Street Games are informal sports, adapted to environment, the materials, and the spirit of the people playing. They are played without adult supervision, without official people or equipment. They are games that you can take very seriously, sports with loose enough rules so that you can play with just about anything, anywhere, with just about anybody you want to play with.
Playing in the street is probably as old as streets themselves. Streets are a natural playspace, depending on the traffic. Just take a look at Breughel's painting of maybe 200 middle-age children (though they may look middle-age, they are in fact children at play in the middle ages) playing more than 80 different children’s games.
In the late 19th century, most of the games Street Games Culin reported on were played on streets that led into vacant lots or were surrounded by fields or crossed rivers and train tracks. By the middle of the 20th century, streets were bounded by houses and each other. Around this very time, most of the games that were still being played in the streets – especially in the streets of big cities like New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and London - became the very games most commonly cited as “authentic” Street Games: Wall Ball, Stick Ball, Box Ball, Hand Ball, Stoop Ball, Skully. Jacks, Marbles, hopscotch, and Double Dutch, too.
For the World War generations, Stick ball and Skully would be grow to be considered the archetypal Street Games. Stick ball would become an official sport, as much like baseball as possible, originally played with a stick for a bat, an old tennis ball for a baseball, a sewer lid for home plate, a car and a sign post for first and third. And frequently no second base at all. And now played on Stick Ball Fields with official Stick Ball Sticks and even Stick Ball Balls.
Skully is like marbles, only instead of marbles it’s played with bottle caps filled with candle wax, and instead rolling, you slide the caps, like little shuffleboad pucks, and instead of playing in a circle, you play on a big rectangular, chalk-drawn field of lines and boxes.
Skully and Stick Ball, like all Street Games, originated as informal sports, adapted to environment, the materials, and the spirit of the people playing. (There are games you can play with half a ball, for example, with just three people, if you have to.) They are played without adult supervision, without officials. They are games that you can take very seriously, just like real sports but their rules are just loose enough to let you can play with just about anybody you want to play with. Street Games can, and have, become formalized, and commercialized. You can buy official sticks for Stick Ball. Official Spaldeens and Half Balls, too.
Street Games are continuously changing and adapting to their environment, to the players and the evolving technologies of play. There are still kids who are playing in the Street Games spirit, but the streets they play in, and what they play, and whom they play with, are, for the most part, a far cry from the way we played Stick Ball. They still play their own Street Game versions of baseball and football, soccer and hockey, but they play for the most part in their private yards or on the sidewalk, and they have nerf balls and whistling nerf footballs and portable street soccer goals and hockey pucks that hover. And yet, as far as everyone’s concerned, they’re playing something very much like what we called Street Games. They are playing in a way so that everyone can play. They are all players. They are all officials.
Though played on Razors and skateboards and BMX bikes, modern Street Games, like all Street Games, are replete with intricate tests of agility, opportunities for invention, and performances of death-defying originality. Each, like the classic Street Game, remains somehow informal, adapted to the environment, materials, and spirit of the people playing.
Street Games have their virtual equivalents in video games, especially in games that involve physical movement, like the Wii, or, slightly earlier, Dance Dance Revolution, each with its many different game playing modes, where players get to choose to cooperate and compete, follow and lead.
In every expression, it’s the dynamics of Street Games – how they are organized and maintained, how they are supported by their community, how they engage players in learning, teaching, designing, and leading open-ended play contracts, where you can change the rules, where winning isn't the point, really, where it's all about getting to play - that are most instructive.
When you begin to explore how a Street Game is governed, how it empowers its players, and becomes redefined by the way they want to play together – you discover an almost perfect reflection of the social architecture of successful communities – neighborhood and national, physical and virtual.
Street Games are remarkably easy to overlook. Many parents who moan over their children's inability to play manage to ignore the Street Games being played all around them.
Part of the reason that parents overlook the Street Games they’re own kids are playing is that they can’t see them. That’s because Street Games are being played on a very different kind of street from those of their parents. Street Games take place everywhere, but most often in spaces noted anthropologist Victor Turner called these spaces "liminal" - spaces that comprise an unofficial, temporary, anybodyland; spaces that exist between buildings and sidewalks, steps and parking lots, between front yards, across fences, behind the library and garage. “In between” spaces. Like the Internet.
Street Games are governed, officiated over by the people who play them. Just like the, oddly enough, Internet.
And, like the Street Games of the past, Street Games of today are played mostly by children in their liminal years – not-yet-adults, too old to be seen as kids – and are played everywhere.
Even on the railing of the library steps. Even on the cell phone and in chat rooms. Even on the Internet.
I was in Chicago O'Hare, waiting for a plane. We wanted desperately to call our daughter and couldn't find a pay phone that worked. Can you imagine. So we asked an iPhone-possessing young man if he could let us use his i- for a quick call. He obliged, and after we had finally contacted our daughter, we introduced ourselves.
Jon Lind, it turned out, is involved with a company called Defeats the Car, which, it turns further out, is a Dutch bicycle company named De Fietsfabriek, which kinda sounds like Defeats something. He just happened to have on his iPhone some rather delightful photos of their rather delightful creations. I was more than rather delighted by this bike, in particular. Jon writes: "The headlights...are battery powered LED lights. We went away from using the generator lights as they typically require more maintenance than we want our customers to have to deal with plus they create drag that can slow you down. Our customers are typically young families who want to have an alternative to driving their kids around town for local trips. Their reasons for desiring such a bicycle may come from concerns for the environment, saving on gasoline or avoiding the stresses of driving everywhere and having fun. We also have a large base of customers who get one of our city commuter models and they again have similar motives for getting things done without the dependence on automobile transportation. In addition to the practical purposes for purchasing one of our bicycles many people love the unique designs and styles plus the opportunity to personalize with either their names in the frame...or the sides of the cargo boxes can be used as blank canvasses with limitless opportunities for artistic expression."
Amazing what a chance meeting and a little kindness can lead one to.
Play is such a difficult phenomenon to define because there are so many different ways it is experienced. Some experiences are qualitatively better. Some are worse. Some games better, some toys better. As we discuss the quality of play, we will explore a few such qualities, and hint at the remarkably many more qualities of play to yet define.
Scanning the web for terms relating to the quality of play, we begin with two almost universally agreed-upon attributes by which the experience of game or sport, for example, are measured – or at least expressed: "well-played" and "lousy."
We all know what a lousy game is like, how clearly, painfully obvious it becomes, to at least one of us, that everything about the game is lousy – the way each of us is playing, the way we're playing together. Disappointed in our selves, in each other. The game. The team. I am lousy. We. Are lousy. We are playing poorly, so poorly that the whole game got lousy.
"The Imps were universally disappointed after their lousy game Saturday against Sanderson, when they compiled 90 yards of total offense, including 17 rushing, and failed to score in the 16-0 loss to the Spartans.
"They lost. 16-0. They barely made any yardage the whole game. They were, as a team, 'universally disappointed.'"
Note that there was no mention of the quality of play as perceived by the winning team. The idea of a "lousy game" almost always refers the quality of the game as perceived by people when they are losing, or have lost.
In the Official Forum (an online forum for sports officials), Mark Padget writes in response to a question about how to recover from a "lousy game."
"Sometimes, I think during a game that I may be a little "off". We all know the reasons: head not in the game because of thinking of personal stuff, very tired, not feeling well, etc. Whenever I am alert enough to realize it during the game (sometimes with a little prompting from my partner), I try to concentrate on the things I can change immediately, such as hustling more, making sure I am in position, practicing proper mechanics on calls, etc."
The term "Lousy Game" is frequently used to describe the design of a game, rather than the way the game is played. As in the following customer review from Darrell Brock "Dazza"
"…this is just a lousy game. The graphics are not bad, the storyline is a little weak. But the controls suck and that makes for a lousy game. In first person mode, the controls are way too sensitive, and you cannot change the sensitivity or the up down orientation. The characters do things you do not want them to do, turn whatever way they want, stick to the wall when you do not want them to, refuse to when you do. The camera goes off on an angle you do not want. In fact, playing next to walls, I have seen nothing but the wall on the screen while the character is fighting."
The quality of "lousy game" can refer to either or both: the game, and the way the game is being played.
Then there’s a quality of play that is clearly the opposite of lousy - the "well-played" game. This quality also refers to both the game and the way that it is played. But, unlike, or opposite to a "lousy game," the "well-played game" is a shared quality. A game can be described as “lousy” by just one player, or by the spectators, or by the team. A well-played game is one that is appreciated by all the players, regardless of score or distance to the goal. One that in fact must be appreciated by all players. By definition.
The quality of "well-played" doesn’t describe the game itself, but rather how that game was played, enacted, performed. Even a game with a truly lousy design can be well-played.
"one’s opponents are an essential part of one’s quest for the well-played game." "Participants, they note, take pleasure in a well-played game, in which they put their best efforts in the desire to win. This requires the cooperation of all involved. The shared end is the game well played.”
Even in its absence, the appeal of "well-played"ness can so dominate the experience of a game that the Utah Daily Herald quotes the coach of the Utes, no less, saying.
"This was not a pretty game...They didn't play well, either. It was not a well-played game. I was disturbed by the lack of intelligence in the game."
Fun, like lousy and well-played, is a measure whose presence or absence has as significant an impact on the quality of the game as does "lousy" and "well-played."
There’s "the Beautiful Play" – which is similar to "well-played," but is more often applied to the quality of particular instance of the game rather than that of the game itself. Even a lousy game can feature a beautiful play or two.
And the expression "good game" – usually said with a towel-slap to an exposed buttock – denotes yet another quality, one usually associated with winning, one usually not expressed by the team that lost.
As I was walking down the streets of Jerusalem, I was delighted to be reminded of my veritable path. For suddenly, appearing as if by divine intervention, I saw the word "Fun."
It was where the word appeared that struck me the deepest. Because it reminded me of the existence of the kinds of fun, especially the commercialized kinds, that have only a remote connection to the kind of fun that has occupied my life for the last 40+ years.
They might be able to take you there or bring you away from where the fun isn't, but they themselves are not what I'm talking about when I say fun, even though they may be advertised as such.
"Webbytalents is a new website sharing for films made by or for people with disabilities accross the world. It is also a new kind of platform at the crossroads between a social site and a site media designed to break down barriers for the world's disabled.
"On Webbytalents you’ll be able to share and discover videos from around the world. Nonprofits and organizations, Webbytalents helps you publicize activities and events. It is also a good way to learn about disability from different countries.
"Everyone can participate and become an agent of change for better integration of disability."
Adventures on the the Playful Path - with Gary Berlind, Gambaist
Gary Berlind is a friend of mine. About 25 years ago, he helped me develop PR materials for my Technography initiative (see, for example, this archived page from my Coworking website). I asked him to share some of his story with us, because he clearly understands what I mean by following a Playful Path. Here's his response (click here and let Gary complement his story with a background music - Gary performing a Couranto from Simon Ives):
"Theoretically, I’ve been trying to have fun ever since I can remember. Usually, however, what fun I was able to muster would muster itself somewhere else, and then, feeling that I had been punished by the Universe for the "sin" of pursuing fun, I would try more conservative endeavors. Eventually, whatever tidbits of fun may have been lurking in those reasonably conservative endeavors dissolved mostly into nothingness, the pain became intolerable, and then I usually chucked it all and embarked on fun again.
"My life was therefore, in hindsight, mostly a fun/not-fun checkerboard. Back and forth, back and forth, until I was 61 years old. That’s a lot of checkerboarding. And come to think of it, a checkerboard has only 64 squares on it. It was looking to me like I had already used most of them up.
"So, in the beginning of 2002, when I was just turning sixty-one and a half, I left Berkeley California wherein I had hatched many shards of checkerboards, and moved myself to Istanbul, Turkey.
"In my last black square, (please forgive the continued use of the metaphor, but it seems to fit), I had been a hi-tech public relations consultant in the Silicon Valley. This square had lasted for a full 16 years. Itself, it was checkered: sometimes fun (Bernie DeKoven had been a client of mine in the early days), and sometimes not fun (I won’t name names). But mostly not fun. Coming to Istanbul made practicing public relations impossible, which was what I sorely needed.
"In 2002 I was convinced I didn’t want to sell out to the non-fun face of the world anymore. Maybe only two squares left. What could I do?
"Almost immediately I realized that my music career, which I had left in despair and sadness back in the late 1960s, might be a path. I wasn’t sure, but a few years teaching music at an Istanbul university made me realize that music was fun. Glorious fun. Playing music, I mean. Not so much teaching it to the unteachables, but going back to basics and playing. Making wonderful sounds. Expressing myself, digging deeper into myself to squeeze out ever more music from wood and gut. Burrowing more deeply into the musical minds of fun-thinking composers who had been dead for more than 300 years. Learning to learn. Learning to play. Learning to have fun.
"It’s been seven years now, and I’ve had lots of fun doing this. Purpose, meaning, fulfillment, have all been there, along with considerable amounts of hard work, deep introspection, and not a small amount of frustration and impatience. But ALL OF IT has been fun.
"It’s what I really wanted to do when I was playing on the home-rows of the checkerboard of my life, back in my teens and early twenties. Music was fun then, although I eventually ran into obstacles and limitations that seemed insurmountable at the time. And they WERE insurmountable to me back then, given the realities that imploded on me every time I attempted to keep the fun in music. My own limitations, and the vicissitudes of my circumstances.
"But a new country, a new instrument (actually an old instrument!), a new Gary, and a lifetime of experience that constantly shouted at me to avoid the black squares, worked. I kept my head down and practiced a lot. Learned a lot. For seven wonderful years.
"And now I’m in South Turkey, in a small resort village on the Aegean called Gümüşlük. Turkey is my playground. I’m playing the viola da gamba and it is a constant joy for me. Whether I’m playing for myself, for friends, or for audiences, more and more of my checkers are getting "kinged."
"It took a long time. And, hopefully, the experience is not over yet. I think often that I could have done this many years ago, theoretically. But in reality I couldn’t, and that’s that.
"When the player is ready, the fun will come. Not before."
And a holy hello from Jerusalem. Which happens to be where I am. Where the fact that it's almost Chanuka takes on significant significance. Which makes me think of Dreidels. Which are a form of Teetotum. Or perhaps Teetota.
I'm ever so sure there's an historico-cultural connection between Chanuka and gambling. And if there isn't, it'd be fun to invent one. But I never liked gambling. Especially with kids. Because it's hard enough for them to deal with winning and losing, even without financial consequences, even when they're playing for pennies. Or latkes, even. (see also "The Great Latke-Hamentash Debate")
So I've been thinking that maybe there should be other games to play with Dreidels. For example, maybe a Dreidel version of Yahtzee (we could call it "Yachtzee"), with, say, 4 Dreidels. It could be maybe a cooperative game - see how many different combinations you can make before you get a duplicate.
And how about new kinds of Dreidels - like this lovely, impressive, and interestingly fragile glass Dreidel, or maybe even a junkyard Dreidel made of bottle caps!
Who knows what good a few new Dreidels and a few newer Dreidel games could create for Dreidel-players everywhere, for the children of Dreidel-players, for the very future of Dreidel-playing? Who actually knows?
During a recent conversation with my friend Zalman (see this story to get an idea of what a blessing his friendship has been to me), I asked him how he was feeling - a perfectly reasonable question, considering what getting older does to people. He said something like: "for a man as old as I am, everything's fine." I knew this was not a good report. And so ensued a dialogue about getting old, about the failing body and the increasingly apparent justification for kvetching - Zalman being stolidly anti-kvetch, Bernie, nevertheless, pointing out the actual fun, if not necessity, for a good kvetch.
It can most definitely be fun, don't you know, kvetching: embracing the abject agony of existence - in particular, yours; rejoicing, in your miserable way, at the extent of your daily suffering.
For Zalman, however, it turns out to be a joy best denied. For him, it is better to spend life celebrating life.
Which reminded me, as I apparently needed to be, of why I chose to call myself "Major Fun" in the first place. Sure, I know the joys of kvetching, believe you me, and how much fun a good group kvetch can be. On the other hand, kvetching isn't something you do with a guy called "Major Fun." Laughing. Playing. Being silly. Not wallowing in the muck of misery, not delving into the depths of despair - but jumping as high as you can, for joy.
Times being what they are, I need to be constantly reminded. And if you remind me, maybe I'll remember to remind you.
So yes, call me Major Fun. And when you ask me how I'm doing when I'm not doing well or feeling well or acting well, I'll probably say something like "I can't complain." Because, see, as Major Fun, I can't complain - not as Major Fun, not now, not when there's so much fun to be made.
"At the 2008 Serious Play conference, designer Tim Brown talks about the powerful relationship between creative thinking and play -- with many examples you can try at home (and one that maybe you shouldn't)." Tim Brown is CEO of Ideo.
Near the end of my session with the Primary conference, we started a conversation about kids and theater. I had mentioned my background in theater a bit earlier and one participant was eager to talk about her experiences in getting her kids to put on plays. She described what great delight parents had in watching their kids perform, and how good the kids felt about being in the spotlight. She mentioned that she did have to work hard to keep the kids focused on learning their lines and especially how challenging it was for the kids to endure the rehearsals. But again, how it all paid off during the performance.
Unfortunately, we ran out of time before I could whip-up a semi-cogent response. A couple days later it occurred to me that we all had a similar experience, right after the end of playing Junkyard Olympics, as each team got to demonstrate their event - not only demonstrate, but actually engage the other team in a world record-setting trial - in fact and actuality experiencing the very benefits that were attributed to children's theater, without the pressure, without the supervision or directorial guidance or pained memorization, all for the fun of it all.
This wonderful collection of art made from recycled cardboard. It is enough to restore one's faith in things like art and fun and playfulness. It's enough to make one believe that, out of little more than our passion for play, we might actually save the world, yet.