Bernard L. De Koven

On Having Fun

Extraordinary Fun

Another way of playing

Posted Jul 13, 2015

Most of the games we play, and the way we ordinarily play them, are made of a clearly defined set of rules, roles, goals to be pursued in places set aside especially for those games, governed by an official body of judges and observers. They are designed so that only one side or one individual can win, and only the winners can succeed.

courtesy of the NYU game center
The "Lap Game" played by students and others during my New Games workshop
Source: courtesy of the NYU game center

But there are other kinds of games. And they're free. And freeing. So freeing that we feel we can change the rules if we want, the goals if we need to. They are games anyone can play. They are games in which we feel safe, safe enough to touch and be touched, to hug and be hugged. And, maybe even most extraordinarily, they make us laugh.

These are the games we play just for fun. We laugh together. We become unpredictable, unpackaged, opened to an experience that is, when you think about it, when you compare it to our national pastimes, truly extraordinary.

In truth, these games - played in this way, playfully, for fun - and the experience that they open us to are only extraordinary in comparison to what we have made ordinary in our lives. They are gateways into the natural order of things, into the nature of the world that we have all but sealed ourselves away from. The spirit that is revealed to us when we play playfully, the spiritual experience that transforms us into infinite beings with unbounded potential alive in a limitless world, is the experience of us, of our very human being, set free.

The experience of being suddenly freed makes us explode. In laughter. That’s why laughter is so closely associated with the kind of fun these games bring us – the sudden, almost explosive discovery that we have, in deed, freed each other.

It is we who have created these ordinary games. And all our accomplishments in the other kind of games pale in the comparison to the extraordinary beings we become when we play this way, playfully. In truth, this extraordinary experience we are having is nothing more than ordinary revealed to us as it was when we were new to it, and it to us; the ordinary as it will become when we and it are made again new.

And there’s yet another extraordinary thing about us when we play for fun: how easy it is for us to play like this, how, as they say, “natural” it seems. So natural and easy that we hardly notice how truly extraordinary we are and it is.

We have come to believe that fun is more of a commodity than an experience – something that comes to us at someone’s expense, either our own or someone else’s. Fun comes in packages (toys, board games, puzzles, gadgets, vacations), with the more expensive packages promising to be even more fun. Fun also comes at someone else’s expense. We make fun of people. We play a game, and because the other people lose, we win. We win the fun. They lose their value. We are the good players. They, the bad. We have to gain whatever financial backing needed so we can purchase the proper uniforms and equipment

Ordinarily, this is what fun means to most of us, most of the time. There’s a cost, and someone has to pay it.

It’s unusual, to say the least, that fun can be found without a cost of any kind to any player. Hence, extraordinary.

Most of the games we play require that we subject ourselves to criteria that focus on performance rather than enjoyment. And then to subject ourselves further to experts, referees, and others who are not playing with us, but standing outside the game, judging us. To get “good” enough to get to play often enough, we need to devote ourselves utterly to the game, to gain skills that are necessary to play the game, to gain acceptance, affiliation, to demonstrate mastery, to earn official standing, to get the certification that we need to acquire the recognition that we need to win trophies that we don’t need.

This is how we ordinarily play.

But we can also play for the fun of it, without anyone telling us whether or not we’re good enough to play. We are our own referees, we are the officials. If we think our skills aren’t good enough to play the game, we change the game – we lower the goals, make the boundaries smaller, use a bigger ball. If we think it could be more fun if we played with three teams or no teams at all, we try it. If it is more fun, that’s the way we play it until we decide we want to play another way, just for the fun of it.

This time, we’re the ones who make it fun, who keep it fun. It is our game. Our fun. Our community. The fun we have when we play that way, free to change anything about the game and the way we play it – as long as it’s fun, is extraordinary.

Most of the games we play both bring us together and separate us. There are winners and losers, sides, teams; there are distinctions made between players of different competence, standings, trophies, records – all of which divide us. Games offer us some initial opportunities to transcend the boundaries of class, nationality, race, religion, distinguishing us rather in terms of performance. But even then, we are divided. To be fair, performance isn’t enough. For the most part, there is no playing field level enough to allow women and men to play together as equals. Those of us who are physically, mentally or emotionally challenged are confined to “leagues of our own,” might, at most, qualify for what has become the “Special Olympics.”

But there are other games and fun things to share and ways of playing that we can play almost anywhere and include everyone who wants to play. Currently, the fun we have when find ourselves playing with people of different abilities, age and gender is extraordinary because: that is not how we usually play, because physical distinctions are socially reinforced in just about every aspect of our lives.

Most of the games we play are played in spaces that are devoted specifically to those games – spaces separated and isolated from where we create and share our daily bread. There are real and valid rationales for these separations: you can’t play golf in a public square because people will get hurt, all sports are truly focused on performance, and require an audience and all the trappings that will allow spectators to spectate in comfort; for a sport to be official the playing fields must be uniform, standardized, so that performance in one arena is conducted under the same conditions as that in another.

But we can play the same games anywhere, if we want, if we’re willing to play with softer balls, less powerful clubs and bats, goals and targets that are not so far away, in places where everybody might not be able to see us play, or in places where we can play in private, just for ourselves.

We can play games that not only include, accept, engage everyone who wants to play; but are also include and celebrate the environment. We can play soccer in a forest if we want – sure, it’s not the same as professional soccer, but the trees and rocks and creeks all offer challenge, and all can be safely incorporated into the way we play, even if some of us are 6 years old and others are in wheelchairs. We can play in the rain and get extraordinarily wet and muddy, and the fun also becomes extraordinary. We can play in the sand, on a hill, in the dark – including the world in our playspace just like we include each other, regardless of perceived limitations, or, better, transforming those very limitations into new opportunities to play, to celebrate the world in which we live together.

In most of the games, and all of the sports we play, people get hurt. Not just physically, but emotionally. In many sports, for example, it’s customary to heckle the players. It’s funny. Clever, even. But it’s mean spirited, a kind of psychological warfare levied against the opponents, or even the officials.

Consequently, there is an aura of fear surrounding the game – fear of disapproval, of disappointing your team or your fans, of becoming the brunt of some joke, of losing your place, your position.

It’s accepted practice. And some will tell you that it helps builds character, helps people to become tougher, emotionally more resilient.

When we play for the fun of it, we regard each other differently, we care for each other, we help each other, listen to each other. Nothing, not the score, not the equipment, is more important than the fun we are having and the people we are having it with.

We touch each other a lot. Not to hurt each other, but to support each other.

We practice kindness, caring, supporting each other, encouraging each other. We put kindness into practice. The kind of fun we are creating is the kind in which we can be extraordinarily sensitive to each other’s needs. We make each other safe. We keep each other close.

Touching each other the way we do - gently, lovingly, respectfully, safely – we establish an ever-increasing sense of intimacy with each other: physically, emotionally.

It feels good, so we let the intimacy deepen. Safe in each other’s caring, we no longer feel like strangers. More like old friends. We lie on the ground almost cheek-to-cheek, naming clouds. We hold hands. We hug. We sit on each other’s laps.

We get funny together. We laugh at ourselves with each other. And in laughing we make it obvious to anyone who hears us that the fun we are creating together is in deed extraordinary. Is in truth a thing of the spirit.

Because, for this moment, we are all, together, extraordinary.