On Leading a Playful Life: An Interview with Bernie De Koven, Part 1 of 2

Bernie De Koven changed my life, before I even knew his name. Growing up with earth balls, and parachute games, and other awesome camp and gym activities were all an outgrowth of his impact through the 1970’s New Games Movement. In the ’90s their two classic books (New Games & More New Games) became a go-to bible for youth development professionals seeking ice breakers and warm-up activities. Jane McGonigal, in her book Reality is Broken, called the New Games movement a game revolution, and cited Bernie’s essay’s in the first book as her favorite. In the introduction to the recent reprint of his 1978 The Well-Played Game, indie game designer and game guru Eric Zimmerman has called Bernie “the closest thing we have to a shaman of play,” and alluded to the impact his work has had on a generation of game designers. 

Recently, on the occasion of Bernie publishing A Playful Path (a book about, in part, how we can bring out the play throughout all aspects of our life) I contacted him about doing an interview. Situated in his comfortable chair, in a room of cloud-painted walls, we had some fun. This is the first part of this two-part interview, and I will sprinkle it throughout with video clips so you can see and hear Bernie in all his glory.

Bernie: You like my clouds, in my background?

Barry: I love it.  Tell me more about your clouds.

We decided to paint the walls, and Rocky said, “Oh, let’s make a cloud” and that’s where I do all my readings for my blog from my book A Playful Path. So – hey – A Playful Path… I have so far sold 174 copies and I have had 30,000 downloads.

Wow. So, it’s available for free? That’s what you are telling me?


Is there an option for those who download it to make contributions?

No. No, it’s just, just there. I mean, it’s very pretty – I like the paperback version, that’s really beautiful – but me, you know, I just wanted those ideas in people’s hands. That’s all I really cared about, that was the whole purpose of this.

I was thinking about legacy, you know? That happens when you reach about 72 and a half.

Before we talk more about the book and we jump into it, I thought maybe we could play a game?

A game.

There are some wonderful games you talk about in your book, A Playful Path, that are word games.

Well as a matter of fact I do talk about word games in the book, yes. Give me a moment while I refresh my mind.

Whatever you would like.

Well, well. Listen. Since it’s you and me doing this, I would like to do the Out Blessing Game.


Because of our shared ethnic predilection [AKA, we’re both Jewish], we understand about blessings. You remember how to play the Out Blessing Game?

For the benefit of those who have not yet read it…

Oh, I am so sorry for them. They can download it for free now – just go to aplayfulpath.com.

So can you remind us how to play?

Yes. 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.”

That is a lovely thought; that’s like a blessing. 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, each blessing being more out blessing until you feel so blessed you are speechless with gratitude and blessingnesshood. (Actually, I am now calling this the Endless Blessings game. More poetic and soulful, don’t you think? Making it more in line with the gentler kind of connection that I want people to experience.)

Sounds good. So who begins? You or me?

Well, I would suggest that you begin.

Well, since this is the beginning of an interview with you, Bernie, about your books and your ideas, and you started by speaking to me about legacies, let me begin by saying: Bernie, may all of your passionate dreams about people living playful lives be introduced to many through this interview.

And I might say response: Barry, may not only my dreams be introduced but may your dreams be carried forward further into the institutions of learning throughout the world.

And I will out bless you by responding: And may this playful dialogue touch people.

Oh yeah, yeah. And may they continue it with other people and embrace each other in deeper and more pervasive playfulness.

And in doing so may they come to believe this originated from themselves and they take full ownership over it.

You did it! I am totally out blessed.

So, with that, let’s –

I am never going to play with you again.

There is a term out there, gamification that describes the idea of taking things about games and applying them to different aspects of life, whether it’s gamifying education, or gamifying your relationships, or schools being a game or businesses being a game.

When I read your book A Playful Path I think, in many ways, what you are writing is – and please excuse the term – about playification, about taking play and applying it to different aspects of one’s life.  It sounds like an ugly term to me, like gamification is, but if you say it playfully it’s actually quite wonderful. 

And I think, in so many ways, what your book is all about is describing to people what it would look like if they understood the different aspects of what makes play such an inspiring, connecting, spiritual, joyful experience and encourage them to bring that into all aspects of their life.


And you are totally wrong.

Well, I admit trying to tell people both about gamification and, you heard it here, playification (but you didn’t hear me say it – you heard Barry Joseph say it, I did not say that word. But he said it playfully so it doesn’t really count…)  I – see that’s the problem with those words – they take the idea of game and play and try to put them into something. They try to make them as an overlay to something else, so that they can make the thing better and more pleasant, more acceptable, more whatever; easier to learn, more inviting, make people want to do it.

But I have felt for a long time that the game is within, the play is within the thing that we are addressing, not outside.

If you talk to a mathematician about mathematics, a real mathematician, they will tell you how much fun mathematics is. They don’t need anybody to tell them how to make it fun. They are a mathematician because for them it is fun. I don’t know if they would use the term “game” but they would certainly talk about how deeply enjoyable it is, how it transports them, how it allows them to engage their minds so fully and deeply and how exciting it gets for them to be working in mathematics and how meaningful that all is.

They know the fun of it, they know the play of it, and I think that’s what I am trying to say about really everything: if you look at whatever it is that you are doing from the sense of play and wonder you will discover that that’s the core of that experience. And if  try to make it more fun by dressing it up or making it look sillier, painting clowns on it or whatever, you miss the point. And I think you also mislead people into thinking that, you know, I have got to give you a point because you are enjoying yourself.

It’s like saying, “Well darling, I know that you don’t really like to have sex, so let’s score each other on our performance during the activity and see who really won the game this time,” and, “Oh, I will give you a badge for being such a good lover.”

I think gamification, or playification, are good intentions misdirected. What I would rather see people who are attempting to do playification and gamification as you do is to come from the heart of the activity, come from the heart of it, come from the joy that you have and let that inspire others.  Let that joy that you have discovered in whatever it is that you are trying to teach – about bones or chickens or dinosaur eggs or whatever, you know?

So, I want to go back to something you said, about our work at the Museum teaching science and engaging young people with science. What does this look like from your perspective?

Well, first of all you are giving them access to all kinds of information,  presented in a way that says, “Look how much fun it is to have this information, just knowing it is just so cool.”

You are using Minecraft, which is an inherently good tool, a fun tool, an enabling tool because it allows kids to play. It’s not this big rule-based kind of thing. It’s like a laboratory for exploration and building and creating, which is a natural fit because it’s the same kind of mindset that that you want kids to have when they are investigating the natural world, the world of science. And the kinds of things that you hope that they are going to experience when they come into the museum.

So, yeah, Barry, I think that’s a perfect fit and I really admire the synergy between the form and content. It doesn’t come out like gamification, like an incentive structure; it comes out as a way of playing with something, a way of discovering the play that is inherent in the thing itself.

Read part two of this interview with Bernie De Koven here, where he waxes poetic about play as pedagogy, play in museums, and why softcovers books taste better than digital…

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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