Note: This is part 1 of an interview with Bernie DeKoven. For the audio of the interview, check out The Mind of a Funsmith, an Interview with Bernie DeKoven.
Drew: Welcome to another interview with Humor That Works. Today we are talking to Bernie DeKoven, the funsmith, author of a number of websites that deal with play for work and life in general.
Bernie, thank you for joining us. So what does it mean to be a funsmith?
Bernie: I think of it like being a blacksmith, only for fun. The job of a blacksmith is to make things out of iron and everlasting material and to repair things. My goal is to try to help people make things more fun and create ways for them to do it that lasts them for as long they need it.
I’ve actually become more of a master funsmith than a general funsmith because my focus is less on my making things more fun than it is on teaching people how to become their own funsmith.
Drew: How long have you been a funsmith?
Bernie: I would say I started professionally with this in 1968, so 41 years.
Drew: How did you get your start in 1968?
Bernie: I had a masters degree in theater, and there was a new school opening called the Intensive Learning Center, an unfortunate name for an elementary school. But when they were building the school, they somehow managed to get a quarter of million dollars to build this huge beautiful amphitheater
Which of course they couldn’t justify unless they had some kind of program that was designed to be disseminated. They hired me to write a curriculum for them in theater.
Drew: What was the focus of the curriculum?
Bernie: It actually took several years to develop the curriculum. In the beginning it was teaching the kids improvisational techniques, trying to get them to feel comfortable in doing theater.
My goal became less and less to train them to act and do formal theater, and more and more to find out what kind of theater was native to the kids and how I could take that experience and support them, and give them a deeper grounding in whatever they needed to pursue that.
The kids eventually explained to me, very vividly, that games was what it was all about, and that kids’ games are a kind of theater. This includes all of the games we play before we get into sports. The result after a few years was a five volume curriculum that described more than 1,000 different children’s social games and provided teachers with guidelines for facilitating children’s play and their exploration of games. It was called the Interplay Games Curriculum.
Drew: What was the age range?
Bernie: Elementary school kids from kindergarten to fifth grade.
Drew: That was 1968. Fast-forward to today, what are some of things you are working on? What is the website deepfun.com all about?
Bernie: Deepfun is about fun. Just pure fun in every way that you can think of and everything that relates to fun. The purpose is just to help people think about fun and to help me process some of what I continue to be learning about fun as I continue on what I call the “playful path.”
It’s a very deep site, as you can imagine, because it contains stuff that I’ve been writing for years.
Drew: That I think was one of the very impressive things about the site. If you look at your archives, you have stuff dating back to 2002. It’s very deep.
So you started out working with kids; have you done work with adults? Exploring the value of play for those of us in the corporate world or that have “grown-up”?
Bernie: My adventure really began almost immediately after I published the curriculum. The next step with the curriculum was to teach teachers how to use the curriculum.
My very first session with a group of teachers, I had about an hour to work with them. And I had about 8 games that I wanted to teach to give them a good sample of different kinds of games and the breadth of the play experience so they had more insight into what goes on when kids are playing and the purpose of the kids playing.
I started out playing a game of “Duck Duck Goose” with them.
Drew: How did playing Duck Duck Goose go over with the teachers?
Bernie: The fact was I could not stop them from playing it. That was the only game we wound up playing that day because they were having so much fun. Every time I said, “Now here’s another game” they would say, “No no no, we haven’t finished playing this one yet.”
That was my big lesson in how valuable and relevant the play thing is to teachers and adults. So then I started having class once a week. Eventually I bought a farm about 35-40 miles away and turned it into what I eventually called the Games Reserve, which was a adult-focused retreat center exploring all things fun.
Drew: One of the aspects with the teachers playing Duck Duck Goose for the first time in years is it’s a return to the nostalgia of it; there’s the fun and friendly competitive spirit.
What have you found as the reason for people being so involved? Why did people come to the Games Reserve–what did they learn as adults while there? What was the benefit to them to take time out of their busy schedule to play?
Bernie: Let’s go back to Duck Duck Goose because it’s important to understand that the fun that kids have in a game like Duck Duck Goose is because they are playing with some very big and serious things in their lives that they can’t play with any other way. I think a lot of kids’ play is about that.
In Duck Duck Goose, it’s about learning how you get chosen if you want to get chosen. You have to learn how to look. It’s about presentation of self. If you look too eager you won’t get chosen, if you look too blase you won’t get chosen. You have to have eye contact with the fox. How you present yourself become strategies–you are creating a relationship between that fox and your agenda to get chosen or not. If you are the fox, then the question is which person do you want to pick. If you pick somebody who’s too slow, then there’s no contest and it’s no fun for you and the other kids know you’re really not playing well. If you pick someone who’s too fast then you’re not going to be the fox anymore.
You have to really focus on developing your own strategies for picking just the right person, which of course is all about how you are relating to other people in your community. It has a lot to do with very real, very relevant, understanding of community. For kids and adults, that’s our big puzzle. Whether we’re at work or sitting at home–how do we really create and nurture a community that has any relevance to our lives and that can support us.
I think one of the big things that happened for people at the Games Reserve is that they found that opportunity. Most of the times when we did sessions, people would spend one night or several nights in very sketchy accommodations (I have to admit), but with hundreds and hundreds of games to choose from in a beautiful environment.
It became a very effective environment for people to really explore the relevance of play personally, to develop relationships with other people, to explore the boundaries of those relationships, and perhaps get a little more intimate with people in terms of understanding them and having safe physical contact with them. We wound up cooking our meals together, setting up the beds, all of it was a very conscious community effort which people found relevant to whatever they were doing, whatever their walk of life.
Some people, for example, worked in prisons–they were guards and prison administrators. They really found a lot of relevance because it’s a really hard position to be in and to maintain any level of compassion with other people and with each other. And just getting a chance to let it all go–to play together–helped them really gain insight into how to develop a meaningful community.
A lot of teachers would come, therapists. There was a guy, Dr. Brian Sutton-Smith, one of the foremost thinkers about play, who was then teaching at the University of Pennsylvania. He had heard about the Games Reserve and he started bringing his class up. For him it was ideal because he had been talking about play and now he had an opportunity to give his students a way of exploring play and its relevance directly.
By that time, the repertoire of games that we had was so vast. I was also writing game reviews and designing games, so the library got larger and larger, and the variety increased. Anything that had to deal with play, there was something for you to find out about, to research with.
Drew: The Games Reserve idea and concept is great for building community and relationships–psychologist say that when people experience something together, whether it’s positive or negative, they become closer together. So if a small group of people survive a natural disaster together, they’ll become stronger.
But with the sense of play and these retreats, you’re creating those positive experiences for them. So they’re coming together not only experience but because the games themselves are helping them understand their dynamic and their relationship to each other. With Duck Duck Goose, the social dynamics at work just playing the game to extends to the office place.
Bernie: Absolutely. The game King of the Mountain is highly relevant to most businesses.
I would also teach them not only how to play the game, but invite them to change the game, to keep the game fun. So if the game got boring or too challenging, what would you do to make the game more fun for yourself?
That was teaching them to become funsmiths. It gave them a sense of control over their own reality and an opportunity to test out different kinds of social skills and ways of intervening and ways of designing. Games are really powerful tools because they are context free social structures. To learn that you can change those structures, and begin to explore them, is really an opportunity to learn first-hand the nature of system dynamics. Which if you read Peter Senge, is central to his understanding of how you create a more effective business community.
For the second part of the interview, check out The Mind of a Funsmith, Part 2.