The "Nobody's Piece" Variation

Ya-Ya and granddaughter Esther are playing Chutes and Ladders. There are two problems we older folk have with that particular game: 1) it can get very boring, 2) it can only have one winner. The boring part can be endured. The winner part turns out to be the very opposite of why we want to play in the first place, especially when we're playing between generations.

Ya-ya and Esther are playing so that they can be together. Just having fun. Just doing something, anything, really, they both can enjoy. Ya-ya is probably enjoying being with Esther a lot more than she is enjoying playing Chutes and Ladders. Ya-ya is probably very bored with the game. Esther will probably cry if she doesn't win.

They need a variation.

Some of the best game variations come from playing with rules that aren't written down. Like the rule that says: "this is your piece. You can only move that piece. You really can't move any other piece because those pieces belong to other players. Other players can't move your piece, because that piece belongs to you. And, you can only win if your piece is the one that reaches the finish first."

I call my variation the "Nobody's Piece Variation." It works like this: "you can move any piece. Whatever piece you move is yours, for that turn." It's yours, but it's not you. You could call it Myrtle or Smunchnik or Pawn. You could even call it You. But it's not you. It's just a piece. Nobody's piece. And all that's important at the time is who moves it.

So, when it's your turn, you can move any piece you want. If you want to move the piece that's closest to winning, you can do that. If you want to help the other pieces catch up, you can do that, too. It's up to you.

Then the game belongs to all of you. And the winning belongs to anyone who wants to claim it. You can make the game as long as you all want to play it. If you want, you can play forever. And nobody has to be bored. And nobody has to lose. And the one who really cares about winning can win if she wants. And you all can focus on enjoying each other, which is what you're playing for in the first place.


About the photo: I found it on a weblog called Tundra Topics. It was in a post about Ya-Ya's visit to her Alaskan family. It's a wonderfully personal website, by the way, giving us a clearly illustrated view of Alaskan living, written by someone who, it just so happens, was born in Indiana, my new home.

from Bernie DeKoven, funsmith

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About Pointlessness

"The Sound and the Fury," the game I wrote about in my previous post, is what one might call an archetypically pointless game, similar in archetypical pointlessness to the games in a collection I have named "More Games of Dubious Purpose," insofar as a secondary characteristic of pointlessness is in fact purposelessness, as I describe with pointed obscurity in The Well-Played Game.

What originally attracted me to the word "pointless" was, naturally, the play on words. "Pointlessness" not only describes the reason for playing the games (no point, no reason, actually, other than the sheer fun of it all), but also something about the nature of the games themselves. Pointless games are not played for points, or, if they are, the score doesn't matter.

There's no way to predict what will make a pointless game fun. It's too open-ended. Without score, without even a goal, pretty much anything goes. It's the players who make the game fun. The absolute pointlessness of the game does something to people. It gives them a chance to take responsibility for making the game fun. Sooner or later, somebody does something so unpredictably funny, that you just have to laugh.

Pointless Games tend to put people into silly situations. For no reason. In the Sound and Fury game, people can really do anything they feel like doing - make any kind of sound, any kind of motion - and everyone else not only accepts whatever is done, but they do it, too. And so people make the game funny. Because they can. Because it's more fun. They do things that are funny. They make funny noises. Everyone does them too. And everyone laughs. In Ha Ha Numbers (the game in the photo) you lie on someone's stomach while calling out someone else's number while trying not to forget to respond when someone calls your number. In Hand Land people find themselves lying in a strange position (on their backs, ear-to-ear), looking at a funny world of disembodied hands. And they start playing around. Acting out. Wiggling fingers, touching thumbs, making their hands talk to each other, making it fun. The very pointlessness of the games shifts the responsibility from the leaders to the players, from following the rules to the play itself.

Which probably explains something about the origins of my interest in Pointless Games. The play itself. The theater. The improvisation. Masters degree, don't you know, in Theater, as a matter of fact. Villanova. 1968.

It was during the workshop I gave for the Laughter Leaders in Israel, some 15 years after I first started using the term "pointless," that I began to realize just how deeply the very pointlessness of pointless games can reach - all the way into bomb shelters, all the way into the actual dark night of the veritable soul. What could be more pointless than having to wait out something like a permanent war? More pointless than trying to get people to play when they are all so very far from fun?

Most of the people who call themselves Laughter Leaders have had training in Laughter Yoga. Laughter Yoga is a discipline, pursued for the sake of spiritual, physical and mental health. Like all forms of Yoga. In Laughter Yoga people laugh, not because they think things are funny, but because it's "good" for them. It's a wacky idea - laughing when you don't really feel like laughing. Which is probably why it works so well.

Many of the Laughter Leaders who found their way to my workshop had already discovered that Laughter Yoga was not enough. In places like the Middle East where there is so much to fear and so much more to be angry about, laughter is very hard to sustain. It takes too much effort to keep going. It's very hard to find a reason to laugh, even when it's just for the health of it.

Playing a game - especially a pointless game, when there is no reason, no score, no purpose - is somehow more appropriate, reflecting more accurately the wackiness of it all. It's better than boredom. Much more fun than wondering when and where the next bomb will fall.

from Bernie DeKoven, funsmith

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The Sound and the Fury, cont'd

It was about a year ago, again from Israel, that I wrote about my experiences playing a game called "Sound and Fury." This time, it was one of the last games we played, near the end of our stay, and one of the precious few we got to play with the whole family: Josh (who turned 2 in October), Zev (4), Reina (7), Maya (11), their parents (40), and us grands (66, 67).

Once again, the game was new for me - specifically the part about how much more deeply fun it was to play it with family - particularly with a relatively large family (relatively speaking), explicity with a family whose youngest member is still learning how to talk (albeit in two languages).

We did make up a new rule: If you wanted to pass (just in case you couldn't think of something silly enough to do - the pressure, you know), you could just say something (we had suggested something like "smeegledeebop," but "pass" worked, too), and then everybody would just do anything they felt like (complete with noise and movement). Oddly fun.

Point is, as a family game Sound and Fury is very oddly fun: easy enough for a 2-year-old to understand, fun enough to keep us all involved (we must've played it for at least 15 minutes, maybe 10), pointless enough to keep anybody from caring about having anything other than what we already had together.

from Bernie DeKoven, funsmith

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BagBall - how to make a ball out of plastic shopping bags

One of the sad truths of being in Israel, especially in Jerusalem, is the amount of, well, pollution. It's just not something you'd expect to see in the capitol, for heaven's sake, of the Holy actual Land!

One form of pollution comes from the proliferation of plastic shopping bags. They're everywhere. You can't go shopping without coming away with a half-dozen or so of these colorfully indestructible, everlasting wonders of modern technology. There are these large cages where you can recycle them. And the cages are often full. But there's the other part of the problem - most people ignore any attempt to keep the city clean. And there are attempts, believe me.

So, as a parting gift, this video, on how to make a ball out of plastic shopping bags.

from Bernie DeKoven, funsmith

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Talking about fun in Israel - conclusions

As the last days of this visit approach, I have yet one more experience to share with you, perhaps the one that touched me most deeply - a 9-hour workshop I conducted with Laughter Yoga teachers.

It was focused on what I call "Pointless Games." I had designed it at the invitation of Laughter Yoga and Gibberish trainer Alex Sternik, as something that would be of interest specifically to Laughter Leaders in Israel. I called it "Games that make people laugh - a workshop in the art of sustainable silliness."

The workshop was attended by only a few people - we had eight altogether. But these were an exceptional few - highly energetic, deeply playful, totally committed to making people laugh. Participants included several other laughter leaders (here's Bat-Shachar's website), game facilitators and trainers, a meditation facilitator, a belly dancer, a magician named Caliostro (who was "the primary magician" performing for the Israeli army in the 80s) , a gym teacher, and Shiri Ben-Dov, who leads games and works with an organization that conducts bachelor parties. Each brought their entire being into play - personally, professionally, spiritually.

It's been a long time since I've shared the concept of Pointless Games that I worked/played with people who understood the idea so deeply, so quickly - not just the games, but the immense value of playing without purpose, without score, without excuse - of playing for fun.

For me, this was the experience of Israel I most needed. For all the insecurity, the fear, the hatred, the violence, the worry, the passion, the crowding, the traffic, the sheer intensity of life here - even in the middle of a war - I found people here who welcomed the comparatively small gifts of funny games. I found Israelis who have affirmed with their very lives the wisdom of things like peace and laughter and the power of play, and who bring these very experiences to everyone they can reach - Jew, Arab, Israeli, Palestinian.

During this long/short stay I often felt, well, foolish, in thinking that I could help bring fun to Israel in a time of war. And here, near the end of my stay, I discover these people. True champions of baseless, purposeless laughter. Fun-bringing Israelis all.

from Bernie DeKoven, funsmith

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Talking about Fun in Israel, cont'd

A few days ago, I got to talk about Junkyard Sports with some key people at the Peres Center for Peace.

Once I learned that despite the images and rumors and rage beyond reason, there are people who are working with undiminished passion to create peaceful, even playful dialogue between Arabs and Jews, Israelis and Palestinians.

Yes, it's become far more challenging. Yes, it's difficult to get people to want to play together. Of late, they tell me, especially when meeting with adults, people are too impatient to play. Anything that seems like fun gets dismissed out of hand. People want action, resolution, they want to be heard, they don't want to, if you'll excuse the expression, play games.

On the other hand, the people I met with, leaders of the "Twinned Peace Sports Schools" and "Twinned Peace Theater and Cinema Schools" and the "Palestinian-Israeli Peace NGO Forum," each and all recognized the need to bring yet more play into their offerings, yet more creativity, more spontaneity, more fun.

The Conversation

So I talked most about idea of Junkyard Sports, because it seemed to me that this concept could prove the most flexible, the most adaptable, the most fun. I showed them the news clip from the Junkfest we did at Redondo Beach. I gave them a 5-minute demo of The Junkyard Tabletop Olympiad. And they understood it all - implications and applications. Just about immediately.

The sports people talked about how easily sports can transcend culture. One reported how, as a child, he had played his own junkyard sports. His associate, being raised in a kibbutz, described how that's how the kids played almost all the time - using junk, making up their own rules. I mentioned how valuable it would be, just if kids knew how they could make a really good ball out of some of the thousands of plastic grocery bags that have become ubiquitous throughout Israel. The director of Culture and Media saw what a powerful community event it could be: green, fun, celebrating ingenuity, engaging creativity at all levels. The person who organized the meeting and leads the NGO forum, was naturally concerned about how adults would respond to this kind of experience. So I talked about the uses of Junkyard Sports in a training environment, described how it was being used in Southwest Airlines, and specifically in light of the kinds of conversations that might result after people had created and played a Junkyard Sport together.


It may not yet be the time, and fun probably isn't going to solve anything. There will be challenges - like bridging the differences between language, culture, dogma. But I somehow knew that these people who are very much looking for the opportunity to teach peace, to heal anger, to build community, to bring more fun into the world - wouldn't let anything stop them. Even in Israel. Even now. Maybe especially now, especially in Israel.

from Bernie DeKoven, funsmith

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Lego, Games, and me, too

I've been wanting to tell you about this project ever since I became involved with it, more than a year ago. As you can see from this article, it's finally been made public enough for me to write about.

I've only had a small role, actually, as an outside consultant. I got to help them create a format for their rules - one that would be clear enough, well-enough illustrated, as Lego-like as we could make it. I also got to help them think about the entire concept: the educational and social implications, the game system, online and off.

A hint - take a look at the image of the die. It's a Lego die. Note the different faces. Contemplate what it would be like if you could change the faces, like you can change anything Lego - build and rebuild them, even, perhaps, while you're playing a game with them. Think about the impact that might have on the game.

Another hint - think about playing on a board made of Lego pieces. You could redesign the board, if you wanted, couldn't you. You could move the start and finish, shrink or enlarge the board, add or remove obstacles. In other words, you could have exactly the kind of game I've been teaching about, designing, implementing - exactly the kind of board game, computer game, social game that I've been writing about ever since the Well-Played Game.

Which, by the way, is what led the Lego people to inviting me to this whole project. Because of a book by Salen and Zimmerman called Rules of Play, a book for computer game designers which brings the concept of the Well-Played Game to the design of online, multiplayer, role-playing games, which, further because, the leader of the new Lego initiative was astute enough to read.

What this particular Lego genius and profoundly insightful person had to show me was a group of board games, made out of Lego pieces. The real genius was not in his discovery that you could in fact make new and viable board games using Legos, but that you could make board games that could be changed, boards that could be redesigned, that you could let kids design their own variations, that you could make it possible for kids to learn how to design games that would be even more inclusive, and always "new," just as we did more than 30 years ago with the games we taught and created for the New Games Foundation. Only even more flexible, more responsive to the player/designers, and with board games.

I can't really tell you much more about this project or my future role in it, because it is still in the future. But I can, at last, share something promising with you, something positive, something new, something I am proud to have had even a small part in bringing to you, something empowering, something fun.

from Bernie DeKoven, funsmith

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The Limits of Fun - more notes on talking about fun in Israel

So, what have I learned so far about bringing more fun to Israel?

I'm glad you asked.

First of all, it's not such a good time for fun in Israel, as well as in general. Not when people are busy dealing with the Gaza thing. And the money thing. And the job thing.

As for the Gaza thing: if you're Jewish or Palestinian, it was a violence that was done to you, even if the violence was not your doing - a deep, shocking, deafening violence that was so thunderous you can't hear much of anything else - your family, maybe, your neighbors, your friends. You certainly can't hear anything that comes from the "other side." Not love, not grief, not caring, not explanation, not apology, not words of peace. And most definitely not play.

Play is one of those words that can only be spoken in a "still, small voice," that in times like these can be only be heard over the din of war by children and puppies. The rest of us have to wait for quiet, inside and out. Even clowns can't make themselves loud enough. Even people like the Israeli group called "Pharsh-the official military of the silly revolution" (thanks for the link, Pat Kane), or the "laughter therapists" you nevertheless might find doing their work in the bomb sheters in S'deroth; can't be silly enough to change anything - not right now.

But they're doing their work, nevertheless. And so, apparently, am I. Thanks to Alex Sternick, I'll be conducting my first Games and Laughter workshop, specifically for Israeli laughter therapists, giving them a chance to learn a few funny games, so they can give people a few more reasons to laugh. Like I said - nevertheless. Even though there is no reason. Except maybe sanity.

Teaching laughter, fun, games, play - it's a funny kind of work, a funny kind of gift we have to bring. Not anything that you might call a "cause." Not anything that you might think of as revolutionary. And yet, something having very much to do with peace, after all.

from Bernie DeKoven, funsmith

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