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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

Book excerpt: The Infinite Playground

The Infinite Playground is a book by Bernie DeKoven about the limitless creative potential of the imagination - to help us know ourselves, to bring us into contact with others, and to enrich our relationship with the world. It includes dozens of games to play, as well as guest essays from a range of designers, scholars, and others. Bernie developed the initial manuscript, and co-writer Holly Gramazio and editors Celia Pearce and Eric Zimmerman worked with Bernie to bring this book to print. The samples here are from the section of the book on play.

Having Fun Together

Of all the things that contribute to accessing the experience of the well-played game, none has more influence than the community of players, or, as I prefer to call it, the play community. I prefer to call it that because it helps me make a clear, and what I have found to be a very useful distinction between that, and the "sports community."

In the sports community, the rules and officials decide if the players are good enough to play. If not, they change players.
But in the play community, we—the players—can decide if the game is good enough to play. If not, we can change the rules. The ultimate criteria for success is not so much who won, but much more, how much fun we are able to create for each other. In this way, every game is continually being designed by the play community.

And the thing about fun-focused games is that they're not so much about the fun that any one particular player or team is having. Usually, no matter what game you play, somebody has fun. The thing that makes this whole idea so worth thinking about is that fun-focused games are all about everybody having fun, certainly everybody who wants to be having fun.
This kind of game, the fun-focused kind, is not about getting the highest score, even though points might be awarded and score might be kept. Getting the highest score is not the point. Winning isn't the point. The point is getting to share that special state of spirit, mind and body that we call "fun." And maybe we can experience that special feeling without anyone having to be a world-class athlete.

In fact, let's do that now. Let's play another game—or at least, imagine that we're playing another game. And let's make it something we all know, so we can think about how we might change the game, and let other players change it too.

Something to play: Tag

We all know tag. Or at least, we all know one version of tag.

Depending on which version of tag you're playing (and they are legion, these tag versions), you either want to be IT, or you don't want to be IT.

When you're IT, and you don't want to be IT, you have to make someone else be IT, and the only way you can do that, is by, eponymously, tagging someone.

And then you're not IT, and someone else is, so you run away.

So the question, then, is "if tag is a game" (which it certainly is) "how do you win?"

And the answer?

Well, it seems you don't really quite exactly win. The game just goes on and on. You're either one of the many, running away from IT, or IT, running after the many.

Sure, when you're IT you can go after one or several people in particular, for whatever reason you can give yourself: revenge, friendship, vindication. And if you manage to tag them, it's almost like winning. Except, when you succeed, all that happens is that person becomes IT, and they get their turn at revenge, or demonstration of friendship, or whatever. You still don't win.

And neither do they. And when you're not IT you can look at every moment of your not-IT-ness as a personal victory. But, sooner or later, you'll be caught. And if you're not, it's almost like you lose, because the only real object of the game is the fun you have playing, and after a while, being not IT is just not fun enough.

If being IT is winning, then why are you trying so hard to make someone else IT? If being NOT-IT is losing, then why are you running away?

Because it's fun.

And if it's not fun enough then you can make it fun. Whenever we play tag we have to agree on what the rules are, because there are so many different ways to play, and that means we have to make up what the rules are. We change them. We make a version of the game just for us, for where we are and who we are and how we feel. Maybe if IT doesn't stay IT long enough, we make rules like "no tagging back." Or, if people are getting too tired or not tired enough, we change the size of the play area, or we declare certain places "off limits" or "safe" or "home." We're not making a new game. It's still TAG. But we're fine-tuning it, because it's ours, because it's for fun.

Changing The Game

Being able to do this—to change the game—helps to create that sense of glorious play together. If something isn't working, you can try something a little bit different.

There are many strategies for designing a game as it is being played. One is most often called "cheating." There are degrees of cheating. If we judge the effectiveness of cheating in terms of fun, the most effective kind of cheating is when the cheater actually makes the game more fun, for all the players. In The Well-Played Game I call this "the well-timed cheat," because it is usually put into practice at the moment it is most needed—just when the game isn't as much fun as it should be, when people are getting too serious about winning or losing, when they are at risk of getting hurt, physically, emotionally. So somebody does something that is not only a flagrant violation of the rules, but also makes everyone laugh. Like knocks the pieces off the board, or runs out of the game and comes back with two more balls, or starts a song that leads to a whole new game.

Sometimes, the easiest way to bring a game back, and the players back, and reach something wonderful, is to take a break. This is called quitting. And quitting works best when everyone does it at the same time. But sometimes, all you need is one person to quit. Because by quitting, that one person reminds everyone that quitting is possible, that the game itself is something that is being played only because everyone wants to play it. It's only a game, and the only reason it's being played is because it's fun,or supposed to be. And if it's not, well, we can just quit, and play a different game or make up a new one, entirely.

On the other hand, making up a new game, entirely, is not so easy. It's a lot easier to take an old game, and change it—a rule or two (like the boundaries mentioned above in tag), or something else.

To start, maybe try something from this list of "7 Ways to Make Almost Anything More Fun," which I compiled with suggestions from Matt Weinstein, Elyon DeKoven, and Jon Jenkins.

  1. If there are two sides, add a third or take one away.
  2. Every now and then, change sides: when someone is ahead by two somethings or when someone throws a 9, or when somebody has to go to the bathroom.
  3. If there are turns (checkers, gin rummy, serving the ball in ping pong or volleyball), take them together, at the same time, as in "1, 2, 3…go," or every now and then skip a turn.
  4. If there is score, keep playing until you discover who's the second winner, and the third, and the next, and the last. Or give each other points, or play pointlessly.
  5. If it's not fun, change it: add another ball, or a rule, or a goal, or take a rule away, or change a rule, or borrow a rule from another game, or add a whole game and play them both at once, or do something silly.
  6. If it's still not fun, change yourself: try it with your eyes closed, or with your "wrong" hand, or tie yourself to someone else.
  7. If it makes the game better, for everybody, cheat.

These aren't the only ways to change the game, of course! And the people playing a game will be the best people to work out what would make it more fun, for them—if they feel comfortable enough to try.


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