I was invited by DiGRA (the Digital Games Research Association) to talk about New Games and The Well-Played Game. Preparing for my presentation has proven to be a wonderful opportunity for me to assemble my many years of wandering through the fields of play into something that, from the perspective of some 45 years, seems worthy of harvesting.
You can find a summary of my presentation and links to many of the resources cited online.
The Well-Played Game
The Well-Played Game was originally published by Doubleday-Anchor in 1978. In the book, I explore the core experience that makes games worth playing, and the politics that surround making that experience accessible.
There we were, up in the barn, playing with our brand new, thoroughly researched, ultimate ping pong table. That barn was the center of what we were calling The Games Preserve. We wanted to fill it with not only every game on the planet, but the very finest manifestation of each. And Bill chose that particular table, and those particular paddles and balls, and installed that particular kind of lighting for precisely that reason. It was not just a ping pong table. It was table tennis.
Bill knew that I couldn’t really play ping pong. And I knew that he could really, really play. And because we wanted to play together, we just more or less volleyed (he more, me less). After a while, Bill suggested that I just try to hold my paddle still enough so that he could get the ball to hit it. Apparently, that was more than challenge enough for the both of us – him, hitting my erratically moving paddle so that the ball would bounce off in exactly the right angle, with precisely the correct speed. Me, figuring out how to move my body while simultaneously holding my paddle in a position something similar to perpendicular. For me, every time the ball actually crossed the net, hit my paddle, and got back to Bill was sheer magic. After a while, we managed to get an actual volley going, Bill exercising the depth and fullness of his ping pongly skills, me magically holding my paddle where it needed to be. And after a longer while, we got a very, very long volley going. And during that volley, the ball seemed to take on its own, almost internal light, as if it were inhabited by our spirits, Bill and mine, combined. And it was, for an instant, as if we were seeing God. Honest. When we left the barn, we were like two Buddhist monks having just achieved enlightenment.
That one single experience led me to writing what I still believe to be the most important book of my career.
Bill and I had shared something inarguably powerful, deeply transforming, but not quite tangible. Something that seemed to me to be the real reason for the Games Preserve, the real reason that games are as important, as worthy of deep study and exploration and investigation as I felt them to be. Something so important that winning and losing were incidental, games mere artifacts, trophies trinkets.
An experience of mutual transcendence – of going beyond skill, beyond personal limits, beyond the very boundaries of self. The experience of being part of a well-played game, of what I eventually named “coliberation.”
If it hadn’t been for Bill’s expertise, and compassion, and for our mutual willingness to find a way to play that allowed both of us to play together, at our best, I would never have reached the understanding of what being part of a well-played game was all about. It’s the kind of experience that’s normally accessible only to the finest athletes, and only rarely – the finest athletes; and to children who are young enough not to know better.
One of the best descriptions of that experience comes from Bill Russell. I’ve copied his description of it here. Take a moment to read it. All of it.
Meanwhile, back at The Well-Played Game.
The book explores the core experience that makes games worth playing, and the politics that surround making that experience accessible.
The Fun Community
Of all the things that contribute to our access to the experience of the well-played, game, none has more influence than the community of players, or, as I prefer to call it, the fun community. I prefer to call it that, even though I originally called it the “play community,” 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. So, to reach a point of coliberation, the players need to have mastered the game to such a degree that they can reach not only beyond their personal limits, and their collective limits, but also beyond the limits of the game.
In the fun community, the players decide if the game is good enough to play, if not, they change rules. For them, the rules are always negotiable, the ultimate criteria for success being not so much who won, but much more, how much fun they were able to create for each other. Every game in the fun community is continually being designed (see this post on player-designed games).
Changing the game
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 coliberation, the most effective kind of cheating is when the cheater actually makes the game more fun, for all the players. In the book, I call it “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 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 the game back, and the players back, and reach something close to coliberation, 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, or something else, as described in 7 Ways to Make Almost Anything More Fun. To save you the mouse click, here are the first three suggestions:
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.
The motto of the New Games Foundation was “Play Hard, Play Fair, Nobody Hurt.” The “nobody hurt” part was probably the most important of the three, because if people couldn’t feel safe enough to play, they generally couldn’t play. And if they couldn’t play, they’d never experience the coliberation we were there to share.
Here’s more from The Well-Played Game:
We need, in order to be willing to be willing, some guarantee, somewhere, that no matter what happens in our pursuit of the Well-Played game, we will not be risking more than we are prepared to risk. Even though I’m aware that I might die as a result of trying to climb this mountain with you, I can accept that as part of the game. On the other hand, when I discover that you’re cutting my rope so that you can get to the top first, I find myself much less willing to play.
So, even though this willingness thing seems to be a prerequisite for our discovery of the Well-Played game, willingness, pure and simple, isn’t enough.
We need to feel safe within the game we want to play well together.
The safer we feel in the game we’re playing, the more willing we are to play it.
But, for this experience of safety, we can’t rely solely on the game. We must also be able to believe that we are safe with each other.
In order to trust each other at all, we need to establish some basis of familiarity.
If we haven’t played with each other before, we are not familiar enough to be sure of each other.
If we are playing a game that we are all familiar with, chances are that through playing the game together we will be able to establish some minimal basis of trust.
As we play with different people, we discover that there are variations of the games we have become familiar with. If we are familiar enough with our game, if we are really interested in sharing play with others, we can play the variation without losing the sense of safety that this familiarity provides. On the other hand, there are hundreds of games and tens of variations for each – more than we could ever hope to become truly familiar with.
If we can standardize certain aspects of all the games we play, we will extend our basis for familiarity. Rules such as taking turns, playing fair, playing the game through to the end, good sportsmanship, are all conventions – derivations from different episodes of play, general rules which allow us to arrive at an ever broader standardization.
Violating a convention usually results in a stiffer penalty than violating any particular rule of a game. By establishing the intention to play well together we have begun to create a new convention. We would like it to be understood that the search for the Well-Played game is what has brought us together. We would like to make this agreement clear enough between us so that we can assume it to be inviolable.
Fortunately, a colleague named Yehuda has compiled an excellent history of the New Games Foundation. Read it when you get the chance. Until then…
I joined the Foundation in the mid-70s, after several, large-scale New Games Tournaments had been produced, and the design of the event was a proven success. I was invited to help them move to the next phase – building a training program that would allow them to teach people around the world how they, too, could produce their own New Games events.
New Games provided entire communities of players with another way to access coliberation – games, and a style of leadership, whose sole purpose was to create and maintain a play community for maybe an afternoon, or an hour. A community that could embrace anyone who wanted to play, regardless of age, ability, gender or culture. A community that not only welcomed diversity, but relied on it, was sustained by it.
Many, though by no means all of the repertoire of New Games were games like the one pictured at the beginning of this post – a game we called “The Lap Game.” The idea of the game was to get everyone to get everyone else to sit on their lap. As a player, your main objective was to help the person in front of you feel comfortable enough, and secure enough, to trust herself to your good intentions, and lower her personal person onto your purportedly waiting knees – while she, simultaneously, was attempting to do the same for the person in front of her. It is coliberation made manifest – each person freeing the other to transcend her fears, each person being freed. And even if you failed, it was fun. Funny fun. It made you laugh. It made the people around you (even the person who fell because of you) laugh. Because, like the majority of New Games, the game itself was funny. And when people played them, they got to be funny together. And being funny together, as anyone involved in Laughter Yoga will attest to, is profoundly coliberating – your laughter freeing me to laugh, my laughter freeing you.
Though many of the games we played were cooperative, verging on both the touchy and the feely, many others were definitely competitive, or at least confrontative. One of my favorites was a game that George Leonard introduced, that we called “dho-dho-dho.” (I later learned that it is based on an Indian game called Kabaddi.) Two teams stood, facing each other, with one line between them and other lines behind. They would take turns, one player running across the line, trying to tag as many players as possible, and get back across the line to his own team. There were two obstacles to his completing his mission: 1) once he tagged someone, the rest of the players would do what they could to keep him from getting back across the line, and 2) as soon as he crossed the line into the opposing team’s territory, he had to keep saying “dho, dho, dho” without taking a breath. As George taught the game, he would explain that it was a game of “loving competition.” The idea was to restrain the runner from the opposing team, hug him, hold him, but never, never to hurt him.
James B. Murphy, of Sports Illustrated, managed to capture the spirit of New Games succinctly and elegantly in his 1976 article:
“The original New Games Tournament proved extremely popular because Brand and his associates were successful in de-emphasizing the importance of winning without destroying the spirit motivating the participants. Those who were afraid to lose still played. When necessary, new games were invented so that everyone could play, regardless of size, age or skill. There were no experts, no hard and fast rules, no memories of past humiliations or recollections of disappointed coaches and parents. There was no expensive equipment to be purchased, no country club dues to pay, no cliquish teams to be penetrated; no ribbons, just banners and balloons; no spectators, just players.”
New Games was far more than a collection of games, competitive, cooperative, or just plan silly. The focus of our trainings was not just to build a repertoire of unusual games, but also to help develop a uniquely coliberating style of leadership. The New Games Referees were trained to work in pairs, and as a team. In general, one Referee would act as the “high visibility Referee,” getting people to come play, teaching the rules, kindling enthusiasm; while another Referee would be “low visibility,” explaining the game to stragglers, inviting people in or out of the game, playing the game and thereby modeling how to play.
Further, we rarely if ever had only one game going – always at least two games, always balancing each other. If one game was high energy, the second game was low. If one game was semi-competitive, the other semi-cooperative. The idea was always to provide a choice, always allow people to quit one game and find another. As soon as enough people were playing, the high-visibility referee would leave it to start another somewhere else. As soon as one referee noticed an imbalance, she would introduce a game that engaged a whole different level of energy.
Fortunately, a student named David Lopez was on hand to capture a time-lapse video of a New Games event we held at the University of Southern California department of Interactive Multimedia in December of 2004. It beautifully illustrates the dynamics of a New Games event – showing how games were constantly changing, a new game being created just as another was cresting. This created an environment of choice, in which each player discovered that he was free to follow his own play impulses, and in his freedom he was able to free others.
This particular event was part of a course in multimedia game design I co-led with Dr. Tracy Fullerton. Part of my focus was on the social aspects of game design, and playing together, in the flesh, especially playing games that emphasize community and playfulness, turned out to be a near-perfect paradigm for Internet game design.
You don’t need to play games in order to experience the power of coliberation. Even when you’re online.
Coliberation is the win-win that is potential to every relationship, between friends, partners, strangers, generations, genders, even different species. Playing fetch with your dog, pushing a toddler on a swing, dancing with whomever happens to be close enough to you on the dance floor, playing in an orchestra, working with a surgeon in the operating room…. Meeting a stranger in a chat room, tweeting and retweeting, commenting and being commented upon. All of these, when they are at their best, are coliberating. You make it easier for me to say what I want to say, to dance the way I dance best, to join, to quit, to join again.
Before we get too enthused about the ubiquitousness of opportunities to share an experience of coliberation, it is useful, if depressing, to note that the opposites of coliberation are even more ubiquitous. Coliberation is far from the norm. It is an optimal condition. But not, o so not the norm.
You walk in the park, and one person doesn’t return your smile, you wait tables and one customer doesn’t leave a tip or acknowledge the depth and elegance of your service, the person who bumps into you doesn’t apologize, the person you wave at doesn’t wave back. I could go on and even more on, but I’m starting to depress myself, and probably you as well.
I’ve noted two what you might call “boundary conditions” for the experience of coliberation. On one side you get alienation. Sure, sure, you’re all playing in the same orchestra, marching in the same band, but you don’t really feel a part of it. It’s like nobody is really listening to you, nobody is even aware of you. So the very experience that offers the opportunity for self-transcendance becomes one of isolation, alienation, of making you feel small, actually smaller than you are. There you are, all full of enthusiasm and good will, radiating energy and love and willingness to engage, and there they are, over there, way, way over there. And even though your self was just about as actualized as it can possibly get, the actuality how you are being treated (or not) is actually crushing.
The other boundary condition is what you might call conformity. You are so much part of the group, so thoroughly embraced, so totally identified with the group that you find yourself doing things that you, personally, would never do, except you are. You get lost in the group, your own will, your own sense of self abandoned to the will of the many.
Sorry, I can’t go on. Except to note that I call these boundary conditions because they both describe a relationship between you and the community, because, despite all the discomfort, you still are in relationship, still somehow connected to your self, to the other. They are somehow part of the experience of coliberation, directing you towards back into the stream. You can cross those boundaries, lose that connection entirely. It’s called anomie. It can get worse than that. And, sadly, we all know the kind of worse I’m talking about.
Of ME and WE
The experience of relationship, the phenomenon of “WE,” is at least as complex and as mystery-filled as that of the experience of “ME.” When we experience “WE,” we experience something that includes, but is not our selves. It is not an experience of “otherness” because we are part of it. But it is not the experience of self. If anything, it is the experience of a transcendent self that is so self-transcendent that it’s part of a collection of other selves, also transcending.
ME-awareness is ultimately subjective, the very definition of subjectivity. Though I know that you probably have as strong of an experience of what you call ME as I have of what I call ME, my experience is utterly opaque to you, as yours is to mine. ME is identity, is the voice with which you speak, the organ with which you interact with the world.
WE is something else. It’s what you might call a shared subjectivity, this WE experience. So strange, such a fundamentally fascinating mystery that it may in fact be what draws us to celebrate it so profoundly, in sports, religion, love.
And our relationship to that experience is even stranger. If I’m being all transcendent, so inextricably identified with all those other transcending selves, well, then, who is this “ME” that’s doing all that experiencing?
When Bill Russell was describing his profound disappointment in the other team, he was so identified with his team that he might as well have been talking about himself. He (his team) was at the top of the game. But his team couldn’t reach that state of coliberation that was so much at the heart of the game for them because the other team wasn’t there with them. In truth, he wasn’t alone in the experience of disappointment. His entire team was disappointed, as was the team he was playing against, as were the people who came to see the game.
“ME” is a relative term. Even alone, shipwrecked on a deserted island with nothing more than a volleyball to keep you company, when there is no other, you create one so that you can be yourself again.
I like to use this animated depiction of WE turning into ME turning into WE to capture that sense of relativity. In some very real sense, ME is always understood only in relationship to WE. And, likewise, the idea of WE loses all meaning if we try to take ourselves out of context.
The chart that I use to describe coliberation becomes a much more accurate description of the experience when you think of each axis as constantly changing, as much ME as it is WE. Coliberation is what happens when you are fully engaged, yourself, in a community that is fully engaged. When you are so much part of the team that you are more fully yourself than you can be alone. When you are playing better because of the people you are playing with, and the people you are playing with are playing better because of you.
Coliberation is ME and WE.
I joined Google Plus for one reason. Hangouts. I loved everything about this way of meeting people – how you could see everybody at once (up to 10 people), how whoever was talking took the center of the virtual stage. How what you wound up talking about often depended on who happened to drop in, or out. And especially how you could join and quit whenever you were so moved. In many ways, it seemed to me to be the virtual instantiation of a fun community.
There are other aspects of this virtual environment that contribute as strongly to it being a grounds for play, for experiencing coliberation. Two things come to mind – one is that you can always edit anything you post. This gives you a great sense of freedom, because you can change your words, and, if it comes to that, your mind. Another is the idea of “Circles” – communities that you define for yourself so that you can share ideas and stories and links and deep and shallow thoughts with precisely the community of friends or strangers you want to be part of at that particular moment for that particular purpose.
One more thing (no, I am not a member of the Google team nor invested in their enterprise), when they introduced games into their environment, they made it separate from everything else. No one in your circles or in your wider virtual environment gets notified about what games you’ve played or about how well you’ve done – what you do in the games section stays in the game section.
And when you do play games, you have other people to play against and with.
What Google Plus offers is still a far cry from a virtual New Games tournament. But with the Hangout, and everything else, it adds up to being closer than most virtual environments to providing a platform for coliberation. As a participant, your autonomy is never compromised, your freedom to quit is never challenged, you are safe, in control, you are there, along with everyone else, for the sheer fun of it.
The experience of coliberation that the Hangout makes possible is not in any way the avowed purpose of the technology. When it happens, it happens because the people who are using the technology adapt it to those purposes. They, in effect, redefine it. They make it their own, much as I described how people can make sports their own by adopting a “junkyard sports” approach – adapting found objects, including the environment. This, in turn, is reflected in the kinds of games that once characterized urban games, such as stickball and handball (see Streetplay).
As for online games, Celia Pearce has some wonderful stories to tell about how people have managed to create their own fun communities, and how they have adapted technologies to support this, in her book Communities of Play: Emergent Cultures in Multiplayer Games and Virtual Worlds. In it, Celia describes a phenomenon, built on the concept of coliberation, that she calls “intersubjective flow.”
She explains coliberation with exceptional clarity, relating it, as I do, to Csikszentmihalyi’s flow. She writes: “If the player is too aware of herself, she becomes self-conscious, isolated and alienated. If she is too immersed in the group, she runs the risk of conformity. Furthermore….players spontaneously adjust their behavior to challenge one another, creating the optimal state of flow for each individual participant. Thus, players are alway pushing each other to a higher state of balance between challenge and skill level, and therefore, flow. In such a state players feel at once a positive sense of their own individuality, while stell feeling connected to the group.” (132)
…”intersubjective flow” situates the flow state between people rather than within the individual. In this case flow moves from the realm of the psychological to the realm of the social. Intersubjective flow serves to accelerate a form of intimacy that is unique to play. In this context, a group of complete strangers can form a sense of group cohesion in a relatively short period of time. This is played out in simple street game contexts, such as a pick-up game of basketball. Over time and prolonged exposure, this intimacy can strengthen, as may be the case with a professional basketball team or an amateur basketball league. This is also exemplified by the concept of a ‘swing,’ the experience that oarsmen describe when they are in sync, as if a single player is rowing.” (133)
She then goes on, and in deed devotes the majority of her book, to describe this phenomenon of intersubjective flow in an online play community called “The Gathering of Uru” – a community which migrated from virtual world to virtual world, inventing new ways to play, keeping its spirit and the majority of its membership in tact and growing.
I’d like to finish this series by drawing your attention once more to the chart I made to describe coliberation. The chart shows that coliberation is also experienced when the ME and WE are minimally engaged. The implication is that it’s the same phenomenon, but less intense.
One of my favorite activities of late is walking in my local park and talking to strangers – especially strangers with dogs or babies. Because they are with someone they care for deeply, they are already in a kind of coliberating relationship. Though the dog or baby can’t engage them fully, there is a companionship, a sharing, a loving warmth that embraces them as they embrace it. And when I say hello, not to them, but to their baby or dog, we connect to that intimacy, that loving warmth, and I get to be part of it, and if I am gentle and unthreatening enough, they share it with me, a stranger. And in that moment, we make each other a little more free to be a little more complete. We are a little more in the world together. We are safe in each other’s gaze.
This is the kind of coliberation that is accessible to us almost all the time. As important, as sustaining, as life-giving as the well-played game. The kind of coliberation almost everywhere you look, if you remember to look, off-line, or on.