Bernie DeKoven

Last month I had the privilege of presenting Bernie DeKoven with the inaugural Lifetime of Play award at the Games for Change festival. Here’s what I said…

It is my great honor today to give the very first Games for Change Lifetime of Play award to Bernie DeKoven. This award is very appropriately named, because Bernie has definitely dedicated his lifetime to playing games, making games, thinking about them, writing and teaching about them, changing them, intervening in the world to make it a better, more playful, more joyful place.

One of the things Bernie is best known for is his contributions to the New Games movement, one of whose goals was to improve the way games were used in schools to teach physical education. The goal was to make them less hostile and aggressive, more inclusive and collaborative and creative. So if your gym class wasn’t a torture chamber of toxic conflict you might have Bernie to thank for that.

Now, based on the New Games movement and its roots in 60’s counterculture, you might think that Bernie’s philosophy of games was some kind anything goes, hippy, let-it-all-hang-out approach, but he’s much too sneaky for that, much trickier. Bernie’s thinking about games is very subtle and nuanced and complex.

Let me give you an example. We read a chapter from Bernie’s amazing book The Well-Played Game last semester in my Intro to Game Studies Class. Here’s a short quote from it:

There is a very fine balance between play and game, between control and release, lightness and heaviness, concentration and spontaneity. The function of our play community is to maintain that balance, to negotiate between the game-as-it-is-being-played and the game-as-we-intend-it-to-be. It is for that reason that we maintain the community. On the one hand we have the the playing mind – innovative, magical, boundless. On the other is the gaming mind – concentrated, determined, intelligent. And on the hand that holds them both together we have the notion of playing well.

There’s a lot going on there. First of all, there’s the joke (because of course we only have two hands.) And that’s pure Bernie, to be making this deep and subtle point and to wrap it in a silly joke.

But the point he is making here really is deep and subtle. In this passage he deftly sidesteps the temptation to fall into a simple dichotomy of good and bad – liberating play versus constricting rules. Instead he highlights the way these forces are always in a dialectical tension.

And the way he resolves this tension is by reminding us that we play games for a purpose – for a particular kind of pleasure, beauty, and meaning – and looking at this purpose helps us understand what’s going on in a game, in this dance between games and players, rules and play. And the process of getting what we want out of this dance can be very challenging, it’s not always easy and automatic, it can require our attention and effort and focus. And – most importantly – this process is never done alone, we always do it in collaboration with other people.

And the thing that really blew my mind about this passage when I read it most recently was that this semester we were looking at all these famous game studies readings in the broader general context of 20th century intellectual thought. In particular we were examining the pervasive anxiety about the way the modern, industrial world has transformed human life – the way our traditional structures of meaning have been upended and dismantled and replaced by systems of logic and science and technology which have this immense instrumental power but which also enmesh us in vast systemic structures that seem cold, indifferent or even hostile to the human values that matter most to us as individuals. Which is, in some ways, the central theme of modernity.

And here in this passage we have a beautiful, hopeful way to think about this same dynamic – the dialectic of play and game is a lot like the dialectic of enlightenment. And if we want to think our way through this dilemma – which we desperately need to do – we can use the same approach, by thinking about the purpose of our lives, about meaning and pleasure and beauty, a purpose that we can never discover on our own but only in dialogue with other people.

In my mind Bernie is a kind of moralist – not in the negative sense of someone scolding you for your mistakes, but in the positive sense of someone who encourages you to try harder, inspires you to keep trying, trying not just to be good but to figure out what good is.

And this is why I think it’s so important to read and teach Bernie’s ideas, and why I’m so honored to present him with this award. I, too, want to leave the world a better place than when I found it, and Bernie shows us how it’s done.