coliberative vs competitive vs cooperative

Adriaan de Johng (deep thinker, designer of an intriguingly two-player, engagingly physical, finger-Twister-like game for the iPad called Fingle) and I have been in an ongoing dialogue about cooperation, competition, and, of course, what I find especially fascinating, my book, The Well-Played Game. Most recently, we’ve been exploring the relationships between competition and cooperation. He writes:

What do you think about games not being split up by the duality of cooperative and competative? I think this is a thought that totally fits your idea of coliberation.

Have you read zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance ? It describes quality as the event between the object and the subject, throwing away the idea that everything can be put into these two categories. Its not a duality: there is more going on. Your pingpong story really makes this true. Although the original game is competative, you changed the rules for it to become -insert third category term here-.

See? There he goes again. Provoking thought. So, OK. So here’s my category: coliberative.

But wait, there’s more.

The “pingpong story” Adriaan’s talking about, in case you forgot, is repeated, among other places, in my recent article on cooperative games. It’s about a way of playing ping pong – just volleying back and forth for no other reason than to keep volleying, and how, in the process, we reached a moment of sheer transcendance, which I later called coliberation – an experience of deep fun that we created for each other. (Yes, apparently that’s what I meant all along, apparently, what this blog is, in truth, is and has been all about and for.) You could say that we were playing cooperatively, playing a cooperative game, trying to keep the ball in motion together, seeing how long we could keep it going. And you could also say we were competing, together, because we were playing against odds and gravity and attention span and the whims of the universe. But in truth it had nothing to do with either cooperation or competition.

What am I doing when I’m pushing you on a swing? Are we competing? Are we cooperating? I think we’re doing something else entirely. I think we’re sharing the whee.

So, anyhow, because of this and that, I decided that, yes, Adriaan is right. We need a different word – a word we can use to describe the kind of game we play when the only reason we are playing is to share a moment of deep fun.

How does this sound: coliberative games? Not so good, actually. Doesn’t exactly trip off the conceptual tongue.  But it’s what we’re doing. Not competing. Not cooperating. Coliberating.

What’s important here is not the name, but what we’re trying to name.

Any kind of game we play, any thing that we do together that brings us together – cooperating, competing, lying on the beach or on the floor together – anything that we do that can bring us together to share something so completely, deeply fun that we become something else, something that transcends even us – is what I mean by coliberating.

I guess that somewhat weakens the value of that particular category of game. Because it doesn’t seem to matter what kind of game we’re playing. Any game, any game at all can become coliberative. Because a coliberative game, like the well-played game, is a way of playing. Chess can be just as coliberative as paddy cake. Jump rope as basketball. It’s the players, the way that the players play that transforms the game into something else, something that we have words for, but don’t quite know what to do with them.


  1. Adriaan on October 19, 2012 at 11:39 am

    I thought long about your example of pushing someone on a swing, and for some reason got really afraid that you or me would ever reduce that amazing shared experience to a word like ‘game’ or ‘fun’.

    You know about the ‘designers curse’? There aren’t many games, movies or other forms of art, infrastructure and architecture I can truly enjoy or experience without seeing its flaws – I’m too much of a designer for that. I think I would never want be on the analytical side of ‘deep fun’, rather simply enjoy it. I think its really fear that I’m feeling here. Playing is too meaningful to me. Maybe that is a reason I will never be an amazing game designer, because I won’t give up on that.

    Also, have you noticed this strange thing that the rules for making a coliberative game are practically undefinable? It’s a dead end for designers. Something truly amazing… You think so too?

    • Bernie DeKoven on October 19, 2012 at 12:10 pm

      I also have never been able to make the rules for a coliberative game. I’ve made some metarules, however, that sometimes bring people closer to that experience, like: “whenever it’s obvious that you are going to win, change sides” or “every time somebody does something spectacular, give them twice as many points.” The games that have brought me and the people I play with closest are those that I call “pointless.” Generally, they make people laugh together. Or they create the conditions for that. But a lot depends on how the games are led, or introduced, or the intentions of the players. So even those rules aren’t rules for coliberation.

  2. Jules Oosterwegel on October 28, 2012 at 2:52 am

    Hi Bernie and Adriaan,
    What I read on both of your comments and ideas is that you have a positive attitude towards play, no matter what name you give it. So, the solution is: just Play!
    Make today your PlayDay!

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