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Bernie DeKoven's FunLog

More fun, more often, for more people and other living things.

Cuboro

Cuboro is what people in the trade call a "Grandparents' Toy." What they usually mean by this is that it costs more money than most parents are willing to spend for a mere toy.

As a grandparent myself, I, too, would classify Cuboro a Grandparents' Toy. However, I'm not planning on giving it to my kids. Or my grandkids. I'm keeping it for myself. I figure it'll be another ruse I can use to get the grandkids over. And, in the mean time, I get it all to myself!

Cuboro is a beautifully made wooden construction toy that is used to create marble labyrinths. The blocks are made of beech, precision cut and sanded smooth. In the Standard set (54 blocks, $122.95), 26 of the blocks are just that - well-made, solid wooden blocks that serve as the foundation for the constructions. The remaining 28 provide an assortment of 12 different "functions." By carving channels and tunnels into the blocks, the designers create the elements of wonder. Each of the functional blocks provides part of a marble path. Some channels and tunnels curve. Some cross. By assembling the elements in just the right way (and there are literally hundreds of "right ways") you get a complete marble track.

Playing with Cuboro is a process of building and testing. Adjusting. Testing again. Adding. Adjusting. And again, testing. It challenges mind, eye and dexterity. It combines creative play with scientific exploration. This is really what makes Cuboro such a deep, playworthy toy. It engages the players on so many levels. And, just when you think you've exhausted the permutations and combinations of the Standard set, you can purchase sets of new elements, each of which combines with every other set, each providing a whole new collection of possibilities.

It's important to note that Cuboro is very different from construction toys like Lego and Erector Sets, and equally different from dedicated marble run toys like the beautiful Scalino system. It's open-ended. There are no plans included for creating specific structures (though a clear and well-conceived book of such plans is available to the appropriately desperate). Cuboro is designed for both flexibility and complexity. It lends itself to creative, scientific exploration as well as a more closed-ended puzzle-solving approach. This is part of the reason why I feel this toy is so valuable. Its open-endedness and intricacy is a paradigm for the kinds of experience I find most conducive to building playfulness and community.

Cuboro is the most expensive toy so far to earn a Major FUN Award. The elegance of its design, craftsmanship and functionality create a new standard for the kind of games and toys we hope to be reviewing in the future. As you become more familiar with the standard set, consider investing in an expansion set. Cuboro Duo ($84.95) adds double tracks, so you can race two marbles at a time. As amazing as it is that they managed to carve all those curvy tracks and tunnels into hardwood, the added game play is even more amazing. The words "quantum leap" come to mind. There are also "Six Packs" available, at $19.95 each, for yet more amazement.

Finally, trivial as it may seem, I also really appreciate it that the manufacturers invested in a box that was hefty enough to store this significantly hefty toy.

In case you were wondering, "Cuboro is manufactured...by a small, family-owned woodworking and toy company in Switzerland. The beech wood that the Cuboro blocks are made from is harvested by the family in an ecologically sound manner. The excess wood left by the manufacturing process is not discarded; rather it is burned in the kilns that methodically dry the blocks to ensure that they maintain their precise shape and character."

Flexagons - another fun-math connection

Last Thursday's piece about Playfulness, Invention and Mathematical Thought set me thinking about all the fun things I've done that belong to this math-fun connection. Which reminded me about one of the most mystifyingly magically mathishly fun toys I've so far encountered - the flexagon.

It's a thing you make out of a folded paper strip that's divided into triangles. You fold and fold until you get something that looks like a hexagon. You glue one of the edges and get this ever-unfolding thing. Then you go so far as to draw pictures and stuff on this ever-unfolding thing, and when you ever-unfold it, the pictures change and change and, well, change. It's kinda like a folded moebius strip. Which is also amazing, fun, and ticklishly puzzling. And it's the ticklishly puzzling part that makes this whole thing so mathematical.

The hexahexaflexagon is no secret. There are many World Wide pages devoted to its mysteries. This site includes a cool Java simulation of a hexahexaflexagon flexing hexishly. This site gives instructions for building tri-, tetra-, penta-, and, of course, hexahexaflexagons. And here we even get hexahexaflexagon-making software.

Flex on, dude!

Game Tastings

Time is one of the biggest challenges we face every Game Tasting. So, the games that we tend to like best are those that have the fewest rules, are the easiest to understand, and the quickest to play.

Every now and then, we get a game that is too complex for us. It's promising, but we simply don't have time to give it what it deserves. Sometimes, we get a game that is not only too complex, but also somehow falls short of our combined ideals. The rules aren't really clear enough. The materials not attractive enough. And sometimes our players are just too jaded, know too many other games to view something with a fresh enough eye.

Proclaim is one of those games. It's a word game whose rules are just a little too complex for us. We got impatient. But we did play it, and, though we couldn't give it an award, we also couldn't let it go unnoticed. There's something about it that's unique. It's like a lot of other games we could think of, but after a few rounds, we discovered that to play it well, we had to be unusually thoughtful. There's an economy that's required - a finesse, a cleverness, and a knowledge of langauge and of the other players - that is unlike any other word game.

It may not be a perfect game, but it is undeniably fun, challenging, memorable. And so, though you won't see Proclaim! on the Awards page, it is more because of the restrictions of the Tasting process than it is because of the game itself. I decided not to create a "runner-up" or "second place" category, because that could be too easily misread as a game that's not "good enough" to get the award, when it's just as likely that our Tasting process is not good enough to give the game its due.

To get your own "taste" of Proclaim, check out this sample game.

Shut the Box

Shut the Box. You roll the dice. You look for all the unused numbers that could, in fact, be used to total up to the number rolled. You move the slides over the numbers you've chosen, hoping to cover all the slots before you come up with a number you can't play.

Each number can be used only once, so you have to more or less strategize (as much as you can, given the random roll of the dice). A popular pub game, Shut the Box is often played for money, but it is interesting enough to play just for fun. There's even a free demo software version for kids.

No matter who plays it, Shut the Box is a game worth knowing. There's enough depth to make the game worthy of mathematical analysis (read Durango Bill's Shut The Box Analysis for a complete description of the game, its strategies, and its inherent mathematical properties), and enough plain luck to keep the game fun.

You can play the game online for the cost of a couple pop-ups.

Playing With Time - from the sublime to the well-nigh ridiculous

Click on this girl's face and watch her age 50 years in 20 seconds. Presurfer led me to this rather remarkable site called "Playing with Time." What I found myself rather remarking about was how I hadn't, until this site, quite realized that all this high-speed-slow-to-stop-motion time-lapse stuff was exactly that - playing with time. Go to their Gallery for an inspiring collection of QuickTime clips, ranging in span from 20 microseconds to 240 million years.

For a sublime perspective on time-shifting, take a look at the Lunar and Planetary Observation and CCD Imaging site. For yet further sublimity, with a definite touch of humor, try the Bio-Perceptitorium where you'll find the much-vaunted, and somewhat yucky Sea Slug movie. And then, for a taste of the ridiculous, try these time-lapse road-trip videos from Speedy Cam

You can purchase clips for your own library from Time-Lapse.com. Many of these are commercial grade, and, even if you're not in the market, it's worth the browse.

The Play of Art and vice versa

As this search for signs of fun progresses, I seem to be including more and more of the arts. So far, two Major FUN Awards have been given to artists: one to a poet, the other to an event artist.

Recently, thanks again to the vigilance of Ultimate Insult for catching signs of the art of play and play of art on the web, I found Yellow Tail - a simple, unique, animated drawing toy that borders on genuinely interactive art. This turns out to be one of many "works by golan levin and collaborators" on a site called "Flong." Among their many projects, I happened to catch this RE:Mark & Hidden Worlds of Noise and Voice - an interactive art exhibit that looks like what one may clearly call "fun." See this video for further evidence.

Somewhere along the same continuum is this exceptional collection of games from Orisinal. Maybe not so artsy-playsy, maybe more basically fun-and-gamesy, but even more to be admired for their aesthetically delicious environments - blending subtle colors, sounds, and music with honest humor. I guess for many these games are simply too much fun to be called "art." Which is a loss for the art world.

Playfulness and invention as aspects of mathematical thought

I serendipped my way to these "Notes from a session discussing Mathematical Thinking: October 16th 2002," sponsored by the University of Oxford Center for Mathematics Education Research. It's been a long time (maybe 35 years) since I thought about math education. Probably because when I last did, I found that my uses of games and play resulted in massive parental angst. I may have been helping kids develop a love for mathematical thinking, but I was doing them a disservice by not focusing their love on the SATs. So the following extract comes as a much-welcome, though somewhat belated balm to my faith in the fun/learning connection.

A treatment of imagination as an integral component of thought, rather than as a separate type of thinking, led us to see playfulness and invention as aspects of mathematical thought. Indeed, these aspects help us avoid reducing thinking to a list of things one must show the teacher one can do. Freedom to play, to look for many possible methods and answers, may be hard to use at first if students have not been used to it. Sometimes they react by playing well outside normal mathematical parameters. But we retain the word ‘play’ to indicate this creative dimension to mathematics, believing it to be an important approach to learning and working. We did several exercises to explore the effects of being asked to ‘imagine’ and ‘visualise’. (One exercise was to imagine identical twins imitating each other.) From these we found that the ways in which we imagine are very varied, and the norms we choose to impose on our imaginations come not only from knowledge and intellect but from emotional and social directions as well.

"Playfulness and inventions as components of mathematical thought." Yeah, baby.

Muggins

They call Muggins "aerobics for the mind." Because you might need to multiply and divide as well as add and subtract, they call it a math game. And, yes, it's been reportedly a huge success in math classes. As they say on the home page, it's a game "for those who love math or those who hate math, those who are math challenged and those who are math geniuses, these games are guaranteed to challenge, build math and thinking skills, and increase self-confidence." But that's no reason for you to think of Muggins as anything other than pure fun.

Muggins can be played by up to four players or teams. Three dice are thrown. Players try to combine the dice through arithmetic operations so as to cover one of the 36 open scoring spaces on the board. You get a higher score if you have covered two or more adjacent spaces. And, if you throw a triple, you get the added, and deliciously vindictive opportunity, to remove your opponents' markers.

If you think you don't have a move (you can't figure out a combination of the dice that will result in one of the available spaces), you pass. If someone else can figure out how to use your dice to make a legal move, that person can call "muggins" and take that move for his or her own (hence, the name of the game - Muggins - as used in the game of Cribbage for a similar situation).

And, for those seeking the more, shall we say "participative" form of Muggins, we introduce the true meaning of Muggins, as found on Dictionary.com: \Mug"gins\, v. t. In certain games, to score against, or take an advantage over (an opponent), as for an error, announcing the act by saying ``muggins.'' In other words, when you find yourself not able to calculate your best move fast enough, just put your marker anywhere and see if anyone Muggins you. Of course you risk losing yet another marker, but, in the heat of the game, you can never tell what a well-timed bluff will get you.

The set (a wooden board, enough marbles for four players, three dice) also includes three polyhedral (12-sided) dice used in Supermuggins and, oddly enough, Muggins, Jr.

Yes, Muggins is just about your ideal educational game. Yes, you exercise arithmetic and algebraic skills. But it's the game part, even more than the educational part that makes Muggins so clearly Major-FUN-Award-worthy. It's a fun, challenging, exciting game for 1-4 players, or teams, that can be played by kids 12-up (younger, still, if using the Muggins, Jr. variation). The fact that it's educational is mere gilding on this highly playable lily of a game.

What is Playful?

Among the many delightful resources found on the website of the Child Research Net is this collection of responses from an Interview Project on "what is playful?" Here's a sample:

"When there are playful people around me, I feel playful. Playful is infectious. And, it is necessary to work on the playful nature that you have so you can react to a playfulness of other people. And, to make other people feel playful, you have to take the initiative in feeling playful yourself."

"To enjoy making others happy. To enjoy being made happy by others. It can be a smile during busy hours at work, a nice surprise in the mail, or just going starting a conversation with people around you. I think you need to be comfortable with yourself (without serious concerns, feeling low, etc) in order to think about wanting to make others happy, so playfulness is something that is very important to yourself as well as others!"

"To be free in soul and action. To have the heart to laugh at yourself. That's playfulness."


The Child Research Net is "...a non-profit, internet-based child research institute and operated as an activity of the Fukutake Education Foundation under the auspices of Benesse Corporation in Japan" is the first research-centered organization I've found that takes itself lightly enough to go beyond the restrictions of carefully footnoted, scholar-appropriate scientific methodology, and dive headlong into collecting source material, from children and from adults who play with children. Though there is an ample supply of scholarly papers and the majority of the advisory board members are highly-accredited and accomplished academics, the focus is clearly on the pragmatics of play. The result is a remarkably powerful, practical, and inspiring collection of articles, grounded in experience, rather than ground down by experiment.

Everything I read in this collection is further evidence of an organization whose hearts and minds are devoted to play. I found the following definition of "What is Playful" in a collection of articles describing their Playful Learning project.

Children possess programs to fully use the capabilities of the mind and body. CRN's starting point is the concept that playfulness starts these programs in operation. When children are absorbed in play, filled with excitement and a joie de vivre, the programs of the mind and body work at full capacity. We also define the "playful spirit" as a certain feeling or emotion, the thoughts, curiosity and inquiring mind that arise when an individual is absorbed in something. The definition of "playful spirit" also includes sympathy for others, positive attitudes, and a concern for people and things. In other words, a playful spirit encourages children's spontaneous learning.

From the perspective of one who cares about children, and the quality of life, CRN offers us all a much-needed source of sanity and reassurance.

Blast It!

The first thing you need to know about Blast It! is that it's not Boggle. It looks like Boggle. It's got letter cubes (though not as many). And you do shake them up. And you do try to use them to spell as many words as possible before time's up. And you do write those as-many-words-as-possible on a sheet of paper in strained silence. But, it's not. Boggle, that is.

Blast It! is very much its own game. And it's very much fun for anybody who can spell and write.

There are five letter cubes and a deck of 55 question cards. Question cards like: "What do you wish to get as a present?" and "Which vegetable would you not plant in your garden?"

You should already be getting a sense of what makes this game unique. You're not looking for any old word. You're looking for words that kinda more or less answer the question. Words that use at least one of the letters that appear on the letter cubes. And, the more letters used consecutively, the higher your score. Suppose, for example, you're answering the "present" question. And the letters you get are A G V O and C. So, you write down, maybe: APPLES, GEMS, GLOVES, CAT. And, since CAT has both C and A, consecutively, it's worth 5 points, so you write down every CAT word you can think of that is remotely connected to the question, like: CATHEDRAL (a fine present that would be) CATALOGUE (could be fun) but perhaps not CAVERN, though, arguably, maybe. Which is another fun thing about this game - the arguability of it all.

Finally, the timer, which is electronic (you need two "AA" batteries), and kinda random, and loudly ticking, and integrated into the base of the dome, in which are sealed the letter dice, so nothing gets lost. All of which adds to the elegance and playability of this unique, and not really Boggle-like, word game, for up to 8 players, or more, depending on your patience.

Blast It! is the second Piatnik game to receive the Major FUN Award, and is available from Biffleys

Valentine to a Nurse

I had to have an eye operation last week.

As operations go, this was probably one of the easiest operations there is. Only about ten minutes of surgery. Minimal discomfort.

One thing about it that made me particularly, shall we say, anxious, was that I would have to be awake during the operation.

Now, I realized that this anxiety was actually silly. Being put to sleep for an operation is actually far more dangerous. Nonetheless, Silly was running conceptually amuck, and Serious had to do a lot of inner hand-holding.

Serious wasn't the only one doing hand-holding. One of the nurses was also holding my hand, from the time I was wheeled into the Operating Room, to the time I was wheeled out. That, in fact, was her only responsibility. And it was a deeply comforting, compassionately discharged responsibility. She didn't need to talk. Since one of my eyes was covered and the other being operated on, we couldn't see each other. But the contact was connection enough.

Those ten minutes held some big lessons for me: I learned a little more about the relationship between Serious and Silly, and how useful a friend Serious can be. I learned a lot more about the medical profession.

Despite all its technology and scientific method, a simple touch is as integral to the healing experience as the most sophisticated of machine. And it was in the hands of a nurse, the lowest paid, the least respected members of the medical establishment, that my soul found comfort and my spirit the strength to endure.

Deep Fun - A Compendium of YRUU Games

When I first found out that someone had published something called "Deep Fun" I was nigh unto scandalized. To think that my hard-won URL and expensively trademarked conceptual framework was, without my permission or knowledge aforehand, usurped, appropriated, accroached and verily infringed upon - why, it raised my proprietary hackles to their full hackle-length.

I was somewhere between miffed and mollified to discover that it was a publication of the Young Religious Unitarian Universalists. And then I read it. Deep Fun - A Compendium of YRUU Games and Activities - available in hardcopy for a mere $5.00 - is a wonderful collection of games that masterfully expresses the spirit of what I call "Loving Fun."

For example, editor Sienna Baskin introduces the collection with these words: "As Young Religious Unitarian Universalists, we develop our own culture. Games have always been an important part of that culture. We play games in youth group meetings, at conferences, during worships, or to break up a business plenary session. Although games are a wonderful way to socialize, they can also fulfill other goals of successful YRUU programming. They can be a vehicle for learning, leadership, worship, and even social action. Games remind us that the spirit of fun can permeate everything we do, and that fun can be full of meaning."

And, for a taste of the spirit of this collection, here's just one of many "mingling games:"

Syllable Clap:

Parameters: 40 to 60 people

Have each member of the group clap out a beat corresponding to the number of syllables in their first name. Marc claps once. Alison claps three times. Then have people with the same number of syllables in their names find each other without speaking, by walking around the room clapping out their names. Once the group is divided into subgroups, have them introduce themselves to each other and then to the rest of the group.

Variation: Shake hands in a rhythm corresponding to the number of syllables in your name.


And here, a sample "active game."

Calvin Ball

Parameters: 15 to 40 people and a large field

Materials: a beach ball, frisbee, baseball and bat, tennis racket and ball, or whatever assorted sports equipment you can find.

This game has a few more rules than the one Calvin and Hobbies play, but it can be just as open to improvisation. Divide the group into 2 equal teams, called the Batters and the Fielders, and have each team stand in a loose circle opposite the other. Elect a referee to stop anything dangerous and to call for the teams to switch. When teams switch, the new Batters can make up new rules, but here are some to start: Fielders choose a pitcher, who can choose which item he is going to throw. Batters are up to “bat” (or catch and throw) one at a time. When the ball is hit, the batter must run around the entire group of Batters, while the pitcher retrieves the ball and it is passed through the legs of the entire group of Fielders. The last fielder to receive the ball holds it up and yells “Stop!” to the batter. The Batters goal is to accumulate as many complete “runs” as possible.


In sum, Deep Fun - A Compendium of YRUU Games is not an infringement, but a welcome expression of the spirit of Deep FUN that I hope to accomplish through my work (and play).

iMAgiNiff

Buffalo Games' iMAgiNiff wins this week's Major FUN Award for giving people a fun way to get personal, and interpersonal. It asks people to reveal what they think about each other in a way that, under other circumstances would border on intimidating, but the spirit and art of the game keeps it safely on this side of genuine hilarity.

There are a couple hundred Question Cards. Each card asks questions like: "If_____had to sing at a karaoke bar, which song would he/she be?" And then goes on to list six choices: "Blue Suede Shoes," "New York, New York," "Stand By Your Man," "Figaro" "I Honestly Love You" or "Stairway to Heaven." Imagine that you are the blank that everyone else is filling in. Now, ask yourself, could you get insulted if everyone thought that you would be any one of those?

In my official role as Defender of the Playful, that was my biggest concern with the whole premise of this game. And I'm glad to report that even the most sensitive among the eight of us found the game to be genuine, full-bodied fun, all the way through. The answers are ambiguous enough so that no one can really take them really personally. The scoring system (you get points if you vote according to the majority) also keeps the game on the happy side of tense. Which person gets to be subject of the each round is determined purely by chance. Finally, the names with which the blanks get filled really don't have to have anything to do with the people playing. They can be names of politicians or neighbors and the game is still as involving, and, psychologically, even safer.

We liked how the designers used a write-on, wipe-off marker to allow players to fill the board with whatever names they wanted to use for the game. It gave us a feeling that we were customizing the board, just for each other. Which added to the sense of ownership and fun. To vote, players pick a numbered card, which they put face down on the table, and then, simultaneously, reveal. This makes the game that much more exciting. Also, since there's always a minority, there's always something to argue about, and, since the arguments are about things that are clearly ridiculous - like why someone is more like Berlin than Mexico City - it all seems to further the fun.

Yes, score is kept. Winning players get to progress along a spiral track. But, as in all Major FUN Award-winning games, winning isn't really the point. Playing is.

For 3-8 players, 12 and up.

More evidence of playfulness on the web


Milk and Cookies, first in my "Blogs o'Fun," has a classification for certain forms of web-playfulness it calls "Time Wasters." "Time Wasters, in deed," I say in a tone of scoffish irony, I find this collection to be one of the most significant testimonials to the power of the Internet as a vehicle for nurturing new forms of playfulness.

Witness Kaleidoscope, a virtual, design-your-own kaleidoscope. There's no point to it (which, as you can see from my collection of "pointless games," is one of my central criteria for optimizing playfulness). But there's surprise and beauty available with almost every click and drag.

And then there's the Letter Project, similar in playful purposelessness (cf. "The Purpose of Purposelessness" in my "The Well-Played Game") to the Human Clock. The Human Clock displays the time with pictures of people-holding-numbers. With the Letter Project, you type in a word or phrase and see it displayed in a montage of images of people-holding-letters.

Not to mention the fine art of Money Oragami or the meditative wonders available to those who pop the Perpetual Bubblewrap. (Oops. Apparently, I did mention them.)

These things are silly, useless, but, in my view, not at all what I'd call "time-wasters." Rather, they are most accurately and inexplicably described as belonging to that special realm of human activities that we most clearly, consistently, and not necessarily rationally call "fun."

PickleBall

PickleBall is described as "a combination of Ping-Pong, tennis, and badminton." Invented in 1965 by U.S. Congressman Joel Pritchard, William Bell, and Barney McCallum, who wanted to create a "sport for the entire family." Apparently, they've succeeded. According to their website, PickleBall is played "...in thousands of school P.E. programs, parks and recreation centers, correctional facilities, camps, YMCA's and retirement communities."

Like the game of Tchoukball, PickleBall is designed to keep everyone in play. There's a no-volley zone close to the net to prevent overcompetitive players from smashing their way to one-sidedness. The serve is underhanded, and the ball must bounce once before being returned. As stated on the site: "Pickleball is a game of shot placement and patience, not brute power or strength." Once the ball has hit the ground on both sides of the net, the volley can continue as in badminton, with the ball constantly in the air. In fact, the size of the PickleBall court is the same as that of badminton - which, in further fact, is yet another game designed to keep more people in play.

Official PickleBall paddles are similar to those used in the playworthy game of Paddleball. Official PickleBall balls look remarkably like the much beloved Wiffle Ball.

The smaller court combined with the slower action of the Wiffle Ball significantly reduce the amount of running required, making the game more attractive to people who play for fun and family togetherness. If I had my say, I'd eliminate competition all together and play an "everlasting" variation where the only goal is to volley forever.

Pass the Bomb

Pass the Bomb is a fast-paced word game for two or more players 12 and over (a junior version is available for kids 5 and up...read on).

The "bomb" is an electronic, clock-battery-included, cartoonish-bomb-with-fuse-shaped timer that goes off randomly between 10 and 60 seconds after it is activated. I'm mentioning the bomb first because it is the first thing you see when you open the box, and it's fun all by itself. Especially the random going-off part.

However, the genius of the game is, as they say, in the cards. There are 110 of them. Printed on both sides. Each has two or a few letters on it. The game: start the bomb, turn the first card over, say a word that ends with (or starts, or contains) those letters. Then pass the bomb to the next player. Who must say a different word. Etc., etc., until the bomb goes off (through, conceivably, no fault of the player, since it's random).

Whether the letters have to be in the beginning end or middle of a word is determined by the throw of a die, which, because this game is international, is graphic. And, yes, the graphics aren't that immediately obvious. But here I niggle.

The game is engaging and elegant. The losing player keeps the card, so the cards are used to keep score. The game is fast, so everyone stays involved. The challenge steadily increases as time passes and the obvious solutions get used up, so the tension increases. The unpredictable timer, and the brevity of the time allowed are just the right touches to keep the game fun.

As for the Junior version - same bomb, but different cards, and challenge. The card set is a collection of cartoon drawings depicting different scenes. Players then have to name things that might belong in that scene. It turns out that this is easily as fun as the word game. Even if you don't have kids, Pass the Bomb Junior is most funworthy in deed.

Alquerque, Fanorana, Checkers and beyond

Alquerque is one of the earliest forms of checkers, reportedly found in Egypt as early as 600 BC. We know the rules of Alquerque, and it's connection to checkers, by way of the "Alfonso X Manuscript" written between 1251 - 1282, almost two thousand years since its earliest appearance. There are more than a few noticeable differences between Alquerque and what we have come to know as checkers (or draughts). But the similarities are equally evident: each player has 12 pieces, pieces move like "kings" in checkers (only in Alquerque they move along any line instead of only diagonally), they "jump" or capture an opponent's piece whenever one is immediately adjacent and there's an empty space behind. When a jump is available it has to be taken. Multiple jumps are allowed (mandated, actually). The game ends when a player is either out of moves or pieces.

It's an interesting enough game. You can even play it online, if you are so moved, so to speak. Or, you can use this diagram, 12 pennies and 12 dimes to make your own. It's equally instructive to contemplate the continuum, from Alquerque to checkers (or "draughts"). Though the same truth may be expressed in both games, it can take many forms, and each form can prove as engaging as the original.

Fact is, you can't really tell what a game is just by looking at the board. Case in point: Fanorana, an equally fascinating strategy game originating in 17th century Madagascar, that looks remarkably similar to Alquerque, until you actually read the rules.

"If a piece moves towards an opposing piece, so that after it has moved it is adjacent to the opposing piece, then that piece is captured by approach. Any other enemy pieces in a continuous line with the captured piece, in the direction of movement of the attacker, are also captured. This does not apply to pieces further away on the same line separated by spaces or by hostile pieces. If a piece which is adjacent to an enemy piece moves in the direction directly away from that piece, then the piece is captured by withdrawal. Any other enemy pieces in a continuous line with the captured piece, in the direction the attacker is moving from, are also captured. This does not apply to pieces further away on the same line separated by spaces or by hostile pieces." I found this Java version of the game, for those seeking more or less immediate satisfaction (you'll need a human opponent).

What makes Alquerque especially interesting to me is that it is yet further evidence of the power of games to transcend change in culture and technology, government and ethnicity, race and creed - that games are a kind of literature, expressing an idea that can be handed down, refined, transformed, generation to generation, for eons. An idea that can even evolve into related, but remarkably distinct forms. An idea that can find no better or clearer expression than in play.

Social Intelligence

Though I didn't actually realize it at the time, when I published my Interplay Curriculum - 32 years ago! - I was engaged in a revolutionary act. I was trying to bring the social aspect of human development into the core curriculum. I saw, from playing games with kids, that they were developing a skill that: 1) had nothing to do with the "three Rs" and 2) had everything to do with their potential for success in this world. Apparently, this notion is still ahead of its time. The "back to basics" movement is more basic than ever. There are fewer fewer classes in the arts. Even recess is being eliminated.

And yet, I am happy to discover that there's real hope for the emergence of some renewed awarenss of the importance of games and stuff. There's a new concept emerging in the social, psychological and computer sciences that is remarkably descriptive of what those kids and I were playing with. It's called "Social Intelligence."

Take a look at Tony Buzan's e-book, The Power of Social Intelligence and this excerpt:

"Socially Intelligent people have to use all of the power of their own brains and bodies to communicate with and to 'read' others. They have to acquire attitudes that encourage others to grow, create, communicate and befriend, and they have to know both how to make and to keep friends!

This massively important intelligence also involves being able to negotiate, as a skilled canoeist does, the rapids of conflict and negotiation situations, mistakes and endings."

Yup, that sums it up nicely, what I marveled at, day after day, playing with kids.

The concept of Social Intelligence has even reached the computer world. There's going to be a conference on Social Intelligence Design this very July at the Royal Holloway University of London. A quote from their announcement: "We view Social Intelligence (SI) is the ability for people to relate to others, understand them, and interact effectively with them."

The focus of the conference is technology, not sociology. It's about technologies that help people:
- interact with technology in a more human friendly manner,
- develop personal relationships with others in every discipline of social life and
- improve interpersonal communication and professional performance.


As the idea of social intelligence becomes more widely embraced by social science and technology, perhaps there is real hope for it finally becoming acknowledged by education as well.

Public Art - Public Play

Today's Major FUN Award goes to Rafael Lozano-Hemmer for his "Relational Architecture" projects, as exemplified by his body movies piece - (this link takes you to a very large quicktime movie, requiring a fast connection and great patience - all well worth the effort).

In this remarkable work of art, Lozano-Hemmer invites people to play via complex and subtle uses of light and technology. I quote from his website:

Body Movies transforms public space with 400 to 1,800 square metres of interactive projections. Thousands of photo portraits taken on the streets of the cities where the project is exhibited are shown using robotically controlled projectors. However, the portraits only appear inside the projected shadows of local passers-by, whose silhouettes measure between 2 to 25 metres high, depending on how far people were from the powerful light sources placed on the floor of the square. A custom-made computer vision tracking system triggers new portraits as old ones are revealed.

Body Movies effectively transforms a public square into a public playground, where strangers play with light, shadow, and each other. It illustrates every principle I can think of that characterizes an effective play environment: It supports almost any degree of involvement. Players can choose to ignore it completely. Players can watch other players at play. Players can dip into and out of it at will. Players can get silly and stay safe, get serious and take risks, become fascinated and fascinating, play alone or in groups. Players can spend hours figuring out how to make it do things.

Lazano-Hemmer came to my attention via an email I received from Madamjujujive, aka Julie Ferguson, a contributor to two of my "Blogs o'Fun" - Metafilter and Everlasting Blort. She knew that I'd be at least as excited as she was about her discovery of the art of as described in this discussion on MetaFilter. I mention this by way of thanks, to Madamjuvujive, Rolo, who passed the lilnk on to the MetaFilter community, and to the many wonders and powers of we who blog.

Want to see more of Lazano-Hemmer? He recommends HUMO: A mobile platform for the rapid deployment of huge images and his "ambitious net project" Vectorial Elevation.

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