Games as a way of understanding

by Bernie DeKoven on May 23, 2011

Luckily, for the purpose of this particular conversation, all you need to know about “game theory” is that you can use what you understand about how games work to understand more about how people work – societies, cultures, economies, political systems, communities, families. I say “luckily” because game theory goes very deep into very obscure realms, obscure enough that people get Nobel Prizes for making sense out of it.

The thing that all this proves is that there is something about games that seems to reflect on something other than games – something that games mirror more clearly than other mirrors we try to hold to human nature. If you start thinking of all the games you know as a language, what you will find described in that language are the foundations of human relationships.

Once I published my Interplay Games Curriculum, I began teaching what I had learned about children’s games to adults. This is when I first understood the connection between games and relationships, and what led me to founding the Games Preserve (I described some of my explorations in a series of articles that became the “Games Preserve Reports.” If you’d like to explore this connection more fully, I invite you to scroll your way through these articles.)

I was teaching a group of teachers who, once a week, for almost a year, came to a place called Durham Child Development Center, to explore children’s games with me. They were young, motivated, caring – inspiring to be with and play with and talk with. It was they who helped me understand the power of the game language. Because they began using it to explore their own lives – their relationships, not just to teaching, but to community, to family, to the people they loved and worked with and grew with. And when they did talk about teaching, they were describing not the children as students, but the children as community. We’d play something like Lemonade (a team tag game in which if you get tagged you join the winning team – similar to Rock-Scissors-Paper Tag) and after everyone caught their breath and stopped laughing, they would get suddenly struck at difference between this experience of “losing” and the kind of losing that results in your having to stop playing. And they’d begin to talk about how such a redefinition of losing would impact so much of their lives, and the lives of the kids they teach, and the parents of those kids, and, well, everything.

And in the process, we’d begin to explore all the definitions of losing and winning, and all the ways we could redefine them, and we’d feel (OK, it was the 70s) we could, just by playing with the consequences of losing a game, redefine our world. It was game theory at its best, at its most revealing and most healing.

We could have just as easily talked about winning, or the sheer, panicky fun of not knowing which way to run, or the strange joy of sharing the ritual that led up to each encounter. And, eventually, we did. Unless another game interested us more. And as we continued, game after game, we were experiencing, in the very ways we played together, the very alternatives we thought we might be able to create together. And we became remarkably intelligent, remarkably close, remarkably fun.


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