or lost. These are moments that brought all of us at the table closer together because these moments are now memories we all share.

And of course playing for memories can help you bring back or relive cherished memories from the past. It can bring people back to you, just by playing a game you once shared and enjoyed. And in this way play can transport you not just into the world of the game but back in time to the middle of a cherished moment long past.

A central metaphor in Bernie's life was the ongoing internal dialogue between Serious and Silly - two aspects of his own mind. The world wants Silly to go away as we become adults and Serious to be the prime mover a tour core, but to Bernie, it's a game of balance. A happier life is one where these two play together in harmony. And getting these two to play together is perhaps the first step you can take to giving yourself permission to play. The choice to be playful is inclusive, despite the our culture's efforts to exclude or marginalize in so many ways.

Play Sets Us Free

Bernie coined the term co-liberation and it rises up from acts of pure playfulness.

When we play together, we are connected by an invisible thread, this relationship - not you or me - but US, together, playing. It creates a space for us in that moment that neither of us could forge on our own. We are free in that moment, liberated by each other, and we might find ourselves thinking or feeling or doing things that seem way beyond our abilities when we're alone.

This is co-liberation.

We see it clearly in sports. Teammates totally in synch with each other, suddenly rise up together and begin performing on a level that seems almost super human.

We see it at the theatre or a symphony with everyone on stage playing as a collective whole - a moment of perfect harmony. That pure sweet sound is impossible to forget.

But we don't have to be able to dunk a ball or become an amazing trumpet player to experience coliberation. And it doesn't need a crowd. It's a moment of freedom and awareness that can flash into existence anytime you make the choice to play.
Having so much time to play with Bernie helped me understand the depth and richness of playfulness. And what I realize only now is how he helped to set me free.

Our Playful Path

Play matters.

It's a lifelong choice available to us all.

And when you play, you help set yourself and others free.

I want to leave you with a beautiful idea that sits at the core of this essay. It's one that Bernie and I each found like a shiny rock on the beach: Playfulness is a posture. It's a stance that you can take, or a set of lenses that allow you to see the world differently throughout the journey of your life. It's a choice we can make – to be playful, to find joy in the everyday, in each other, in the community, in art and science, in the world in all its vast possibilities.

It can start at the game table for many – for any of us. Giving ourselves permission to play, to find that sense of freedom and joy--the feeling of challenge and risk and reward that can only come from a well played game. That playful spirit is what brings us back to games as adults. Rediscovering something, unlocking something that was always there.

The leap that Bernie made and that I am still making is that you can take that spirit with you beyond games. That any path you walk in life can be a playful path, your playful path.

You can choose to play – to have fun – to find joy and that choice is one that comes from a place of profound imagination, courage, and freedom.

We play because we even have the freedom and power to change the rules. To make things more inclusive, to make the game more challenging and more fun.

It's profound but it's silly, too. Take a beat, find the fun when and where you can in life. Take life just seriously enough that you figure out how to play with it. Choosing to play bucks so much of what we are taught to believe is important or vital to being successful. And yet, we think choosing to play brings us closer to contentment. Choosing to play makes us lighter, freer, brings us closer to knowing ourselves and others. Choosing to play allows us to savor those moments and memories with those we love.

Put simply, play can transform us into better versions of ourselves.

Bernie was the greatest and goofiest champion of this idea. And I hope, the next time you feel that itch to be playful, you follow it and think of him.

Stephen Conway
March 2019


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