The Fun-Focused Game

When we talk about a fun-focused game, we’re generally not talking about the game itself, but about the players and their reasons for playing.

Some games are designed that way, to be played just for fun, to invite playfulness, laughter, spontaneity, creativity. I can think of three kinds, off-hand: player-designed games (more about these later) party games and drinking games. But even these games can fall flat, very, very, flat, if the players aren’t in that fun-focused mood. The designer, at best, can only invite fun. It’s up to the players to bring it with them.

Thing about fun-focused games is that they’re not so much about the fun that any one particular player or team is having. Usually, no matter what game you play, somebody has fun. The thing that makes this whole idea so worth thinking about is that fun-focused games are all about everybody having fun, certainly everybody who wants to be having fun.

This kind of game, the fun-focused kind, is not about getting the highest score, even though points might be awarded and score might be kept. Getting the highest score is not the point. Winning isn’t the point. The point is getting to share that special state of spirit, mind and body that we call “fun.”


Take tag, for example.

Depending on which version of tag you’re playing (and they are legion, these tag versions), you either want to be IT, or you don’t want to be IT.

When you’re IT, and you don’t want to be IT, you have to make someone else be IT, and the only way you can do that, is by, eponymously, tagging someone.

And then you’re not IT, and someone else is, so you run away.

So the question, then, is “if tag is a game” (which it certainly is) “how do you win?”

And the answer?

Well, it seems you don’t really quite exactly win. The game just goes on and on. You’re either one of the many, running away from IT, or IT, running after the many.

Sure, when you’re IT you can go after one or several people in particular, for whatever reason you can give yourself: revenge, friendship, vindication. And if you manage to tag them, it’s almost like winning. Except, when you succeed, all that happens is that person becomes IT, and they get their turn at revenge, or demonstration of friendship, or whatever. You still don’t win. And neither do they. And when you’re not IT you can look at every moment of your not-IT-ness as a personal victory. But, sooner or later, you’ll be caught. And if you’re not, it’s almost like you lose, because the only real object of the game is the fun you have playing, and after a while, being not IT is just not fun enough.

If being IT is winning, then why are you trying so hard to make someone else IT? If being NOT-IT is losing, then why are you running away?

Because it’s fun.

And if it’s not fun enough because, for example, IT doesn’t stay IT long enough, you make rules like “no tagging back.” Or, if people are getting too tired or not tired enough you change the size of the play area, or you declare certain places “off limits” or “safe” or “home.” You’re not changing the game. It’s still TAG. But you’re fine-tuning it, because it’s yours, because it’s for fun.

So many ways to play tag: freeze tag and circle tag and cat and mouse tag and ball tag and hospital tag. You’d think there’d be a point to it, a way to keep score, to win.

Which reminds me…

Everybody’s IT Freeze Tag

So here’s this game. It’s a tag game. Except everybody’s IT. Momentarily.

To start the game, you decide on where the boundaries are, because everybody has to stay inside of them. Then you spread out so there’s ample running room inside of the boundaries. And then somebody says “start” (or something of that ilk). And, since everybody’s IT, everybody runs after everybody else, tagging anybody.

If you get tagged, you’re frozen. Just before you freeze, you kneel, or get on one knee, or sit down. And you remain that way until the game is over, which is perfectly fine because the game takes maybe three minutes.

The last person standing is the winner. Except usually what that person does is start another round, as close to immediately after as immediately after can happen.

And if it takes too long, you make the boundaries smaller. And if it doesn’t take long enough, you make them wider.

Round after round, whoopin’ and hollerin’ each other into exhaustion, and nobody really cares who wins because as long as you keep playing, everybody wins, because it’s fun.

Which says something else about winning: just because somebody wins, it doesn’t mean the game is over.

Hug Tag

Somebody’s IT. Maybe even several somebodies. Everyone else isn’t. If you get tagged, then you’re IT.

There are two ways to keep from getting tagged: run very, very fast for a very long tie; or hug someone. Because this kind of tag is called Hug Tag. And as long as you’re hugging someone, you’re safe, (if safety means that you can’t get tagged).

Before you start playing, you can decide, together, how many people are IT and how many people you have to be hugging in order to stay, so to speak, safe.

It’s fun to stay safe, because you get to hug and be hugged. Which makes you try to find the people you want to be hugging with, even if it’s only for the moment. On the other hand, it’s also fun to run around. So, after a while, your fun-focused players will stop hugging each other, just for the, well, fun of it.

People who are new to the game might miss that part – the “stop hugging when it stops being fun” part, because it’s not a rule, as a rule, it’s just what you do. So, if needed, you can make it a rule. Like “you can only stay hugging as long as you can sing a note without taking a breath.”

Sometimes you need rules like this. And this one is especially good, because it’s kind of easy to cheat, if you have to. Especially if someone in your hugging group is singing really loudly.

O, yes, the hugging group, that’s another rule you can make. You can decide how many people have to be hugging in order attain the status of safehood. If all you need is one other person, it gets maybe a little too easy for the NOT-Its to stay NOT-IT, and probably a little too, shall we say “challenging” for the IT(s). If there’s a specific hug-number, then it’s a little harder for the unhugging NOT-IT to find that specific number of fellow NOT-ITs. And when hugging, and reaching the agreed-upon limit of acceptable breath-duration, especially when a NOT-IT is breathing over your conceptual shoulders, the game breaks up into another moment of shared hysteria when everybody in the hug has to find another group. And if you make yet another rule stipulating that you can’t hug someone you’ve just been hugging with, well then all the more merry mayhem.

None of these rules is essential to the game. Their only purpose is to keep the game fun. Usually, someone suggests the rule change. And, if it’s a well-timed suggestion, there’s no further discussion, unless people feel it’d be more fun to talk about how to change the game than to continue playing it. Which might be the case, depending on how tired everyone is.

Because the players decide which rules to change or add, and when, Hug Tag becomes a player-made game, even though it didn’t start that way. Probably, the next time they play, they’ll play the way they liked it best last time. And it’ll stay that way, as long as it continues to be fun.


Then there’s Roshambo, for another example, or, as more commonly known, Rock, Paper, Scissors, a.k.a. Paper, Rock, Scissors, etc. It has nothing to do with Tag. But it tells us a little more about winning and losing.

Paper beats rock, rock beats scissors and scissors beats paper. You’d think that playing is all about beating, about choosing the symbol that beats the other guy’s.  So you play once. And it’s over. And either you win or the other guy does. And then you can go on. Except that it’s so quick, so decisive that you don’t have enough time to feel the fun of it. So you play it again and again, keeping, more or less, score. Which turns out to be more fun, because then you think it’s all about outsmarting, even though it probably isn’t. You try to think like the other guy, or, thinking that the other guy is trying to think like you, you try to choose the one thing you wouldn’t choose to do if it were you choosing. And on and on and over and over again – best two out of three, four out of seven, and, OK, five out of nine. And you’d think it’s ultimately impossible to predict, given the circularity and infinity of the regression, until you meet someone who seems to win almost all the time.

And even though it’s what they call a zero-sum, and if-somebody-wins-the-other-guy-loses, ultimately competitive kind of game – you are always agreeing, in a way, making sure that you manifest your choice at the same time, absolutely together; renegotiating how many times you have to play before you can decide anything about anyone, losing- or winning-wise.

It’s not a win-and-it’s-over kind of game. It’s a play-again-and-again kind. It’s not a win-because-I’m-smarter kind of winning, or win-because-I’m-better, but a win-because-I-know-you kind.

And yes, you can make the game more complicated. There’s Rock-Scissors-Paper-Lizard-Spock, for example. There’s even a way to play Rock-Scissors-Paper in teams. Several ways.

El Hombre, El Tigre, y El Fusil

I first learned of this game from an organization called the Eastern Cooperative Recreation School. It’s a game of Rock-Scissors-Paper, for two teams. Each team acts as a single person. They meet, separately, and decide what symbol they want to display. In this case, they can choose to be “El Hombre” (the man), “El Tigre” (the tiger), or “El Fusil” (the gun).  The gun shoots the tiger. The man controls the gun. And the Tiger kills the man. If they tie, neither team wins.

Much of the fun of the game comes from making the decision (secretly, attempting to outguess the other team), acting it out (being the man, the tiger or the gun), and seeing which team won. The game should be played in several rounds.

As I continued to teach the game, I, of course, continued to modify it to make it into the kind of game that would give people access to the kind of fun I most wanted to share – pointless, silly, loving fun.

I started playing it with three teams instead of two. This way, there were more opportunities to be “strategic.” It was less confrontational than the two-team version. And there were two ways to tie (if all teams chose the same symbol, or all teams chose a different symbol) – adding yet another opportunity for tension and laughter.

I then decided that instead of keeping score, the losing team (or teams) would lose a player to the winning team. Thus, the players changed teams, and allegiances as the game progressed, which invited the to identify with the entire community rather than any particular team, and also de-emphasized winning. Thus, the game of Panther-Person-Porcupine.

Next, I made it the rule that when all teams chose the same symbol, they would hug each other, patting each other on the backs and saying something endearing to each other. Again, emphasizing community, lightheartedness, and playfulness. If all three teams chose a different symbol, one player from each team would change teams.

Finally, instead of starting with predetermined symbols, I would invite the players to invite each symbol, its pose, and whatever noise it would make. This increased their sense of ownership over the game.

Rock-Scissors-Paper Tag

Which brings us, inexorably, to Rock-Paper-Scissors Tag, core to the New Games games repertoire. It’s tag. It’s Rock-Scissors-Paper. But it’s played between teams. And if you’re caught you don’t really lose. Instead, as in my version of Tiger, Man, Gun, you become part of the winning team. And, in theory, at least, it’s not over until everyone has won.

So there are two teams. And three lines. One line is in the middle, he other lines are about, what, 20 feet on either side of the middle line. They could probably be only 10 feet apart. Or 50, if you wanted to run a lot.

The space behind the end lines (maybe another 5-10 feet wide) is Home for each team.

So, you go to your Home and you meet, you and your team, while the other people, and their team, are meeting in their Home.  And together, quietly, so the other team can’t hear, perhaps even surreptitiously, so the other team can’t even see you, you decide what sign you’re going to throw, all together, all the same sign, at the same time.  And when you’re ready, you march up to the center line and make noises of confidence and victory-preparedness.

When both teams assemble, they line up, facing each other. At a mutually agreed-upon signal, each team in unison and both teams together do their Rock-Paper-Scissors thing. Yes, it’s possible that both teams throw the same symbol. In that case, it’s a tie. And when that happens, just for the, you know, fun of it, again as in my version of Tiger, Man, Gun, both teams hug, patting each other on the back while whispering sweet nothings.

On the other hand, if they don’t tie, one of the teams wins. And everybody in that team, without further ado, races across the middle line and tries to tag as many people from the other team as they can while everybody in the losing team flees screamingly across their Home line.

As players take their positions in line, each player has the opportunity to decide precisely how close to the opposing player she wishes to stand. If it turns out that she a) throws the winning symbol, and b) is closer enough to the opposing player, she c) stands a very good chance to catch and tag the opponent before he can turn and flee. If, on the other hand, she a) throws the losing symbol, and b) stands far enough away from her opponent, she optimizes her chance to escape untagged. And then there’s a) standing close to the opponent and b) throwing the losing symbol.

The added fun that this opportunity creates exemplifies Muska Mosston’s theory in action. There is just enough space for each player to determine how much risk to take. You can play safe and stand at a distance from your opponent. You can play aggressively, increasing the likelihood of your being able to tag the opponent, while, at the same time, if, by chance, you haven’t thrown the winning symbol, increasing the likelihood that you’ll get tagged.

At this moment, the moment immediately after the revelation of the chosen symbol, and just prior to the running and screaming, there ensues a chaos of such absurd proportion that something similar to hilarity ensues. The victors are often as surprised at their victory as the temporarily defeated are at their temporary defeat. Hence, for a brief moment, you find yourself running away, screaming fearfully, when you should be running towards, yelling menacingly.

As mentioned previously, anyone caught joins the winning team for the next round, so, like what’s the deal? You lose, you win.

And on and on, decision-by-decision, the game continues until everyone is on the same side. As mentioned also previously, this end-state is theoretical. But it’s a conceptually lovely end-state, this idea that we’d all ultimately end up where we started – all on the same side.

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