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Bernie DeKoven's Occasional Newsletters


Bernie DeKoven's Occasional Newsletters

#35 - Rethinking Work

I've been preparing for a keynote I'll be giving at the Rethinking Education conference. My topic: "Rethinking Work" - something I've been thinking and rethinking about for most of my career.

My research brought me to this wonderful article by Mark Harris, called "The Benefits of Play." In it, he retells one of my favorite Csiksentmihalyi stories. And so I share it with you:
In Flow: Living at the Peak of Your Abilities (Mihaly) Csikszentmihalyi tells an interesting story about a sixty-year-old factory worker named Joe who lived on Chicago’s South Side. This man’s job entailed building railroad cars in a huge hangar. The conditions in the hangar were harsh, unprotected as it was from Chicago’s extremes of weather. Joe, who had only a fourth grade education, was also on the low rung of the factory.

Yet, as Csikszentmihalyi describes, Joe was one of the happiest people he had ever met. At work Joe was exactly where he wanted to be. He had no desire to be a foreman because he only wanted to fix the machinery. And fix the machinery he did. All of it. Better than anyone. In fact, the word around the plant was that if Joe retired, they might as well close up shop because he kept everything going.

But Joe’s passion for fixing things didn’t end at work. At home he had built a rock garden with an underground watering system. The garden also included a lighting system designed to produce rainbows. Thus, Joe and his wife could sit on their porch in the evenings surrounded by rainbows. Joe had made of his life one seamless expression of a particular passion; in this case, a passion for building and fixing things. He possessed the gift of being able to completely absorb himself in his interests. In his living and in his working, Csikszentmihalyi concludes, Joe was a man who knew how to play.

#34 - Bernie interviewed

Again with the Honor

Simages is a publication of NASAGA - the North American Simulation and Gaming Association, the very same North American Simulation and Gaming Association that honored me with the Ifill-Raynolds award for "outstanding achievements in the field of fun" that you see me holding so unbelievingly.

I am honored to tell you that I have been honored again. I was interviewed by Brian Remer, and the result closely approximates something one might call "cogent," if one were prone to using words of that ilk.

The interview, which is one among many fine articles, appears on page 12.

See also the excellent article by Dave Blum "Healthy Competition, an Oxymoron?"

(click to download pdf file)



Classes in Fun and Games

There's a lot to learn by playing games.

Once you begin to see the connections between theater and children's games, you begin to appreciate the wisdom contained in their playful dramas.

Gather a group of fellow grown-ups, especially playful grown-ups, play a little, talk a little, play a lot, talk a little more, like this:
Play a kids' game together. Talk a little about the theater of the game - the play and interplay of roles. And then about the "drama" of the game, as if the game were really some kind of theater piece - especially about the drama you and your friends experienced, personally. Not so much about your own, personal drama, but about about the drama of the game itself, about relationships, about the way of things in gameland.

As you play and talk, play and talk - some kind of healing, playful, loving wisdom starts manifesting itself. Because you are grown-ups playing these games. Because of the growing honesty and openness and depth of sharing grown-ups are capable of, just the act of playing each game reveals a depth, a drama more profound, more personal, a truth more mutual, more freeing.

"I have learned to see children's games as scripts," I write, "for a kind of children's cultural theater. I see them as collective dreams in which certain themes are being toyed with - investigated and manipulated for the sake of sheer catharsis or some future reintegration into a world view. They are reconstructions of relationships - simulations - (myths) - which are guided by individual players, instituted by the groups in which they are played or abstracted by the traditions of generations of children."

Play pointless games, for the fun of it. Talk about the games as if they were works of art. Talk about the fun of it, about the dance of it, about the theater of it, about the truth of it.

Let me know if you want help getting started.

#33 - Tabletop Skatesailing

As inventor of the Junkyard Sports TableTop Olympics and in my capacity as Bernie DeKoven, Junkmaster, I hereby award the creators of Tabletop Sailboarding permanent position in the Junkyard Sports Hall of Games .

California Parks and Recreation SocietyIt was at the CPRS 2008, Long Beach conference . And I was facilitating a bit of Tabletop Olympics amongst 5 tables of people who run parks and games all throughout California.

Many most remarkable Tabletop Olympics moments were shared. Many, many events of noteworthy notability and truly silly competitiveness. But there was this one table (I really like to learn your names if you were a tablemate) that happened to have, amongst its various shared personal treasures, some significant conference swag. Namely: a couple battery-operated hand-held fans, and some Lego pieces, and a fingerboard. And they put their stuff together to create a well, Tabletop Sailboard, I guess is what you'd call something made out of the fingerboard, a couple Lego pieces, a toothpick and a scrap of paper. And their Olympic Event was a hand-held-fan-powered Tabletop Sailboard event that proved to be at least as funny as it was demanding of Olympic-like concentration and skill.

Fingerboard SailingBehold, therefore you beholder, the Tabletop Sailboard, as fuzzily photographed on the right. Whilst beholding below the slightly less fuzzy image of a Tabletop Sailor in action.
man blowing fingerboard sailboard with handheld fan
Now and forevermore embedded in the virtual bedrock of Tabletop Olympics History.

#32 - The Sound and the Fury continue

The Sound and the Fury continues

I learned about The Sound and the Fury more than 30 years ago, when I first joined the New Games Foundation. Since then, I've been teaching it almost every chance I get. I have my reasons, in deed I do. It's a great way to get people involved, engaged, open, willing to play, exploring their own capacities for public silliness, and a perfect introduction to the idea of Coliberation.

I had the chance to teach the game again with some rather remarkable people in a rather remarkable place. The remarkable thing about these people was that they came from all over Israel because they value play and games and toys as tools for restoring health. The remarkable place was called "The Educational Centre for Games in Israel." And the remarkable woman who invited me to speak was its director, Helena Kling.

I first encountered Helena through her work with the International Toy Research Foundation. I found the following description of Helena and her center in an old issue of the ITRA newsletter
"Helena is by profession a psychologist specializing on Children’s Play in Hospita, and has for many years been working on projects about play. At present running the Educational Centre for Games in Israel, a non-profit association which she describes as follows:'We have a small building full of stuff, a veritable 'heritage centre' of play; there is 'hands on play' available; a work room where people can make games and toys; an exhibition room with miniature rooms and two model railways; a library that has become a centre of information on play; a large collection of Israeli board games and collection of collections and dolls and so much more that if I go on writing about it I am afraid of disbelief!'"
Such wonderful energy. Such a deep commitment to play. Such an honor. Such a fun person to play with.

Major Fun’s 2007 LIST OF FIVE: - the topmost majorfunnest makeyoulaughmost party games of the year, according the Major Fun Board of Impartial Game Ta

Major Fun’s 2007 List of Five: - the topmost majorfunnest makeyoulaughmost party games of the year, according the Major Fun Board of Impartial Game Tasters and Major Fun, of, him-actual-self.

What's Yours Like?

Today's conceptual gift is a remarkably simple, and deeply fun party game from Patch Products called "What's Yours Like?".

Pick a card. The card has a word on it. Show the card to everyone except the person guessing, who asks: "what's yours like." Take turns answering the question, being sure to be accurate, and subtle. Too clear a clue, and it will be guessed immediately. Too subtle, and, well, it's just not fair.

For example, suppose the card reads "washing machine." Legitimate answers to such an innocuous "what's yours like" question might be: "mine is white," "mine has a lot of knobs," "mine is noisy," etc. However, given the age and nature of the people playing, the answers could just as easily become rife with double meaning, and I mean rife, like, for example: "mine makes my underwear wet."

For us, that was really the charm of the game - how much of it was really up to us - to our collective cleverness and naughty nuanciness. Which means that the game will be different, depending on who's playing with whom. Different when playing with family than when playing with friends, different with teen-agers than with seniors. Which makes the game even that much more successful, and fascinating, and Major

There are 188 two-sided cards "guess word" cards. One side is recommended for older players because they might include things that kids don't have (in-laws, ulcers, jobs). There are two wipe-off clue boards with markers. The player in the "Hot Seat" uses one, writing down each clue as it is given (the fewer clues, the better the score). There are 95 Challenge cards. These cards allow the Hot Seated player to share the Hot Seat, as it were. That's when the other clue-writing board comes into play. Now the two players with the Hot Seats compete with each other, the first to guess the word correctly gets to take two points (points are bad) off her score.

What's Yours Like is a game for 4 or more players. With 4 players, it takes maybe 15 minutes for a round. Figure 3 rounds per game. The art of giving just the right response, of being clever, yet accurate, actually outweighs the accomplishment of guessing what was on the card. It's a game that will make you laugh, a lot, even without keeping score. Like I said, it's Major

Twisted Pairs

Twisted Pairs is a party game, indeed it is. You need at least 4 players. But it is clearly of the more-the-merrier type.

No, it's not charades. I can see why you'd think it's like charades - you're trying to get people to guess something that you know (hopefully). And you're performing, more or less. Except it's not acting. It's spelling. I mean, what you're doing is spelling out a word or several words. Not with words, naturally. But with your bodies. Did I say "bodies"? As in more than one body? Indeed I did. As in two bodies. So, to make, for example, the letter "H," you and your partner might be standing facing each other, holding your arms down at your sides, but bending your elbows and holding hands, like the cross-bar of the "H" - know what I mean?

Which, of course, is the big question for everyone else - that is, do they know what letter you mean. Because as soon as someone does know that letter, or thinks she knows that letter, or thinks she wants everyone else to think she knows that letter, she simply says something like "got it." And then the two letter-makers go on to make the next letter. Got it? And on and on until someone guesses correctly, getting, so to speak, the point. As for those who didn't "get it," well, they're still very much in the game, guessing away at the next and the next letters, hoping to fill in the blanks, in retrospect. And when someone correctly yells out the entire phrase, then there's the race to be first to shout out the bonus answer and get a richly deserved for bonus point. And so can the spellers.

No, of course not, it's definitely not Twister, though you and your partner are twisting around each other's bodies in some bizarre, Twister-like ways. And it clearly has nothing to do with Trivial Pursuit either, unless the spinner happens to land on the Trivia Question. We'll talk about that later. But there's no Pursuit going on. Unless you count the pursuit of laughterness, which is just about what this game is all about.

The stuff of the game includes a box of cards. There are two sets of cards - one for questions relating to Pre-1990, the other, Post- (a thoughtful distinction for the younger player, as well as for those with short attention spans). Each card contains one of 5 different categories, 4 of which result in a word or phrase that the Spellers attempt to convey, bodily, letter-by-letter. The categories ("famous character," "famous quote," "song title," "song lyric") help the rest of the party figure out what the spellers are spelling. The fifth category is the Trivia Question. Here, the spellers are given only the question, and must rely on their collective wit to spell out the correct answer (written on the back of the card). And, should their wit be not well informed, well, at least it was fun watching them try.

All of which to say there are many levels of mental and physical calisthenics, combined with ongoingly merry mayhem resulting in an experience that is clearly Major
FUN. Everyone involved, everyone thinking hard, everyone challenged at almost every level, and, surprisingly often, everyone laughing. Do you still need to know why we recommend this game with such enthusiasm? As the designers so pithily inquire: "do we have to spell it out for you?"


What's the name of that movie? The one with a Native American, or maybe a Hawaiian. By a river, I think, or a lake or a stream of some sort? Oh, you know what I mean. Yeah, that's it, Blue Crush. Wait, there's another movie, also with a river or lake or stream, and there was a wheelchair, I think, or was it a crutch, no, a cane. Wait, could that be Cane River?

Is part or all of this conversation at all familiar? Have you now or ever engaged someone in a similar movie-related dialogue? Well, then, Cineplexity is, without doubt, the very game you should be playing at this very moment, verily.

We were actually amazed at how fun this game turned out to be. Sure, it reminded us of the oft-touted, trend-setting, Major FUN-award-winning, Out of the Box PublishingApples to Apples. As well it might, considering that it is published by the aforementioned themselves. But, you see, it looks so Apples-to-Apples-like with its many cards and simple rules and calling out for 4 to 10 players and stuff, that you'd assume it's pretty much another of those many Apples to Apples variants, only about movies. But you'd be wrong. It's a different game. Completely. Sure, there's a judge (cleverly called the "director"). And the Director doesn't actually play, because s/he has to do the, um, judging. But that's it, Apples-to-Apples-similarity-wise.

In Apples to Apples everything is relative, the actual degree of relativity determined by the judge. In Cineplexity, you have to come up with a "real" answer - a verifiable, actual movie including, beyond doubt, the actual scene or props, or belonging to the specified genre, whose characters have the certifiable characteristics depicted by two, or perhaps three, of 504 the randomly drawn Cineplexity cards. And, amazingly, there seems always to be at least one movie that usually at least one person knows that matches precisely.

Oh, the intensity. And oh, oh, the brain-wracking. And, ah hah hah, the laughter.

Cineplexity. Surprisingly different. Not so surprisingly fun.

PDQ - a game for all reasons

PDQ is a sweet little word game - easy to learn, quick (Pretty Darn Quick) as a matter of fact - a game you can play by yourself or with maybe one, or several or even many other people?

You get a deck of 78 letter cards - nice looking, good stock, big, easy-to-read letter cards. You deal out three at a time, face-up. And then you see who can make a word first, or, in case of a tie, who can come up with a longer word. TLP, for example. Tulip. Sure. Or perhaps Platitude. Platitude. Of course. Longer than Tulip. (Did I mention that you can use the letters backwards or forwards?) (Did I also mention that you can use any number of letters before, between or after the three letters that you draw?) (And, of course, the letters have to be in the same order?)

Designed by Jay Thompson to be played by kids as well as adults (kids use just two cards at a time, word game experts can try playing with four), PDQ is pretty darn close to everything you would want in a word game - 5-30 minutes of engaging, challenging, and frequently laugh-producing fun.


Shakedown is a dexterity game of clearly Major FUN proportions. Basically, you're balancing playing-like cards on top of a narrow platform, adding new cards with every turn. But that's only basically.

Let's start at the bottom. The bottom of the "tower" upon which the cards are balanced. The same bottom where all the cards are stored, and from which all the cards are drawn during play. Let's also take a moment to look at the tower itself, how it twists, as if to make it even more challenging to figure out exactly where the actual center of gravity might be. A lovely thing, actually. Colorful. Self-storing enough that you could throw the box away and take the game with you to every party and family gathering within which you find yourself and others. Note, further, that the cards, which are drawn one at a time from the base of the tower, are drawn from the base of the tower. The base. Whereupon the tower stands. Imagine therefore the increasingly precarious conundrum thereby imposed every time you attempt to extricate a card from the aforementioned - having to perhaps lift the tower upon whose top all those other cards are so cunningly balanced so that you can get your card and take your turn.

Let's continue to the deck itself. Some cards have different values. Other cards ask you to perform acts of evermore significant challenge, like "play cards with non-dominant hand" or "hold tower and spin around" or perhaps "previous player - blow once from 5 feet." And now, at last, to the top, considerably smaller than the base, and yet whereupon the cards are to be placed (two corners of each card not touching any other card).

All in all, an elegant, almost self-explanatory, somewhat Jenga-like game, requiring steady-hands, a willingness to fail, and just enough luck to keep you from taking it seriously.

#31 - NASAGA, Junkfest, and Big Balls

Fun One,

In case you were wondering - yes, it's true, I'll be in Atlanta October 10-11, keynoting and teaching again at the NASAGA conference.

Here's a question: what would you call a game book that shows people how to play games that use those big
exercise balls and cage balls? Todd Strong and I have just signed with Human Kinetics to write that very book. The editor suggested: "The Big Activity Ball Games Book."

On November 3, Redondo Beach will be celebrating its First Annual Junkyard Sports® JunkFest.

I've found some really amazing artists who want to be part of this event, for example: The amazing junk car artist Classic Jasic, Junkyard Jonny and Landfill Lil from the Junkyard Symphony, and Bryan Au, author of Raw in Ten Minutes. Bryan and I are planning to introduce the world to the joys of Green Golf (or maybe Garbage Golf) - miniature golf courses made out of raw foods. Peas for golf balls, perhaps a carrot stick golf club....


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