For more of this presentation, see also:
- Coliberation and The Well-Played Game – This Happened, NL
- “Playing Well Together“- Digital Games Research Association
- “Big Whoopee“ - Laughter Yoga America
- “Fun Factor” – North American Simulation and Gaming Association
- “Baseball in Streets and Hallways” - The Association for the Study of Play and American Association for the Child’s Right to Play conference
interviews and podcasts:
- with Joy Cardin on WPR
- for Spirit in Place – The Need to Play
- with Katie West on Blogtalkradio
- with Wendy Strgar on LA Talk Radio
- with Pat Prescott on Los Angeles’ KTWV (download file, Real player)
- with Monica Hadley on Fairfield’s KRUU
- Bernie’s funcasts
interviews in print:
- in Wired
- in JWT Intelligence
- in Items (Dutch)
- with Kristi McFarland
- with Michael Gilbert
- with Steve Cooperman
- with Andrew Tarvin
- with Brian Remer in Simages (p. 12)
One day, when I was in second grade, I remember thinking to myself: “this could be a lot more fun, Bernard.” I mean, really. I remember thinking how even workbooks used to be more fun than having to sit here, at my desk, still, silent, with all these kids around me, listening, when we could be mucking about with some marvelously educational materials, inventing physics. And I’m pretty sure it was then that I began to devote myself to the pursuit of what I have decided to call “the Playful Path.” Because the very next thing I remember was me, Bernard, joking. toying. playing, talking a lot. Even sitting in the hall, waiting to see the principal, I was always on the alert, always looking to make it fun, for me, for anyone I could get to play with.
Teaching and Playing
By the time I finally graduated college, and graduate school, I was pursuing a playful path, professionally, even though I never called it that. I taught fifth and sixth grade everything. Reading, math, science, physical education, whatever. It was me and them. So I began making games out of everything. No, I began with the fun of whatever it was that we were supposed to be doing, with the fun of it. We didn’t just read, we played reading games. And we played with reading. With the sheer fun of reading, o, I don’t know, braille, perhaps. Or Morse code. Or chemical symbols perhaps.
And fun was had. And learning was had. And we definitely weren’t had. Except for once. In one class I taught. Sixth grade. And all of a sudden I learned that the kids were going to be subjected to a test that would determine whether they would make the academic track in high school. It was what they call “the little death.” No, wait. That’s something else. But it did feel like something died because of that test. Like, because of that test, we had to stop working on inventing our own hieroglyphics. And suddenly the whole thing, even teaching, didn’t seem like very much fun.
The Theater of Children’s Games
It was 1969. We, me and my degree, found our way to an experimental, remodeled-factory, magnet elementary school called “The Intensive Learning Center,” and the title of Curriculum Development Specialist, with our own parquet-floored, carpeted-risers, theater-in-the-round light and audio booth, within which to develop curriculum for the entire school district, in deed. Me, I had to do something fun. So I had these 45 minute sessions with kids from all over the 5th and 6th floor of a factory building in not-so-upscale Northeast Philadelphia. First grade kids. Fifth grade kids. The lot. And I decided that me and the kids, we’d reinvent theater right then and there. True to my understanding of the playful path, I wanted us to start from scratch, from what we know, from the collective scraps of the lives we can share with each other.
A curriculum is what everyone else called it, fortunately. Finally, in 1971, the “Interplay Games Catalog.” Five volumes. One thousand games. Coded according to an elaborate system, so that if the kids liked a particular game, the teacher could find another they’d probably like as much.
And that was it. That was my theater curriculum. And they didn’t fire me. In fact, they funded research. And I taught it to teachers. Games. I did these classes with teachers, and all we did was play kids games, and talk about it all, and it became, well, deep fun. Sometimes profoundly moving fun.
The Games Preserve
By then, the curriculum in my hand, we, me, my wife and kids, moved to the country and built “The Games Preserve,” a retreat center for the study of play, where I, and anyone else willing to brave the rural realities of my 25 acres in Northeastern Pennsylvania, could play with an actual barn full of games – board games, table games, puzzles, flying rings, a sliding board… And there I began to learn and teach, not so much games, even though there were thousands, but what I came to call a playful path. And I had my wife and kids and 25 acres as teachers. And guinea fowl, and sometimes millions of these bugs.
This is where I explored everything I could about the path I was on, this playful one. And where I discovered that I not only “channel” playfulness, but also that I knew how to teach it. It was easy. It was what I’ve been doing all this time. What tool could be better tuned to the experience of playfulness than games? Especially the games I liked to teach, and make up. Playful Games.
This is where Dr. Brian Sutton-Smith used to bring his University of Pennsylvania classes. The Games Preserve. Where we built a peaceful, profound place for play. In the middle of the country. 90 minutes from Philadelphia. 2.5 hours from New York. Where year after year I thought about, played with, explored, studied, discussed, game after game after game. Kids’ games. Family games. Games for one player. Games for the masses.
Masses. Like the approximately 250,000 people who attended the last day of the Bicentennial celebrations in Philadelphia. Like the millions of people I eventually reached after 1975, when I was invited to be co-director of the New Games Foundation, to consult on the design of the New Games Training, and help create an alternative to competitive sports that now is taught at almost every elementary school in the world.
And our family flourished. And it was 1981, and just when we ran out of money, I found a job in California, as a professional game designer, for a computer games company called “Automated Simulations.” This gave me the chance to try out my understanding of playfulness in a virtually virgin computer jungle.
I created designs for what we wound up calling “Mind Toys.” Jim Connely programmed my first game, Ricochet. It proved to be the first abstract strategy game designed specifically for the computer. Jaron Lanier programmed my next game – Alien Garden – now known as the first “art” game for the computer: .
From 1985 to about 1992 I began exploring the connections between games and meetings. I had discovered a computer tool called the “Outline Processor.” I began using it for my own purposes, to help me design games. With the outliner, I could conduct my own brainstorming sessions, organize ideas and develop them into completed concepts. I could also easily work on several games at the same time. Essentially, it helped me keep ideas in play. I reasoned that I could do the same thing with meetings – helping business teams work together more productively.
The success of this approach led to my publishing a small booklet called Power Meetings, and, four years later, Connected Executives. I started a website devoted to this process and called it Coworking. That site still exists as the Coworking Institute. Much later, the term Coworking became redefined. My associate Gerrit Visser and I were both so impressed with the similarities between my Coworking concept and their implementation of it, that we offered them the use of the domain.
While I was using the outliner and designing games, I also got to work with Children ‘s Television Workshop. In fact, Dave Winer, the inventor of the outline processor, and the products ThinkTank and MORE, helped me develop the prototype for a game I modeled after the children’s game of Streets and Alleys. I designed it so that it could be played with one key, hoping to establish some sort of precedent for games that kids with limited mobility could play.
Junk and New Games, cont’d
The 2004 publication of my book, Junkyard Sports proved to be just the opportunity I had hoped it would be – an invitation to the sports and physical education establishments to come out and play. Based on the tradition of backyard, street, and sandlot sports, Junkyard Sports are traditional sports, reinvented. Sports redesigned, where the players make their own equipment out of whatever they can find, and adapted so they can be played wherever the players happen to be, with whomever happens to be there. In other words, sports, like new games, get played for fun, for everyone. Played playfully.
And all the while I was involved in designing more games for some more companies. Did I mention Ideal Toys, Children’s Computer Workshop, CBS Software, Time-Warner.and Mattel Media?
Games and Playing Well
About 30 years after the first New Games Tournament, I found myself on the adjunct faculty of the Multimedia Division of the USC School of Cinema-Television, teaching the principles of New Games, watching my students create what had to be the world’s first Giant Human Card game/event.
My book, The Well-Played Game, was originally published in 1978, and republished in 2013 by MIT Press. It is now required reading amongst the computer gamerati thanks, in no small part, to excerpts published in Salen and Zimmerman’s Game Design Reader.
And, following the concept of Junkyard Sports, Junkyard Games (left) is a business training game for people involved in innovation and design.
I also consulted with LEGO to help them in the development of their ground-breaking LEGO Board Games.
Today, through my programs and publications on this DeepFUN.com website, Majorfun.com and Junkyard Sports, I do what I can to help people from all over the world reclaim their playfulness. And, in 2014, my book A Playful Path.
- I think you are one of the most important figures in the history of game design. Your work has been an inspiration to me personally in my attempt to bring back the physical and social dimensions to contemporary games, and in recent years your approach has become extremely relevant yet again due to the groundswell of interest in the ethical aspects of games and the power of play and players as opposed to games as fixed artifacts. – Frank Lantz
- Bernie probably knows more of a practical nature about how to use games in a healthy way with children, adolescents or adults than anyone I know. -Brian Sutton-Smith
- Bernie is one of the most inspiring and ingenious teachers I know. He is also a master of his subject — learning through play. -Herb Kohl
- Life without fun is not worth much — as many people who have achieved success and wealth at the expense of stress and depression realize. It should be easy to have fun — yet most of us have forgotten how to play, how to invest life with enjoyment. Bernie is the only person I know who not only knows about play, but knows how to teach it. May his efforts prosper, for they help us all. -Mihaly Csikszentmihaly
I was just taking some little bits and pieces of papers out of my journal and I found the following hard-copy of something your brother-in-law wrote to you: “I find many if not most people today are not in a particularly “fun-seeking” mood. They are preoccupied with finances, war, the economy and personal problems. Fun, however, is a vital therapy no matter the circumstances. The release of life’s anxieties cannot have too many channels, in my view. I….have a need to communicate via Fun to people. I may not want to enter that Fun because I cannot overcome the ‘troubles of the day’ without major incentives to do so. Fun may be good for me but I can’t seem to allow myself to enter in anyway. Perhaps I don’t see fun as the solution but rather as an escape from solving the problem(s). Funny, when people most need the releases, they are less apt to seek them.”
I am touched again by his honesty and his insight. I too feel unable to enter into Fun when so much feels wrong and sad and overwhelming in the world today, everyday. I forget your teaching, so to speak, that Fun IS part of the solution and not just a form of denial, an escape, a narcissistic indulgence at the expense of others who are not as fortunate as I am.
Just thoughts, which bring me back to the mindfulness practice that DeepFun is for me. It is the practice of Little Fun all the time, despite the trying external circumstances on this beautiful and fragile earth I love and despite the woe I see. And as I practice this path, I want to change my paradigm and begin to really believe that having fun, living fun, teaching fun, being fun, can transform this world, that it is part of the solution to the distress. IF not the world at large, it may have the power to transform MY little world, my circle of influence, I hope. And that is a step in the right direction.
A playful path is the shortest road to happiness.
Visit aplayfulpath.com. Free ebook!