RIP, Bernie.

I learned this weekend that Bernie Dekoven passed. For many in game studies, and in certain pockets of game design, this is incredibly sad news. Bernie was the last person standing, more or less, from the New Games movement. If you ever played with a parachute during gym class, pushed around one of those giant globes in the school yard, or played ultimate frisbee, then you’ve played a New Game. Founded by Pat Farrington, Stewart Brand, and George Leonard in the early 1970s, the New Games movement sought to replace competition with cooperation, and violence with play. It was (and still is) a radical proposition. Their legacy lives on in schoolyard play, and in the two books the foundation published under Bernie’s leadership: The New Games Book, and More New Games.

Long after the New Games Foundation had folded, Bernie was still out there exploring the potentials of play as both pleasure and radical politics. Though not as well-known as other foundational game studies texts, Bernie’s The Well-Played Game is one of the more important works out there. Bernie showed, rather than told, how play could be an anchoring concern of life. Bernie didn’t study games, he celebrated games and play as a life philosophy. Sometime in the early 00s, Bernie was discovered by game studies and game design by folks like Mary Flanagan, Tracy Fullerton, Celia Pearce, Katie Salen, and Eric Zimmerman. Bernie represented another way for games, one away from the bits and bytes of videogames, and one that saw games as catalysts for play, not media experiences. His influence runs deep, forming a bedrock of how games are taught at many of the more progressively-minded game programs around the world.

I have to admit when I first encountered Bernie and his ideas, I was quite skeptical. The Well-Played Game struck me as simultaneously too hippy-dippy and lacking a coherent conception of games. My eyebrow raised suspiciously at what I perceived as a goofiness to some of the writing, particularly around the fictional ping pong match toward the beginning of the book. Bernie recounts a ping pong play session with a friend much better than he. At first, it seemed like it was an exercise in frustration for both players. Instead of giving up, they looked for ways to create equality between them by handicapping the better player, by trying different ways to improve the lesser player’s skills, and so on. After a while, they found themselves absorbed in the play experience, thoroughly enjoying one another’s company, and completely losing track of time.

Beyond ping pong a a little bit on tic tac toe, Bernie didn’t actually seem to be talking about games at all in The Well-Played Game, instead demonstrating what I diagnosed as a serious case of silliness. At that time, I was more concerned with getting people to take games seriously. A big part of this was getting past games as “mere child’s play,” and so I avoided anything that made games seem trivial and childish. I eventually realized the issues were mine, not his; I just wasn’t able to understand what Bernie was up to, nor was I prepared to see a different way to approach play. I was wrapped up in my own baggage around games as an expressive form, and my punk rock dilettante disdain for sixties hippy aesthetics.

Thinking back on it, my path to understanding Bernie’s philosophy of play began at the only New Games workshop I participated in. Bernie keynoted the Digital Games Research Association’s 2009 conference, which was accompanied by a New Games play session. If I hadn’t been peer-pressured into participating, I’m not sure I would have done it—acting silly in a group setting is one of the last things I’m usually interested in. Despite my trepidation, I joined the group. It was a wonderful experience, with Bernie masterfully leading us through a series of short games. We all tried to communicate with the gestures of a giraffe, we tried to run with our knees pressed together, we whispered about someone named Prui. Whenever I think of New Games, I think back to that afternoon and the inclusive, peaceful experience we had. I think about all the smiling faces, some I knew and some I didn’t. I think about the ways I quickly forgot about my shyness and just played. We were all a little awkward, but that was OK, maybe even better as a result.

What most sticks with me, though, and what took me years to really understand, was Bernie’s instructions for playing that afternoon. He treated each game, no matter how simple or silly, with great respect. He carefully taught us the rules, making sure everyone knew what we were going to do. One of the first things he told us was that we were welcome to join a game when we felt like it, and if we didn’t want to play anymore, that was OK, too, we could just stop. At the time, it felt arbitrary, pushing against the grain of my conception of games and gameplay—you don’t just jump in and jump out of a game whenever you want.

Though we were playing games during his workshop, we were doing so only so far as they got us into a playful state. The games were light frameworks to get us to be playful, and to interact with one another in ways outside the normal confines of the layered politics of an academic conference. Looked at simplistically, the games Bernie taught us that afternoon were similar to ice breaking exercises like trust falls and the telephone game. In many ways, New Games are ice breakers—not just in the social ice breaker sense, but more broadly as exercises to break through the ice of our preconceptions and get to the more liquid stuff underneath. Bernie’s games encouraged us to think about ways we can interact with one another beyond the game, and beyond the social structures that confine us. What if we could interact without hierarchy or competition? What would it take for us to be more playful in our everyday interactions? Wouldn’t that be an improvement upon the current state of affairs in almost every situation?

I mostly knew Bernie through his writing and speaking, but now and then I got to spend some time with him in person. The thing that always struck me was how he embodied his philosophy of games, play, and fun—he wasn’t just talking about something in the abstract, his whole life was shaped through and by play. He was always smiling, everything balanced by equal measures thoughtfulness and playfulness. He saw play as a powerful tool for creating equality, connections, and possibilities. I’ve finally come to realize the well-played game Bernie was talking about wasn’t a game like ping pong or rock-paper-scissors. It was life. Bernie was gently nudging us toward a more playful way of being—one best accessed through the gateway of a particular kind of game, the kinds he taught us to play in his workshops, talks, and writing.

And that gentle nudge to let us know it was OK to start or stop playing at any time? I realized that was the most important of all, particularly the stopping part. Bernie knew we weren’t all ready to take on his radical approach to play, and so he gave us permission to step away when we weren’t able or ready to see beyond our current circumstances. In hindsight, I now see it took me nearly a decade to really understand Bernie’s point, and to see the radical power of play. I eventually realized that Bernie puts play in front of game, with fun as the secret to making us all better people. I needed the permission to stop, if for no other reason than I wasn’t yet really understanding what Bernie was teaching me.

In talking with friends about Bernie since his passing, the most frequent word used to describe him has been mentor. Indeed he was: he modeled a particular way of being, and he could be approached for conversation and advice in times of need. With his passing, play has lost its greatest mentor, advocate, and student. Luckily, his work lives on through his writing, through the New Games legacy, and through those that carry on his playful mission. I for one will always think of him anytime I push myself past my comfort zone to join in, every time I find myself seeing the playful in unexpected places, and whenever I find myself allowing the playfulness and joy of life to shine through.

Never fear, Blue, we’ll keep playing.