Adult Play: Game-on and Keep Young

For adults, the benefits of play—the games of childhood and beyond—are enlightening and exciting.

The Well Played Game

Newly updated and relevant for today's modern gamers, "The Well-Played Game," by Bernard De Koven, explains how adults play together.

Cover Courtesy The MIT Press

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The Well-Played Game (The MIT Press, 2013) is as relevant today as it was when it was first published in 1978. Author Bernard De Koven explores the inner workings of games—how they work and the affect they have on their gamers. In this excerpt newly written for the 2013 edition, Mr. De Koven recounts the defining moments in his understanding of adult play, and the simple joy of once again playing the simple games of childhood.

The Benefits of Play

The 35 years that have passed since the initial publication of this book have brought with them a new universe for us to play in: the friends and neighbors with whom we work and play every day live down the street and across the globe; the things that entertain and inform us are interconnected; our toys talk to us and to each other. And yet, adult play and the games described in this book are just as much fun today as they were when I wrote about them. And given the opportunity and permission to play them, our differences are healed, our spirits ignited—just like they were for the people who played them before us. And understanding what makes them fun and how we keep them fun is just as valuable in understanding our lives in the shadows of Occupy Wall Street as it was in the light of the Human Be-In. The Well-Played Game is about an experience that transcends games, just as the games you’ll be reading about transcend the historical, geographic, social, and physical circumstances that divide us. It is not about any particular game, but about the spirit of play itself. Nor is it about any particular individual player, but about the relationship between players in pursuit of fun.

While The Well-Played Game was being written, we were still recovering from our “action” in Vietnam and the resignation of Nixon. We were for the most part disenfranchised from our government, but not our country. Some of us were seeking alternatives, others creating them.

We didn’t have computers, but we had arcades where we found community and computer-mediated wonders and new worlds to master.

We had drugs, only then we thought they were a gateway to a spiritual community, serving as an ecumenical Eucharist with which we shared the brief but beautiful belief that all we really needed was love.

These were only some of the influences that led to this book.

Arcade games, simulation games, and, of course, the countless books and articles on the folklore and history of games all contributed to a renaissance in how we played and how we understood play.

A decade before I published The Well-Played Game I found myself working for the School District of Philadelphia. I was hired, ostensibly, to develop a curriculum in theater for children. That was, or should have been, miracle enough. The kind of theater I wanted to share with children and help them build would be their own kind—an improvisational theater they could produce for each other and create together and attend and celebrate together. And while I was busily engaged in teaching them my vision of children’s theater, they were just as busily engaged in teaching me theirs: a form of theater that I came to understand as “the theater of games.” Scripted, and yet improvisational. Handed down from generation to generation (a kid’s generation being about two years), and yet constantly being changed: daytime rules, nighttime rules, playground rules, street rules, rules for when I have to bring my baby sister, rules for when my father is watching.

My curriculum, which I finally completed in 1971, was a compilation of some 1,000 children’s games—actual games that actual children played. The first real fruit of all this labor was that, for a brief time in the history of the School District of Philadelphia, children were playing in school—in classrooms and hallways and playgrounds—with the benevolent blessings of their teachers.

But that was just the first fruit. The harvest was yet to come. For I had learned that children’s games are truly theater, and that, like all good theater, they captured the human condition, they revealed the human truth.

Even duck duck goose, with all the drama of getting chosen and of getting to choose, of making yourself visible or making yourself disappear, of trying not to be caught and trying to look like you’re trying. Yes, that game, the kindergarten game where kids sit or stand in a circle except for the fox. The fox goes round the outside of the circle, tapping each kid on the head until, for reasons known only to the fox, one kid is chosen goose. The goose gets up and runs around the outside of the circle. The fox takes chase. If the goose makes it back to where she started from before the fox can tag her, the fox must choose another goose. Sometimes you’d get chosen by the person you most hoped would choose you. Sometimes you wouldn’t get chosen at all. Sometimes the chase took them through the circle, around the whole playground. Sometimes the goose would run the wrong direction. Sometimes the fox took too long to make up his mind and a self-appointed goose would appear to save the game. That duck duck goose.

And then, the first time I taught teachers how to use the curriculum, the next great lesson appeared. Again, in the form of duck duck goose. It was the first of eight sample games I had selected to demonstrate the range of children’s games. We only had forty-five minutes for the entire program, so I planned a maximum of four minutes per game. And forty minutes later, we were still playing duck duck goose. And the drama was revealed to be profound enough to catch the adult mind. And fun was being had. And I learned, again, how powerful a theater these games were, for adults as well as for children.

My next step was to create an environment in which I could help adults experience games as deeply and widely as I had come to experience them. I understood that if we wished to change the institutions that govern children’s play, we needed to bring change to the adults who created those institutions. And that led to our building of the Games Preserve. It was a farm about sixty miles from Philadelphia with a 200-year-old stone house, a stone spring house, and a marvelously commodious bank barn (the kind of barn where you drive up a bank to reach the top floor), and ultimately twenty-five acres of fields and woods—fields big enough for capture the flag, and woods deep enough for hide-and-seek.

The barn became our indoor games theater. Because I was writing for Games magazine, the Gifted Child Newsletter, and Simulation/Gaming/News, I was able to fill the barn with puzzles and games from just about every game company in the world. My daughter, Shael, remembers this as a place where adults took kids seriously.

By 1976 we had groups visiting us from Philadelphia and environs, from out of state, and even out of country. And I was conducting explorations of play, games, fun, and everything related for couples, small groups, and large groups from schools, therapeutic environments, and even from a local prison. One consistent visitor was Dr. Brian Sutton-Smith (and his students) from the University of Pennsylvania where he was teaching courses on the folklore, anthropology, and psychology of play. He and I first knew of each other from my participation in an organization called The Association for the Study of Play—I became a lifetime member and he, a remarkable scholar of play, became my lifelong friend.

Then in 1976 and 1977, three pivotal events deeply changed the course of my work:

One: I met Bob Gregson, an artist in Hartford, Connecticut, who was producing a citywide event known as “Thursday Is a Work of Art”—a happening, of sorts, where he and his cohorts transformed sections of downtown Hartford with bits of creative silliness. You’d walk down an alley and be greeted by people sitting in folding chairs who applauded you, for no particular reason. You’d see a giant chair in the plaza in front of an insurance building where you could sit and instantly revert to a three-year-old. You’d pass a “joke exchange booth” where you could, as you might expect, exchange jokes with someone. You’d find yourself in front of a mural with space, paint and brushes waiting for your creative whim. It was my first experience with how you could transform a public space into a public stage where the actors and audience join together in the play to create some marvelously human comedy.

Two: I was invited to design an event for Philadelphia’s 1976 Bicentennial celebration. The day after a visit from the Queen of England, we transformed the Philadelphia Parkway into a play environment that accommodated a quarter of a million people, inviting them to games of giant, four-way volleyball, giant pick-up-sticks, giant cardboard building blocks, giant, and block-long hopscotch. Between each block was another local band and alongside were places to eat and other places where you could learn more about local art and artists. So much play. So much fun. So many different people, of all ages, all walks of life, all backgrounds, playing together, celebrating our community.

And lastly: I met Burton Naiditch and John O’Connell, both from a San Francisco organization called the New Games Foundation. The Foundation was originally inspired by Stewart Brand, whose Whole Earth Catalogs helped alternative communities find the alternative tools they needed to build their dreams. Like Bob Gregson, the New Games organization facilitated and celebrated public play. There were uncanny similarities between my play/work and theirs, and they were about to take it to a new level. New Games became not just an event, but a movement. And they invited me to help them because I was the first one they met who not only understood the essence of their vision, but also how to expand it.

So I joined the New Games Foundation, became co-director along with John O’Connell and Burton Naiditch, helped with the first New Games Book, was one of the main contributors to the New Games Training program, and was invited by the publishers of the New Games books to write what became this book.

Of the many new ideas and personalities in games that have appeared since this book was first published, there are two in particular that have made the idea of The Well-Played Game mainstream enough to merit the republication of this book: one psychological, the other technological.

A bit after this book was first published, I found a book called Beyond Boredom and Anxiety written by someone named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It was the first book written by a psychologist who described something similar to the kind of experience I described in The Well-Played Game. I immediately adopted and adapted it as a core part of the presentations I gave while I was leading New Games trainings.

Later, Martin Seligman, as president of the American Psychological Association, coined the term “positive psychology”—a most useful distinction that led to the emergence of a small flood of books on the art and science of happiness.

These studies and reflections have, in some small but significant way, brought about an acceptance of that healthy, healing part of the human psyche that likes to enjoy itself—a part that had been deeply distrusted or ignored by psychologists and religious leaders until that time. And enjoyment is, of course, central to our understanding of games, play, and wellness.

The second change has been in technology. When The Well-Played Game was first published, there was no such thing as a personal computer. Today, almost all of us have at least one in our pocket or backpack or on our wrist. The ubiquity of computer-related technologies has resulted in the evolution of new ways to play and new kinds of games—to such a degree that when we describe something as a “social game” we are no longer talking about what goes on between kids in a playground but rather about systems of online interaction and communication. And when we talk about “street games” we don’t mean the kinds of games that have been played on city streets ever since cities had streets; instead, we are describing games that involve a wide array of technologies in support of augmented social interaction in real time and real space.

I have been strongly affected by these changes. Three years after the initial publication of The Well-Played Game, I closed the doors of the Games Preserve and moved to Silicon Valley to contribute what I understood about games and play to the evolution of computer games. I joined a company ingloriously called “Automated Simulations,” and led the design effort for a series of small but innovative games called “Mind Toys.” Because of other changes, not so much technological but cultural, the New Games Foundation was dissolved in 1983.

Since then, I’ve continued my explorations of games and play and fun, exploring different media and settings. The spirit of New Games and our understanding of how to share the experience of the well-played game continues to evolve and be embraced to this day, in many different technologies and philosophies, such as, in all likelihood, yours.

For one reason or another, because of your interest in the technology of games or the psychology of play, and perhaps because of both, you have found your way to this little book. I hope it will help do two things for you: 1) confirm your suspicions that, at their heart, games are all about fun, and 2) raise your appreciation not only for the elegance of a well-designed game but also for the ingenuity and resourcefulness of players. If successful, it will help you bring more fun to yourself, your work, and your community.

Reprinted with permission from The Well-Played Game: A Player’s Philosophy by Bernard De Koven and published by The MIT Press, 2013.