Bernie DeKoven – A Remembrance

Bernie DeKoven has been a great friend and mentor to me over the past 7 almost 8 years. He sought me out after moving to Indianapolis to be closer to his daughter and grandkids. He was, to my great surprise, aware of The Spiel and wanted to encourage me to keep spreading my love of games and trying to get more people to see the freedom and power that can come from play.

This encouragement wasnt just an email pep talk though. He wanted to meet. He wanted to PLAY. So I drove down to Bernie’s house in Irvington with a big blue Ikea bag full of games that seemed like they might fit with Major Fun’s taste. And wow did they! We played for several hours without coming up for air.

It’s hard to describe our first play date other than to say it felt like we had met already. It felt like coming home. It felt like a reunion.

On one hand, our age gap was wide enough it was easy to think of this like a reunion of father and son. It’s certainly true I came to see Bernie as a true mentor and looked to him for guidance in so many aspects of life. An endlessly supportive champion of my creative and playful endeavors and a gut-check, a moral compass as I faced any number of challenges in life. And I did my level best to be the same for him in return. He joked that we basically adopted each other – and maybe the paperwork just didn’t go through until much later.

Not parents and children exactly. Not teachers and students.

Brothers. My brother, separated by time.

I feel that kinship and connection even now when Bernie has left us for the great unknown.

Bernie’s life was cut short by cancer mere weeks ago. I miss him fiercely

I cannot begin to count the ways Bernie’s joy and energy for life and all things playful has helped shape mine. He’s the wisest goofball I will ever know. He gave voice to so many things I knew in my gut about games and playfulness – to the point that we could finish each other’s sentences when we got going on the subject.

He would waggle his finger at me and say, “You get it. You get me.” And I felt the same about him.

The simple beautiful idea we both found like a shiny rock on the beach was this:

Playfulness is a posture, not a pose, a stance that you can take throughout the journey of your life. It’s a choice we can make – to be playful, to find joy in the everyday, in each other, in the community, in art and science, in the world in all its vast possibilities.

It can start at the game table for many – for any of us. Giving ourselves permission to play, to find that sense of freedom and joy – the feeling of challenge and risk and reward that can only come from a well played game.

That playful spirit is what brings us back to games as adults. Rediscovering something, unlocking something that was always there.

The leap that Bernie made and that I am still making is that you can take that spirit with you beyond the game. That any path you walk in life can be a playful path, your playful path.

You can choose to play – to have fun – to find joy and that choice is one that comes from a place of profound imagination, courage, and freedom.

It’s profound but it’s silly, too. Take a beat, find the fun when and where you can in life. Take life just serious enough that you figure out how to play with it. Choosing to play bucks so much of what we are taught to believe is important or vital to being successful. And yet, we think choosing to play brings us closer to contentment. Choosing to play makes us lighter, freer, brings us closer to knowing ourselves and others. Choosing to play allows us to savor those moments and memories with those we love.

I was honored to take up the mantle as Major Fun and add it to the The Spiel’s family. Two twin banners of fun and playfulness that I hope will make Bernie proud for years to come.

And I am humbled beyond measure to be the chronicler of Bernie’s life and the positive message he leaves for us to learn from. After his diagnosis, I dropped all non essential projects in order to  spend as much time as possible filming a documentary with Bernie. I built a set in the basement of his house over the month of April and we spent from May to September filming every chance time and his health allowed. We recorded the story of his life and the story of him discovering his playful path all entwined together. I have 700 minutes edited and 500 to go. There will be a 2 hour film shaped from this footage and the additional conversations will (eventually) be posted as well. There are three clips available to watch below for anyone who wants to see what’s coming and hear Bernie in his own words.

From writing an index of childhood playground games showing how they could be used as teaching tools, to running the Game Preserve a commune dedicated to play, to working with major toy and game companies as a lead designer to planning large scale game events for the New Games Foundation to designing video games and computer games to writing books on play and playfulness, leading seminars around the world, and becoming one of the first professional game reviewers, Bernie’s life has been filled with looking at the serious side of fun and the fun side of serious.

My goal, my hope is for many people, thousands of people around the world to get a chance to meet Bernie and hear his message through the film. A fitting legacy for an amazing person whose life in play can be a guidepost for us all.

Bernie is ahead of us now. On a new path.

He leaves us a world more joyful & fun for him being in it. Would that we all could say the same.

It’s up to us now to walk our own playful paths.

And maybe some day I’ll catch up with him. I sure hope I do.

Not just so I can say thanks for being such a fantastic friend and brother, but because I hope we get another chance to play.



About Stephen Conway

Currently serving as Major Fun. I'm also a writer, filmmaker, game designer, podcaster, and host of The Spiel (http://www.thespiel.net)

2 thoughts on “Bernie DeKoven – A Remembrance

  1. Thanks Steve. My newest relative, relatively speaking (as Blue would have said). I needed that cry just now. No, really I did. Thank you for showing him that play was here, too. In the middle of Indiana. He knew he would find it. I am so glad he found you.

    1. Thank you, Shael for letting me be a part of the family. I feel so lucky that Blue found me and to have had even a few short years together as friends and brothers.

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