[Book Review] The Well-Played Game

Back in 1978, lover of games Bernard De Koven published a little book called The Well-Played Game: A Player's Philosophy. Before computers, video games, or the voluminous research on how play affects the brain, Bernie De Koven put forth the seeds of what play, games, and the community that creates them together could mean for our world. Fast forward to 2013, and the book has been re-released by MIT Press (and I hope by the end of my review that artists and educators will be as excited about this as I am). The new edition also has a foreword by game designer Eric Zimmerman, author of “Manifesto for the Ludic Century.” While the words “game,” “play,” “community,” and even “mind” have taken on new meanings in the last 35 years, the book's central question remains a valid one for all of us: What makes a well-played game?

A well-played game is more than a “good game,” where someone enjoys winning. It goes deeper, to the intention of playing well together, and the kind of ongoing negotiation that playing well together requires. Bernie then goes through all of the things that can affect a well-played game. What conventions are allowed? Can we change a game? When would bending the rules or cheating be allowed? What is the role of winning or losing? What are the goals of our playing together — and do they support who we are as people?

These questions — not always answered by De Koven, but posed and mulled over — are possible because well-played games do not happen in a vacuum. They are well-played because we are in them with other people, feeling both challenged and cared for. If the game is about the risks and the strategies, play is about the care and connection between people playing, regardless of team. This care Bernie calls “the play community.” It is the spirit of the play community that fosters the well-played game, and provides the players permission to do things like change the rules, switch to a different game, call a time out, or any of the other features of games that we may take for granted. De Koven  argues that these things aren't only features of the games themselves, but of our play community. Moreover, if a rule is bent too much, changes not agreed upon, or if people lose the intention to play together, then the play community quickly disintegrates. The question, in the end, is how far we are willing to go to maintain and care for our play community.

Then Bernie made a distinction that seems like a premonition of our time: the playing mind versus the gaming mind. With all of the talk around the use of games in education, business, and everywhere else, we seem to often think with the gaming mind — in terms of rules and structures and meeting goals; making something into a game to be won or lost. But there is also the playing mind — the side of us that loves freedom and spontaneity and random acts of kindness and joy. It's the mind that says, “Change the rules that don't work, so we can keep playing.” Balancing the playing mind and the gaming mind is part of the delicate challenge of maintaining the play community. This, Bernie says, is why sometimes we can get lost in the game (I must win!), or lost in the silliness of play (who cares? Let's have fun!).

All in all, I think The Well-Played Game offers something unique that the volumes of writing out there now on games and play. It's central question — the nature of a well-played game — is something that extends beyond gamers and game designers to those who play in others ways: artists, teachers, parents, and so on. It's important to remember when reading it that it is a philosophy, an eloquent examination of the underpinnings of our play communities. It does not lay out in concrete terms the steps to create such a community, or which games to play when doing so. To those sorts of questions, I can imagine Bernie saying, “Let's just play and see what happens.” But nevertheless it contributes something important to the ongoing conversations about the role of games and creative play in our world and our work: when we play, let's ensure we are playing well.

If Eric Zimmerman is right, then we are entering the Ludic Century — a new era of play. Bernie's book asks us, ultimately, to consider the kinds of communities we will create with the games we play, with all of the risk and relationship inherent in playing. Let us not only play the games we play, but do so artfully, mindfully, and well. In striving for that kind of play community, then we can give voice to how we hope games and creative play can create lasting change.