The Games Preserve

by Bernie DeKoven on June 12, 2010

1971-1981

The Games Preserve was a retreat center established by Bernie De Koven and his family so that Bernie could teach people about the restoring powers of play. Teachers, therapists, physical educators, prison offiicials, clergy, people from all walks of life came to the Games Preserve to spend a few hours or a weekend exploring the world of games.

The photo shows the inside of the barn – a 40′x40′ area given over totally to housing Bernie’s ever-expanding collection of games. Bernie and friends managed to create an environment that was responsive to everyone’s play interests. For the energetic there were flying rings and sliding board and a collection of exercise toys. For the somewhat less energetic, pool and ping pong, air hockey and a collection of wooden action games (you can see a game of skittles in the lower left of the picture). For the contemplative, an extensive collection of board games and puzzles and books about everything that had anything to do with play and games. For the creative, hundreds of square feet of chalkboard.

pool table at GP

The following description is from the 1978 edition of The Well-Played Game:

Well, my friends, let me tell you about something that I, your friendly conceptualizer, have conceived of, have actually built, right in my very own home. I call it a Games Preserve.

What, you ask, is a Games Preserve? Well, I respond, let me show you one, one that I built, one which at this time unfortunately, is unique, but which is nevertheless to the point.

First of all, I live on a farm. Most of the games are in the barn. The house. The kitchen. The paces to sit around. The fields. The woods.

So sit down, have a cup of tea or something, and, when you’re ready, we’ll all go up to the barn.

Well, here it is. Looks like a barn from the outside, doesn’t it. That’s one of the things I like about it – it’s a surprise, unexpected, if you know what I mean.

Through this little green door. Wait until I turn on the lights. Ready? Here goes! Welcome to your very own play-community games preserve place.

And revealed unto you is what I humbly consider to be a true marvel.

Here’s a big carpeted area for dancing and big games and whatnot. Or I could let the rings down if anybody needed to fly a little.

Over there is a puzzle wall. All different kinds of puzzles – picture puzzles, puzzles that you have to take apart, puzzles that you try to put together, ancient puzzles, new puzzles.

And in here and up there we have the quiet games areas. Yes, it represents a veritable fortune in games. There about two hundred different ones here. Upstairs there are another several many. Strategy games. Games with dice. Simulation games. War games. Well, you never can tell what people are going to want to get into.

Oh, yes, that’s the pool table. That’s the Ping-Pong table. And there are a few hundred more games over there.

A bit extreme, perhaps. Somewhat of an over-investment which has displayed a marked propensity for keeping us close to poverty ever since we began collecting the games. But what a place!

This is a toy library and an arcade and a gym and a chess club and a place to dance and whatever else you want it to be all, all under one proverbial roof.

This is the place where anybody can find a game, so that, if we want to play, if we only want to play, we’ll be able to find something we’d want to play with right here. Take any couple or group, somewhere there’s a game that everybody would have fun playing together. It’s as guaranteed as we could make it.

I’d like to point out, if you don’t mind, how remarkably well cared for these games are.. Nary a piece is missing. I have made it a practice, and I’d appreciate it if you would, too, to put back each game after playing with it in such a manner as to retain that remarkably cared-for effect that I have so long labored to make herein manifest.

Yes, it is caring that has made this place such a good one to play in. Not just the caring for the games, but the caring for each other that we are able to exercise here: What game do you want to play? Say, is there a game that everybody can play? Wait a minute, let me raise the rings before you start the game – somebody might bump into them. I really liked this game, want to see how it’s played?

That’s another thing I like about this place, the caring that has made it last.

And when you get out of the barn, if you want, maybe you’ll take a walk in the woods, or go lie down in a field. Maybe you’ll want to stop playing. Maybe you’ll want to build something. We could make a tree house! We could just move these sticks and rocks around and make a maze, or a fort, or a good place to rest.

Or maybe you’ll want to come back down to the house. The house is part of it, too. The welcome that you find here is not just mine. It’s my family’s. It’s in the way that the pots ar hung so anybody can use them, and our children’s pictures are on the wall, and there’s a toy that somebody made. It’s in my children’s genuine desire to play with you. It’s in my wife’s comforting comfort. In the way she has played here – panting the refrigerator and the kitchen clock and making a rainbow around the front door. It’s the welcome.

It’s a little embarrassing to find myself talking about this place as if it were the greatest accomplishment of the willingness to play. Actually, it isn’t at all. My greatest accomplishment has been in the constant reaffirmation of our willingness to live together and share what we have, me and my wife and my children. The Games Preserve was something we built together. But what we have found together has been each other, and now, you.

This, really, is the discovery that leads us into creating play communities. It’s not the games we’re here for.

But still, still, we’d like to have places to play in. The idea of making a games preserve is a good one. It worked for us, for those who came to it, for the other people who helped us build it. But it doesn’t have to be on a farm. It could be in a classroom, in a hospital corridor, in a community center. And we don’t need every kind of game. And we probably wouldn’t even have to spend a lot of money. We could make some of the games. We could ask our friends to ask everybody they know to ask everybody in the world for unwanted games.

As long as it’s a place that’s cared for, a place where there are people who care. As long as it’s built and created and changed to help us be a play community. As long as it becomes the way we want it to become.

That means that we have to be able to move things around – to change things so that they can be the way we happen to want them to be at this particular moment. Maybe we could trade games we don’t play for different games from some other games preserve. How about the one in the UN? I bet they’ve got some games we’ve neer heard of before. How about the one in the IBM building. Or the games preserve in the senior citizen’s center.

Ah, yes, the global view. A games preserve in every garage.

Think about it. A games preserve in your very own garage, where, every now and then, your whole family just plays. After dinner, maybe, after everything’s put away. Imagine what it wold be like having this place where all the games and toys and stuff you like playing with – the games the kids like, the game the adults like, the games the whole family likes – are all there, ready to be played with. And your whole family is there, playing together – creating, for the short time, a play community, in the special space you built together just so this could happen. And when your friends come over, they, too, become part of a play community, and they, too, build games preserves, and never, never do you ever again have the experience of, when you want to play, having no place to go.

And think of what would happen at work, when, just for an hour maybe, or after work even, you meet each other in the games preserve. Just for that short time, after having spent the day whatever it is that you have to do to make a living, and doing it as well as possible, after that, you come into this place and play together. Think of the relief, the re-establishment of noting more than your basic enjoyment of playing well together. Think of being silly. Of doing anything, without purpose, without motive. Think of the game of lemonade you could play.

And in the schools for our children, think of playing Thar’s a Bar with the kids and the teachers and the principals. Think about the educational validity of creating the ultimate play community.

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And in the hospitals, when we are so far from wellness that we can barely exist with out bodies, think of how it wold be if we found a games preserve there, too, where we could play however we were able to play, and find some way to celebrate the health that we still have, and, hopefully, the greater health we are returning to.

A games preserve where the handicapped and the old and the young and the labeled could all play together, with each other, in the same community.

And then, think about this: we don’t really need a games preserve at all. It would be nice. It would be wonderful. It would be a fulfillment, a testimony to the value of playing well together, to the very basic need to play, to the fact that we are all, each of us, so willing that all we need to be given is the permission and safety to let it happen.

We can play anywhere. We don’t need a special place. We can make one. We can make one everywhere.

We don’t even need the games. We can always find something worth playing with. We can find a jungle gym in a tree. A volleyball net in a fence. All we have to do is get on either side and play across it.


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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Julie DeKoven January 11, 2011 at 4:38 am

Wow! I never saw the barn in all its glory. (sniff!) Cool space!

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Sheila Stone December 8, 2011 at 11:25 pm

I was there!!! that’s what I remember it looking like, including the clothing styles.

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Bob November 9, 2012 at 10:49 am

what do i remember? well honestly, maybe it took about a week to get over the fact that we were going to get three credits for playing games for a month…. i remember coming out to your barn a few times a week, trying to choose from the assortment of things to do. playing games, sitting together several times during each day just talking about things. i had brought a table top hockey game back to school and steve and i set up a tournament in our dorm. we wrote a paper about the game, strategy, competition, etc. we were into it. but, i remember on the last day of class you brought everyone together to talk about the course, and you held a paper up in the air. bernie, i remember this like it was yesterday… you said, ‘now look at this paper, so neatly typed, i measured the margins… perfect… but it is bullshit!’ you then through the paper into the air. i remember steve and i looking at it as it was falling, hoping it wasn’t ours! (we would have been pissed, because we thought we had been sincere!) you then said, ‘ok, two of you need to leave early… we need to play one more game…. it is the game of giving grades… when i call your name, tell me the grade you want!’ well, i got an A in your course! the girl whose paper you flung in the air gave herself a B and we all told you to give a pre-med student who wasn’t there that day a C!!! i think he came to you to get it changed.

i don’t think i needed an excuse to play games, then or now, but i do recall so many of the things you said about games, letting go, relaxing, stress relief… basically the benefit of play.
hadn’t you wrote a book or were planning to write a book called ‘it’s ok to play with yourself?’ that alone was enough to remember you!

after graduation (1975), (i think i took your course in January ’74) there were no jobs. i went to rutgers for a m.s. in environmental science. i have been working in the environmental field since then, at my current position for 31 years! ahhhh! getting old!

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