Playing Playfully

by Bernard De Koven on July 18, 2009

Early in my explorations of play, I observed that people have a different way of playing games that they have themselves designed or modified. They would play with the game as much play the game itself. They would play with the game together. As a shared thing, that somehow managed to take precedent over who won or who lost, who was the better competitor, who was more or less able.

It was especially evident in games played in informal settings, like backyards, streets, vacant lots (as so beautifully described by Iona and Peter Opie) where the choice of game, and the interpretation of rules, would always be in response to the environment, materials at hand, different skills and changing play preferences of players. Bases would be moved, boundaries redrawn, when things didn’t seem fair, players could rely on the semi-magical power of playground law, shouting out things like “interference”, “time out,”, “no cutting,” “do over” or “no takebacks.” Here, in the States, this kind of game became known as Street Games. Played during the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s, in streets and vacant lots, informally, with sticks and aluminum-foil balls, these games created and nurtured the urban community.

Much later on, I came to characterize this kind of game play as “playful.”

Playful behavior in games was especially evident when everyone involved in the game had some influence over the way the game was being played, or at least over the person who was leading the game at the time. As the influence was removed, the game formalized, the nature of the play experience also changed, becoming markedly less playful, more competitive, less responsive to individual differences and far more determined by the success or failure of ones participation in the game.

It seemed to me that this less formal, more playful way of playing was not only more fun, but often more compassionate, responsive, creative, supportive.

people  passIn the 1970s, I had the opportunity to be part of what became an International movement of sorts whose purpose was to exemplify and advocate that kind of informal, supportive, player-controlled, playful play. It was called “New Games.” Most people experienced New Games as a collection of games, many of which were cooperative, humorous, creative. Some could involve hundreds, even thousands of players. From our behind-the-scenes perspective, New Games was not only a collection games, but a method of leadership. We were playing with large, diverse crowds. People of all ages and abilities, who came together for all kinds of purposes – for the games, the socialization, relaxation, the silliness, the politics. Deciding what game to teach, when, with whom; explaining and starting the game before people got tired of listening to us, helping people play, keeping people safe, knowing when to start a new game somewhere else, knowing what game to start, knowing what particular version of the game to introduce, keeping a balance of games (active, quiet, large, small, creative, competitive), keeping it fun, keeping it inviting to people who were just watching, changing the rules when things weren’t as fun as they should be – all this was central to the success of the games.

The people who led New Games were not “officials.” They didn’t keep score, they didn’t decide what was fair. They did what they could to keep the game fun. We wound up calling them “referees.”

Central to the success of leading New Games was the transfer of the responsibility for keeping the games going from the leaders to the players. The giving over of control and responsibility was the true test of effective leadership, and the heart of the experience of New Games. It was accomplished not by a set of rules or procedures, but through playfulness. And it was that playfulness that kept New Games new.

This kind of leadership was almost invisible to the players. In part, because the leaders would often join the game, as players, helping the game become more fun by the very way they played it. In fact, the less noticeable it was, the more effective it became.

As a body of games, New Games proved very successful. Many of the games have become part of elementary school physical education program in countries throughout the world. The games that have remained “new” in spirit are those that are the most creative or cooperative. Those that have proven more successful in penetrating the culture, at least on college campuses, like Ultimate Frisbee, have struggled endlessly to incorporate the kind of playful leadership that was the “spirit of the game” into the ways in which the game is actually played.

Ultimately, it was the style of leadership that kept New Games new.

In many ways, the purpose, concept and leadership of New Games were all influenced by the experience of informal play, informal games, informal sports. In other words, New Games, at its most successful, reintroduced the concept of playfulness to organized community celebrations, leading to the creation of play communities in which fun became more important than winning.

A little more than 20 years after my involvement with New Games ended, and the New Games Foundation was disbanded, a major publisher in physical education – Human Kinetics – invited me to write a book that would renew the concept of New Games.

I wanted to create something that would invite playfulness, and at the same time, prove less dependent on external leadership.

Drawing once again on the lore of street games, I based my games on traditional sports, but substituted the equipment and environment with “junk” materials, like those kids once used to reinvent baseball so that it could be played in the street. Starting with basketball, for example, how could it be played in a hallway, with nothing but a collection of plastic bags. Or on a playground with trash cans and tennis balls.

Junkyard  SportsI found this approach to be extraordinarily rich. The games were invitations to problem-solving and creativity. Players were not required to make up a new game, but rather could begin with something they already understood and could easily manage, and adapt to material and environmental constraints. The selection of materials and environments defined the problem that the players would work together to solve. And, because they were in the process of working together to make the game work, they played more creatively and compassionately, less competitively, and more in a spirit of fun. The result was a book called Junkyard Sports,

junkyard golfMore recently, I applied this same approach to developing training games for business and industry. One game, which I called “Junkyard Golf,” invited teams to create their own miniature golf hole, using an assortment of, well, junk – cardboard tubes, plastic bags, scraps of plastic, old tennis balls, panty hose. When they were finished, they could then tour the entire golf course which they had collectively created. The game could be played on table tops or outdoors, with almost any collection of junk – though it did seem to me that there was a science of junk collection, and that through careful selection one could influence the aesthetics and functionality of the course. This game proved very successful. It worked as well at a community picnic as at an executive retreat, and ultimately became part of the yearly training program for top performers at Southwest Airlines.

And most recently I developed yet another training game, which I have called, variously, Junkyard Olympics, Junkyard Sports Tabletop Olympiad, and Found Object Olympics.

Again people work in small teams. Each team is asked to create a “tabletop Olympic event.” Again, they have a repertoire of familiar events to draw from (slalom, discus, javelin, hurdles, a wide variety of sports – including, of course, synchronized swimming). Again they have to adapt the game to the environment (a table top), and this time, to create the event using only the materials they can find (in their purses, backpacks, wallets, already on the table, or around the room).

To further engender a playful experience, I also invite people to engage in semi-actual Olympic-like contests, and, in addition to the event, to create award ceremonies for each other.

This event has proven even more successful as a training experience than Junkyard Golf. Primarily because it invites more creativity (people have to find their own junk) and much more playfulness.

It was featured at the 2009 LEGO Design Conference, and has just recently been packaged (with an additional set of stimulating junk and Ron Roberts’ very detailed notes for “processing” the experience) to be sold as a training game, called Junkyard Games through a company called HRDQ – one of the top publishers of business training programs.

I was also able to take the same approach that I developed with Junkyard Sports – emphasizing playfulness at least as much as the games themselves – to help develop new ways of playing with large yoga balls. The book, co-authored with Todd Strong, was called Great Games for Big Activity Balls. Here, the idea was to use the size of the ball as another way to revision traditional sports and events, where the focus was more clearly on the fun of playing than on playing any particular game.

All of which is, at least to me, evidence that it is not only possible to design games that incorporate playfulness, creativity, spontaneity, inclusiveness and funny fun, but desirable, and lucrative even.


A Playful Path photoA playful path is the shortest road to happiness.
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