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obituary

Bernie De Koven, Influential Game Designer and Scholar of Fun, Dies at 76

The author of 'The Well-Played Game' reminded us that rules should come secondary to people.

Cameron Kunzelman

Cameron Kunzelman

Courtesy Bernie DeKoven

Bernie DeKoven is died on Saturday, March 24, at the age of 76. He was the writer of The Well-Played Game, a 1978 analysis of fun and how we have it together. A thinker of play, he was most famous as one of the last remaining true adherents of the New Games movement, a proponent for a rough set of principles that understands games as ways that people relate to each other. He focused on what games did for us as human beings. His ideas are still alive with us today.

It’s worth noting here where New Games came from. It was 1966. Stewart Brand, who would later go on to publish The Whole Earth Catalog, was asked by the War Resisters League at San Francisco State University to create a protest event in light of the ongoing Vietnam War. He created a game called World War IV. Largely rule-less, it pitted all against all in a struggle to control a giant ball painted like the Earth. People created teams, betrayed one another, gave up hope, fell down, got up, and so on. Pure chaos. Absolute metaphor for humanity. It was a success.

Bernie DeKoven wasn’t involved in that event, but he came onboard after Brand and others created The New Games Foundation. DeKoven shared the same love of strange, exciting games for adults. Tug of war with hundreds of people? Sure. People holding hands and turning themselves into massive knots? Yes. It all facilitated communication. If you didn’t want to get along, or you just weren’t having fun, then you could leave. Not with a frown on your face, but with the knowledge that this is the friction humans create. We’re complicated, messy creatures. Our games can be messy. And, importantly, we can talk it out.

In The Well-Played Game, DeKoven’s most famous work, he tracks a difference between “fun” and “games.” Fun, DeKoven argues, is accessible all the time. Anything you do can be a conduit through which you access fun, and we’ve all played a giant trick on ourselves in the attempt to silo fun off into its own quadrant of the world. In creating baseball, for example, we created a game that we can excel at, master, plan around, and win. The introduction of rules that are more important than the moment of play in front of you seemed to be the worst thing that could happen in a game for DeKoven.

As game players, our games are only as good as the people we have to play with them.

For example, many people who play tabletop role-playing games will run into a moment where what the rules say and what you and the other players want to do doesn’t line up. I’m a Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master, and this happens all the time. Players want to do a certain move in combat or they want to interact with an NPC in a way that the game doesn’t immediately make clear, and I have a choice. I can look up the rule or I can wing it, staying in the moment and keeping action going. Going to the rules, for DeKoven, is betraying what we’re there for, what he called Deep Fun.

Games are a way of getting to Deep Fun. It’s a mystical term, and it feels almost religious in its application. It’s a term that’s meant to do things, and DeKoven had good reasons for pushing it as a concept. If humans are looking for fun, and we often get sidetracked into games, then we might mistake the game itself for the fun. We might become invested in those rules instead of each other. That would be bad. After all, people are what make the game work. You and I make the game when we play together.

He told us that games matter, and more importantly, that they matter because we matter.

That is the key insight that we need to carry forward from DeKoven’s work: We have to care about each other. Not in an abstract, “we are the world” kind of way, but in a literal one. As game players, our games are only as good as the people we have to play with them. This, to me, is one of the most frustrating and sad things about the toxicity of games culture. If you’re invested in policing and driving people out of a game that you love, then you are betraying that game. If you want to be a gatekeeper who pushes people out of an experience you enjoy, then you are actively attempting to destroy the thing you care about.

Bernie DeKoven is often talked about as someone who has been critical to game design, game studies, and how we understand games and play in the second half of the 20th century. His legacy should include all of those accolades with one addition: DeKoven was an ethicist. He suggested that there were ways of living one’s life that could make you a part of something bigger than yourself, more important than just you, and that having fidelity to that was something worth doing.

He told us that games matter, and more importantly, that they matter because we matter. In an era that makes a culture out of the worship of games, we need to keep Bernie DeKoven in our hearts to remind us that we make these things to experience all of this wonder together.