Remembering Bernie De Koven — Sage Of The Gospel Of Play
In 2017, a week before Passover, I heard the news that Bernie De Koven was dying of cancer. I wanted to do something, for Bernie, for myself, and for others who might take inspiration from his life journey. The interview that followed turned into the article below, published on December 20, 2017. Now, in 2018, once again a week before Passover, I heard the news: Bernie died on March 24th. I can no longer wish him a hag same’ach, but I’ll always hold close how he replied last year, when I last had the chance: “a kiss on your keppe,” he told me, and “May your charoset be sweet and all your questions answered.”
Bernie De Koven is a beloved inspiration to generations of game players and designers. For almost 50 years, his Jewish roots have motivated him to follow in the footsteps of his father and become a rabbi of sorts, a “shaman of play” for the parks, and the streets, and the ballfields, leading his “congregation” to spiritual discovery through what he would term the universal Torah of play. De Koven’s Jewish past, however, is far from simple, and his future is in doubt: Earlier this year, De Koven notified his blog followers that he has terminal cancer and only about one year left to live. And he wants only one thing from us: to spread the joy of play.
If you don’t know Bernie (who’d insist you use his first name), his infectiously playful personality shines through on any Google Images search. He’s always smiling or acting goofy. He wears Seussian hats or patchwork pants, and is often seen in play or in deep conversation (about the nature of play). That’s what he likes most: playing, and talking about playing.
I first encountered Bernie’s work in the 1970s, in gym class and summer camp, where we played under giant parachutes and atop massive earth balls, part of the New Games Movement that transformed physical education around the country.
In their seminal game design textbook, “Rules of Play,” Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen describe the New Games Movement, which De Koven co-directed, as an “outgrowth of 1960s San Francisco counterculture” that “utilized play to comment on and experiment with new conceptions of culture and community.” NGM held massive public play events that thousands attended, exploding the conventions of play and gaming. The New Games Movement sought to create positive social change by designing play experiences that embodied its utopian ideal.
Take, for example, the game “Catch the Dragon’s Tail.” Get a group of people in a conga line, each person with hands on the waist of the person in front of him. The last person, the tail, puts a handkerchief in her belt while the first person, the head, tries to snatch it. The head and tail are clearly in competition, but what about everyone in between? The game challenges players to experience what happens when the line between competition and cooperation gets blurred.
Much of the credit to the spread of NGM came through its two books, the eponymously named “The New Games Book” and its sequel, “More New Games.” It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized these books were more than just a collection of games. Between many of the entries were short essays on play. One, called “Creating the Play Community,” would lead to a full book called “The Well-Played Game.” De Koven wrote both the essay and the book.
Two decades later, Bernie’s essay and book were rediscovered by a new generation of game designers. In the 1990s, Zimmerman was tasked with designing New York University’s new game design course. Searching the campus library for any books related to the word “game” turned up a treasure trove of texts. “The Well-Played Game” was one of them. Bernie’s philosophical musings about games and play are quoted extensively throughout Zimmerman and Salen’s 600-page textbook.
Back in 2004, Tracy Fullerton, an experimental game designer and director of the USC Games Program in Los Angeles, taught the school’s first class on critical game theory. She and her students decided to put on their own New Games Day— Bernie joined them.
“It was an amazing visit,” Fullerton told me by email, “which changed the lives of everyone who was there.”
“One of the best things that Bernie teaches,” Fullerton said, “is the importance of permission when it comes to play. For adults, especially, the permission to play, and sometimes, for some people, the permission not to play. This sense of respect for the individual’s state of mind when they approach a playful opportunity has become central to the way I think about designing games. I want players to feel like they are engaging because they want to, that they are valued and respected by whatever system the game is imposing on them, and that within that system they must value and respect the other participants. I try to make games that have this kind of sensibility at their core, and I owe a lot of that to Bernie.”
Owen Gottlieb is an ordained rabbi who designs Jewish games for learning. He’s also a professor at Rochester Institute of Technology, where he researches games and learning. Gottlieb teaches “The Well-Played Game” in his classes to address such topics as the importance of “modding,” or being playful, or considering alternate ways to think about winning. “I think his work is perhaps most important to me in terms of his articulation of the notion of wanting to ‘volley forever,’” as in a game of Ping-Pong, Gottlieb told me. He recounts an anecdote Bernie shared, about a game of musical chairs in which a boy decided to carry a chair with him instead of scrambling to find a seat. The other players found this funny and decided to do the same: “The boy ‘broke’ the rules, but actually there was consent and the boy, in effect, changed the rules, and expanded the game and the play experience,” said Gottlieb.
“The desire to keep the volley in the air,” to keep playing and bring along everyone else, “those are deeply embedded in Jewish tradition,” Gottlieb told me, referring to both midrash, and hevruta, or friendship, study, “and so De Koven’s work speaks to me both as a game designer and teacher, and also as a rabbi.”
“We can think of a game as a context where we get to know each other and ourselves in a spiritual sense,” Zimmerman told me.
According to Zimmerman, Bernie teaches us that games are not a set of authoritarian rules but more like a social contract. And if everyone agrees to play well together, games become “a blueprint for a certain kind of thinking about society, about how you relate to other people, or might change yourself or change your community.” In this context, games are a thing to shape meaning, and what Bernie does is empower us to be flexible and pliant, to see games as not something just to play but also to play with, to change, together, to keep the game going. “That’s a deeply profound set of ideas,” Zimmerman said, “that gets at the essential mysteries of the universe: who we are, how does meaning happen, [and] how do we relate to the physical and cultural structures of the world.”
When I read Bernie’s post about his illness, I reached out to him right away, and asked if he wanted to talk with me about the Jewish roots of his work. I asked if he could recommend a game for us to play, one that would set the right tone.
“Since it’s you and me doing this,” he said to me from his home in Indianapolis, “I would like to do the ‘Out Blessing Game.’ Because of our shared ethnic predilection, we understand about blessings. It’s a competitive game, and I will start by blessing you with something. You might say something like, ‘May the fruits of your labor never spoil.’ And then I might respond by saying, ‘And may they all be delicious.’ And then you might respond by saying, ‘And may they always be ripe.’ And then I might say, ‘Yes, and may they be available in your local supermarkets.’ And then you respond by saying, ‘On sale!’”
“You see, we continue until you feel so blessed, you are speechless with gratitude.”
And so we played.
I asked Bernie how he was feeling.
“Spiritually, I’m very good,” he responded. “Spiritually, it’s just been an amazing time for me.” He said he was treating his death sentence as a new beginning, an opportunity to stop and think about all he’s achieved, to soak in all the appreciations pouring in since he wrote that post. It made him realize: “Well, this is really a good time to end my life. Just as my body started falling apart my life started falling together.”
Ralph De Koven, Bernie’s father, was trained at the Hebron Yeshiva in the 1920s and was very successful as a student. There he met Esther, who had recently immigrated from Bialystock, and she returned with him to Chicago, where they wed. “My mother was a kind of strong person but fragile emotionally,” Bernie said, the traumas of the Old World never having left her. Ralph De Koven was more of a scholar, but the only path he saw to support his family lay in leading a congregation.
The rabbinate was difficult for him. They moved constantly, De Koven unable to stay with a synagogue for more than a few years. Bernie and his sister were raised all over the country: Louisville, Kentucky; Pittsburgh; Coral Gables, Florida; Nebraska; Georgia, and finally Camden, New Jersey. One synagogue never paid his father, even after a whole year of work. Another time Ralph De Koven was fired when the president of the synagogue asked if his son, who hadn’t studied for his bar mitzvah, could instead read from a transliteration next to the Torah. “As long as I’m rabbi here,” Ralph De Koven said, “that’s not going to happen.” It happened.
The constant moving and economic insecurity were hard enough (“Our Pesach dishes were always in a barrel, because we could never have time to really truly unpack,” Bernie told me). But it was also difficult just being a rabbi’s son.
“You know,” Bernie said, giving an example, “you’re going on a date or something and somebody sees you doing something silly and it’s, ‘Oh it’s the rabbi’s son. What kind of rabbi is this to have a son who’s so undisciplined?’” He was also kept in check by his mother’s fears. “She didn’t want me to do anything physical,” he said. “She was always afraid I would try to climb a tree. She said: ‘Oh get down. You’re going to fall down. Don’t do that.’” Growing up, that was pretty much the message he received everywhere he went: Don’t do that.
While Bernie ended up hating organized religion — “I guess you can’t blame me, because it was really hurting us, you know?” — he always loved Judaism. “How can you not like Pirkei Avot?” he asked, rhetorically, about the ethical and moral principles of the Mishnah. He also related to Jewish humor, so effective in dealing with the angst of being a people without a land, and of being hated, for no reason.
As a young man, after he moved away from home, Bernie had a desire to spread a sort of universalized Judaism: “I think somewhere in my mind I decided that I wanted to create another form of Judaism that had nothing to do with God and everything to do with the human spirit, that incorporated a sense of joy and celebration.” He wrote a poem once that tried to sum up all this, which he paraphrased for me: “If I were the One and the One were me, what would I want for my creation? Would I want them to pray? Would I want them to ask forgiveness? No, I want them to appreciate what I did. That’s all. Just enjoy it. I made it for you. Enjoy it.”
Bernie earned his master’s degree in theater from Villanova University. His first major job was writing a theater curriculum for elementary school children in the Philadelphia public schools. “I didn’t want to teach them theater as much as discover what their theater was,” he said. “I was more into the soul and the heart of the child than I was into the education.” Bernie developed his curriculum by testing it with children in a beautiful, carpeted, theater-in-the-round; they seemed to really like it, but it became clear that they were only doing what they were told.
Once, in desperation, he asked a group of first-graders what they wanted to do, what they really wanted to do.
Play games, they said.
“Duck, Duck, Goose,” they told him.
So, he let them. He left the room, and when he came back they were still playing. Then he left again for three minutes, which felt like courting disaster, and returned. They were still playing. Still, he not could understand exactly what he was witnessing until one of the children invited him to join in.
The moment he took a seat he realized he wanted nothing more in the entire world than not to be chosen. The children would always catch him, he worried, or he might trip over one and be embarrassed. As these thoughts swam through his head he realized that was part of what this game was all about: “How do you look in such a way that you don’t get chosen? How do you manifest yourself so that this kid that probably doesn’t like you, who will do his best to run you down if he could, doesn’t notice you?” And if you’re the chooser, whom do you choose? The guy you want to be friends with or the schlubby guy who’d never catch you in a million years?
Bernie realized that games could be like poems, each one a beautiful crystallization of the complexity of human relationships. He was reminded of the philosophical writings of Martin Buber.
“Buber used his understanding of Judaism to talk about relationships, about the connection between people,” Bernie told me. “And that’s how I identified with Buber.” This potential for relating to others in ways in which there is no separation was exciting to Bernie. He came to call it “co-liberation,” where people can “free each other to a larger and larger kind of spiritual plane.”
Bernie began to see how games could transform strangers and erase social divisions. “You see it happening within minutes,” he said. “They’re falling over each other like puppies, they’re in each other’s arms and they’re including each other. [Their attitude is] ‘Let’s play together.’ We’ll figure out how to make it work for you, too.” This inclusiveness felt very familiar to Bernie, very Jewish.
Bernie approached games as if he were approaching a midrash or biblical exegesis. But instead of the unpacking of everything encapsulated in a story, Bernie began to explore games. “Play and playfulness became, basically, my Torah,” he told me. “The more I studied play, every single game was like another level of Parsha.”
At his first professional development training session for teachers, he started with a little game of Duck, Duck, Goose, and taught his students how to unpack it. He was beginning to lecture when one of the students interrupted. “I didn’t get my turn,” he complained.
“I’m trying to expound on the wisdom of [what they had just] experienced, the profundity of it, and all they wanted to do is play,” Bernie recalled. Forty-five minutes later, they were still playing.
That was when Bernie learned that adults are almost desperately in need of permission to play. “Kids are going to find the permission whether or not anybody gives it to them,” Bernie said, but adults needed something else. And he would give it to them, beginning with what grew into a 25-acre farm, called the Game Preserve, where adults could participate in a play community based on “loving fun” and “intimate play.”
Ninety minutes outside of Philadelphia, the Game Preserve was open to anyone. The barn had hundreds of games — wooden ones; electronic ones; a Ping-Pong table, air hockey, even one of the first “Pong” games. The games, however, were less to be played with than to provide an environment that would cue visitors into playing. The important games were the ones that took place outside.
Outside was where Bernie began a lifelong exploration of how you can change games, invite people to play them in different ways. And in this way, he began to see that he was becoming something of a rabbi — like his dad.
“Almost every game is like davening and if you get deep enough into it, you see something very much like God,” Bernie said. “If I was doing well it felt like the congregation had suddenly come into focus and was tuned to each other, leading their own davening.”
In the early 1970s, Bernie traveled to California to visit his sister and parents, who lived there at the time. Once he was there, he stumbled across a New Games event. “I immediately felt very excited about it, because they’re all just playing games,” he told me, “and mostly these games are the stupid, silly games I like.” When he spoke with the leaders he saw that they were pretty much doing what he had been doing at the Game Preserve but on a larger scale. “It was so transforming for people to do this. You come together, you’re total strangers, and within 15 minutes you feel like you’ve loved each other all your life.”
Bernie invited the organizers of the New Games Event back to his Game Preserve, at which point they decided to work together. As president of the New Games Foundation, Bernie helped to spread New Games around the country, and around the world. And, of course, to contribute his seminal essay to the first collection of “New Games,” then to write “The Well-Played Game,” capturing his “new liturgy” in print. “Judaism was a gift to me,” Bernie told me. “And I tried to accept it and take advantage.”
At the end of our interview, Bernie told me, “It’s an honor and a privilege to be able to share my heart with yours,” he said, and apologized for his tears. Then he asked, with a half wink, “Can I go away and cry someplace else?”
Meanwhile, Bernie remains active and continues to work on his legacy projects. One is a kick-starter campaign for a game called “A Game of Legacy.” Another is a documentary film project. And then there is the Expression Swing.
The Expression Swing is unlike anything you’ve seen. It’s actually two swings — one for a child, which faces one for a grown-up. “The parent gets to constantly shep naches,” Bernie said, meaning to beam with pride. “It’s just so hammidick,” so homey, “to see the big ‘whee’ on the kid’s face the whole time.” When he learned about the existence of this swing, he contacted the manufacturer, which donated two to his local park. Then, to pay for their installation, Bernie worked with a foundation that raises money for parks. He wanted it to serve as a memorial and, at the same time, to give him something to enjoy by his local park.
“I said I’d like to see it before I die,” he explained, then corrected himself. “No, I’d like to see it because I’m not going to see it after I die!”
“So, I’m going to write stuff up and I will send it to you,” I told Bernie, “and if you’re not dead yet, I’m hoping you’ll give me some perspective on if I got it right.”
“That’s the limit, by the way,” he told me with a laugh. “If I’m dead then I can’t help you anymore.” He knew full well that even when he leaves us, his legacy will continue to help generations to connect with one another through play, and to fill the world with love.
Barry Joseph is currently working on a book entitled “Seltzertopia: The Effervescent Age.” Follow him on Twitter, @Seltzertopia