cooperative games

There has to be at least two different kinds of cooperative games. There are probably seven, for all I know right now. But two kinds seems to be a good enough place to start. There are your endless games, like catch, that go on and on and on and then on again until everyone else gets too tired or bored or antsy to play. Then there are your ending games, like Prui and The Lap Game and Knots, where everybody tries to do something together (join the Prui, sit on each other’s lap, get untangled). And, o, wait, there are cooperative games that don’t really end, but could – I guess you could call them episodic, like clapping games and jumping games and ball-bouncing games, where as soon as you get good enough to feel like you’re succeeding, you make it harder.

So, OK, there are three kinds of cooperative games. You can also play some ball-bouncing games by yourself, don’t you know. But then you’re not cooperating, unless you’re cooperating with the ball, which you probably are, even though the ball might not be interested in cooperating with you. But that’s not the point. Or, at least, that’s not my point.

My point is that there are probably three kinds of cooperative games, and regardless of how many there are, I really just wanted to think with you about one game in particular: “playing catch.” Which could be called “playing toss,” but it’s not. It might as well be called juggling, because that’s pretty much what you’re trying to do, except there’s only one ball. But it’s the same idea – keep it going back and forth for as long as you possibly can.

There are a lot of things you can play catch with. There are baseballs and footballs and Wiffle balls and beach balls and balloons and bubbles (those games tend to be very short). And ping pong balls and volley balls, which you usually don’t really catch, but you do something very much like it, cooperatively speaking, by trying to, well, volley the ball back and forth, ad, conceptually-speaking,infinitum. So, let’s say we’re not playing catch. We’re volleying. Playing ping pong. But not for score. Just volleying. To exemplify, I repeat myself as follows:

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 him. And 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, together.

Actually, you could say that this was a fourth kind of cooperative game, different from the others in that it was based on a competitive game. But that’s not the point nor particularly relevant given the observation that playing cooperatively, without score, for no other reason than playing to keep playing, can lead to an experience that is as profound and transforming as the best moment of any game you can think of, cooperative or competitive, game or sport or contest, in pursuit of fun or beauty or knowledge or wisdom.

Sooner or later, all “keeping it going” kinds of cooperative games end. Or at least get interrupted. Usually because somebody misses.

So, there we are, throwing the ball back and forth, and we’re, well, kinda good at it. Back and forth and back and forth with nary a miss at all. After awhile, despite our collective brilliance and our desire to go on and on for as close to ever as possible, we get, well, a little, shall we say, bored by all that brilliant nariness. So, we increase the distance between us, or slightly change the way were throwing or the way we’re catching.

Something gets changed, by purpose or accident. You step back to catch the ball, and you stay there. And maybe next time you miss, but you don’t move any closer. You still think it can be done. Until you miss and miss again. And then, maybe, you take a step closer. Until it gets too easy.

It’s a game of balance, of fine tuning, adjustment, constant adjustment – adjusting to each other, to the changing levels of fatigue or energy, changes in the sunlight, temperature. At the same time there is this desire to perform and reach and share the spectacular. To go just beyond your limits. To return the throw with a accuracy that surprises both of you. To dive, to leap, to dance, not just in harmony, but with splendor. Something unsaid between us urging us forward towards the promise of something beyond us, the achievement of something extraordinary. Until, the inevitable befalls us, and we miss, and miss again.

In truth, it’s often very difficult to determine which of us actually missed. Maybe the thrower didn’t throw quite as brilliantly. Maybe the catcher wasn’t totally present, if you know what I mean.

We’ve made it a rule that you’re not allowed to say “sorry” when that happens, because: 1) stuff like that sometimes just happens, and 2) how do you know it’s your fault? how do you know the other guy didn’t return the ball the way he should have? what makes you so sure you were the one? and 3) it doesn’t help. What helps is to pick up the ball and keep going. Unless you don’t want to. Or the other guy doesn’t want to. On the other hand, saying things like “sorry,” even when you don’t actually entirely mean it, is something people do to keep the game going. On the order of saying “OK, so let’s pretend that last one didn’t really happen.” Or saying “that doesn’t count.” Or saying “that’s a ‘do-over’.”

Better to admit that we need to change something about the way we’re playing. We can change the distance between us, we can change the way we’re catching or the way we’re throwing.

Or maybe the best change of all is to play some other game, a different game. It might be more fun, next time, if we added more people. Well, maybe not more fun. Maybe as fun. Fun again. Fun in a different way. Maybe if the three of us, or five of us, or ten of us can keep it going long enough, maybe even more thoroughly, more powerfully, deeply fun.

Group Juggling

When you get lots of people playing catch together, or volleying together, things tend to get more game-like, more organized, with rules, even. So a simple game of catch becomes something like a feat of group juggling. Which reminds me of a game I learned too long ago to remember who taught it to me. A near- perfect example of a cooperative, game-like experience, of the apparently endless variety. A game, coincidentally called “Group Juggling.” Which explains why I was reminded of it.

You’re going to need a lot of things to throw around. Like jugglers do. Preferably things that are as easy to catch as they are to throw. Nerf balls. Balls made out of rolled-up socks or plastic shopping bags. I really like the sock solution best because it makes my collecting singleton socks such an admirably practical activity. You need a few fewer balls than players.

We’ve evolved I guess what you might call a ritual to start the game – especially with people who haven’t played it before.

Somebody acts in the role of “Ball Captain.” No, you don’t have to call yourself Ball Captain. Nor does anybody else have to. It’s just that you happen to have all the balls. And happen to be the person who winds-up explaining the game. And sure, it’d be best if everyone were the captain of their own ball. But, if, like I said, nobody else knows how to play, it’s best, like I also said, if one person has all the balls.

So, there’s everybody, standing in a circle. And the Ball Captain asks everyone to raise a hand, and explains thus: “I’m going to throw the ball to somebody. Somebody not too close to me, and not too far, either. When you catch the ball (which I sorely hope you do), you, of course, put your hand down, and throw the ball to someone else who has their hand up – someone not too close or too far from you, who then throws lowers her hand to catch the ball, throws the ball to someone else who’s not too close or too far but still has a hand up, and on and on, always throwing the ball to a person with a hand up, until no-one has a hand up. At that time, throw the ball back to me.”

So now the ball has made a complete, if somewhat difficult-to-trace circuit, everyone having thrown the ball to one person and received it from someone else. As a final, and mildly amusing memory aid, the Ball Captain asks everyone to point, simultaneously, to the person to whom they threw the ball, and then, with the other hand, equally simultaneously, the person from whom they received the ball, further vivifying the path that the ball achieved.

Post-finally, the Ball Captain starts the game by throwing the first ball to the person to whom she had originally thrown the ball to, um, first.

During the first and subsequent rounds, the inevitable ball-dropping event usually evits itself. This is a good opportunity for adjusting player position – closer to the center, or perhaps to some other part of the circle. Later, as more balls are added, ball-dropping is no longer the game-stopper it once was. Often, it provides a welcome opportunity for reducing the number of balls in circulation. In any event, I always recommend that the focus is on how to adjust positions, if need be, rather than on ball-handling skills, or lack thereof.

After the ball has made a complete circuit or two, depending on how long it takes everyone to catch and throw without confusion or ball-dropping, the ball captain, deeply sensitive to the flow of the game and the confluence of the group, introduces another ball, bringing into stark and oft-hilarious focus the “juggling” nature of the game. And on and on and so forth, introducing yet another ball and yet another, letting missed balls fall where they may, until the group reaches such a state of mutual astonishment that they fairly curdle in collective awe.

And then, and then in full knowledge that the possibilities for further juggling marvels still abound, totally cognizant of how possible it would in deed be for people to, for example, start walking in a circle whilst juggling, or perhaps even to change places, perhaps even with the very person to whom the ball is being thrown or from whom received, in total recognition of the endless hilarity still to come, the Ball Captain, recognizing that the only thing standing in the way of the game becoming one of historical, or perhaps hysterical significance, stops the game, distributes the balls so that there’s more or less one for each and every player who wishes to ascend to semi-captaincy. And then lets the game begin again. Each player introducing another ball at the most precisely opportune moment so that both juggle-worthy surprise and conceptual delight are maintained.

Of course, there are still more variations, should more be sought. There’s the possibility of creating yet another ball route, the equal possibility of using both routes simultaneously, of changing directions for one of the routes, of singing, of doing the juggling whilst collectively pursuing both the Hokey and the Pokey… Left to their own resources (which is always a good idea), people will always be able to come up with more ideas to make the game more, shall we say, challenging. The recommendation here is to try these ideas one at a time, on a first mentioned, first endeavored basis.


The last two games were cooperative games of the endless variety – games that can just go on and on and on and also on until everyone is clearly ready to play something else. In this post, we begin our contemplation of cooperative games of yet another variety – games that have a goal. Specifically, this time, a game called “knots” or “human knots” or “tangle” or, for that matter “untangle.”You need a bunch of people – a bunch being perhaps as few as say five and as many as perhaps twenty. You gather together in a configuration mildly approximating a circle, standing somewhat shoulder to shoulder, facing, obviously, in, towards each other.Everyone extends one hand towards the center of the circle, and selects a hand to hold on to. Clasp hands. Shake hands if need be. But do, by all means, hold on. If you find yourself having accidentally clasped an immediately adjacent hand, de-clasp and find another, non-adjacent hand. Having accomplished this with sufficient aplomb, everyone then does with the other hand precisely like that which everyone did previously, except, as I implied, with the other hand – extending the aforementioned hand towards the center, seeking another hand to clasp, but this time making sure that the hand being clasped belongs to a person with whom you are not already clasping hands. Thus, each person finds him or herself holding on to two different, non-adjacent people, arms tangled in a clearly knot-like hand-tangle, having thus achieved the beginning point. The end-point is to reach a state of mutual disentanglement similar to that of the starting point, without, of course, letting go of either of the hands to which your hands are temporarily affixed.It is wise, before the deknotting becomes too devoted, to explain that people should maintain a loose, but continuous contact with the other hands – loose enough so that they don’t twist each other’s hands off (an enthusiasm dampener if ever there was one) in pursuit of collective knotlessness.

There comes a time, in fact, there can come several times of apparent unsolvability. 1) Sometimes, it is only apparently unsolvable, and, with a little deeper analysis and collective effort, extrication is at hand. 2) Sometimes a solution appears, but in unexpected form: you find yourselves in two intersecting or totally separate circles. 3) Sometimes it is solved, but certain participants refuse to accept the solution because some are facing in and others out. 4) Sometimes it is actually unsolvable. Should any of conditions 2-4 manifest, it behooves one to introduce the concept of minimal cheating. In this event, all attempts to deknot are suspended, and the group, collectively, examines the entire knot in search for the one handclasp which, if temporarily declasped and then reclapsed elsewhere, would most likely result in group unknotting.

On the other hand, sometimes it’s best to give up and try again.

One more thing: should you find yourself with a group larger than 9 but less than 21, you can create a double knot. Ask players, before knotting, to find a partner. Partners now put one hand around each other’s waist. This gives each pair two hands free – a left, and remarkably, a right hand – exactly enough for them to play as if they were one person, and pursue the game precisely as abovedescribed.

And yes, should further complexity prove desirable, Knots can, at least purportedly, be played with eyes closed.

So, even though the game has a fixed endpoint, at least in theory, it isn’t that fixed. The challenge can be increased or decreased, just like we can increase or decrease the challenge when we’re playing catch or group juggling. In fact, it’s a lot easier to make a game more challenging than less. Often, almost too easy. And when it gets too challenging, well, it just isn’t fun any more. Is it?

Playing any cooperative game is an exercise in sensitivity: sensitivity to each other, to what’s fun for you, to the fun you are sharing, to the game you are playing together, the rules you’re playing by, the place your playing in, the objects and bodies you are playing with. It’s that sensitivity, shared, that makes it, and keeps it fun.

 People Pass

There’s yet another kind of cooperative game, typified by the iconic New Game of People Pass, in which a group of people work together to transport each other, one at a time, from the beginning to the end of a line. This is one of a large collection of what became known as trust games – often for a very good reason. These games were most often developed by people involved in what was called T-Groups or “sensitivity training,” the objectives of which were often a little more hidden from the participants than they might wish.

Played for fun, these games can be wonderful, as I hinted at, “transporting” experiences of caring and being cared for, of support and supporting, of somewhat intimately sensuous sensitivity – all for the sheer joy of it. Played for other purposes, like teaching people about their “true nature” and stuff, these same games can take on a bit too much intimacy.

To keep these games fun, you have to focus heavily on individual safety, and the freedom to quit without consequences, and with impunity. If it’s your turn to get carried over everyone’s head, and you aren’t sure you really want to, it’s just fine. It doesn’t say anything about you. It doesn’t mean anything about your character or caring or feeling about the group or sense of responsibility to the group or who you really are. Would you mind, however, staying in line and helping to pass other people overhead?

People Pass, properly facilitated, is great fun, for everyone. Players start out in two lines. From then on, the people in front, one at a time, are carried to the back of the line, where they position themselves so they will be ready to carry the next person. Facilitators usually station themselves at the front and back of the lines, to help the people being passed on and off. It’s good to have a third facilitator, especially in large groups, to walk the proverbial line with the person being passed, just to keep things comfortable and safe.

To keep the people who are doing the passing sensitive to the person being passed (sometimes, they get carried away, so to speak), you might want to ask them to hum or chant or whisper sweet nothings. The passee, aside from worrying about being dropped, might also spend a lot of her time worrying, more rightfully, about being touched, as they say, “inappropriately.” Again, to keep the game fun for everyone, you might need to spend some time focusing the passers’ attention on how to keep the game fun, and help the passee feel safe.

There are many ways to play the game. You can play standing up (as in the picture on the top of this post) or lying down (as in the photo on the bottom). Lying down feels safer for everyone. And, since the passee knows that if the passers aren’t taking appropriate care, she may very well land on their faces, there is an added sense of safety – at least for the person who most needs it.

You can pass big people, little people, people with disabilities, and they all get to feel loved, and so do you. All in all, at its best, an experience of deep fun.

Sensing and sensitivity are key to this kind of cooperation. They form the background assumptions for all cooperative games, but in games of the People Pass ilk they are more self-evident. For these games to be fun, players need to be sensitive to each other, and, especially when playing with strangers and/or teens, the people who are facilitating the game have to help make sure that that sensitivity is maintained throughout the game.

As, not necessarily, but often manifestly contrasted with crowdsurfing.

Playing for Fun

In this article we have focused on cooperative games. Each game described represents a particular type of cooperative game, some more profoundly cooperative than others. None of the games focus on winning or losing. In none of the games do people keep score. No one is ever out. The only reason to play them, the only reward, is fun, is having fun, together.

The fact is, every game is at some very basic level cooperative, whether you keep score or not. There are rules, conventions, understandings, agreements that have to be maintained throughout the game, or the game doesn’t work, no matter who, if anyone, wins.

If you take a look at my collection of Playful Games, you’ll find some games that can be called cooperative, others that border on being competitive. The one thing that they all have in common is that no one keeps score, or if anyone does keep score, no one really cares. Because the one thing, the one goal that transcends all others is to have fun, together.

This is true of all the games described on this site, of all the games I advocate, teach, demonstrate. They are all for fun. They’re all for having fun together. You can play anything for fun. You can play baseball, football, hockey, you can even wrestle for fun.

It’s a different way of playing, apparently. But it’s just as natural, just as satisfying as any other way to play – whether you play for score or for money or national standing. All this talk about cooperative games is useful, because it highlights a certain kind of game. But the truth is it doesn’t matter what kind of game you’re playing when you’re playing for fun, together.


  1. Adriaan on October 9, 2012 at 5:07 pm


    Its funny how much I can relate to your ‘stop saying “sorry”‘-story. I think that ‘sorry’ really highlights how much players want the game to be a good one.

    The possible (non)results on Knots amazed me. Totally going to play that game with a bunch of friends. How much people do you think it requires to be fun?

    On the note of cooperative games not having scores: I cannot come up with a single co-op game that had scores that made sense. Maybe this really is a ‘rule’ for cooperative games – or even, for playing for fun. There are so many game conventions these days that developers seem to apply to their games by default (and keeping scores is definitely one of them) while this might actually be a bad thing!

    • Bernie DeKoven on October 9, 2012 at 5:15 pm

      I’ve played Knots with as few as 6 and as many as 20. When playing with more than 10, you ask people to double up. They stand in pairs, side by side, each putting one arm around the other. This leaves one arm, a left and right, free, so they play exactly as if they were one person. Significantly cool.

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