The Mind of a Funsmith, Part 2


Note: This is part 2 of an interview with Bernie DeKoven.  For the audio of the interview, check out The Mind of a Funsmith, an Interview with Bernie DeKoven.  For part 1, check out The Mind of a Funsmith, Part 1.

Drew: You mentioned something interesting there about inviting them to change the rules.  One of the other things you’ve worked on and written a book about is Junkyard Sports.  What are Junkyard Sports?

Junkyard Sports

Junkyard Sports

Bernie: There’s a phenomenon that is familiar to every kid–playing games, sports especially, that you semi-make-up because you’re not in the right space to play them.

You and your sister are sitting in your living room and you want to play basketball and there happens to be a balloon.  You suddenly find yourself playing something like basketball, only with a balloon.  Now you can’t really dribble a balloon but you can bounce it up–so there you’ve got an equivalent of a dribble.  You can’t really effectively get the balloon to go into a basket.  But you can maybe get it to go into a closet, so all of a sudden your closet becomes the basket.

You can see that you can take the essence of a game like basketball and if you don’t have the right equipment and right environment you can still adapt it and find a way of playing it.  And as a result, you have a sense of ownership of the game, you can change the rules of the game if the game gets too boring or too challenging.

There’s a game they used to play called stickball which became a formalized version of street baseball.  How did that get developed?  Some kids wanted to play baseball and they didn’t have a baseball bat so they used a stick.  They didn’t have a real baseball so they made one out of aluminum foil.  They didn’t have a baseball diamond so they used the street.  They learned how to adapt the whole game to the environment and the people they were playing with.

Drew: I remember doing that as a kid, but I also do that now as an adult in the workplace.  Another co-worker and I sit next to each other, and we will sometimes take a stress ball and play what is an essentially a version of cubicle tennis.  We have a lower cubicle wall, so our goal is to bounce it on the other side and we have to throw it back.  So even as an adult in the workplace, when we need to take a break or need to get re-energized, we’ll play a couple sets of Cubicle Tennis.  You think of as a kid doing that, but there are applications even as an adult now.

Bernie: Right.  And because it’s a sport, you kind of now how to play it.  It’s a lot easier than making up a game from nowhere because you have a way of determining that this should be the goal or this is how you take points.

I’ve found that if kids, or anybody really, feels like they are the author of the game they are playing, they aren’t just players, they’re players and designers.  This way they can take ownership of and responsibility for the game.  And that has a lot of relevance to what’s going on on the Internet in terms of games and people’s participation, such as the open source environment.  We’re not just talking about players but players/designers, asking people to take an active role in designing the experience we’re sharing.

Drew: That’s great.  That’s just an aspect of leadership as well.  The truly great leaders are the ones that get the people around them involved in not only the executing of the decision but the actual decision-making themselves.  If someone feels they have ownership in what was created, they’re going to be more passionate and more involved in it.  That’s a great example of the value of play.

Bernie: So we’ve really resolved that thing about the value of play in the workplace and why you should have it.  And the other thing is play keeps people sane.  It maintains the community.  It’s just really amazing how even people you don’t like personally, which can typify a lot of people you find yourself having to work with–you can play with them and have a really good time.  And in that process, develop a positive relationship, one that really turns out to be mutually rewarding and empowering.  That’s what play does when you give it reign in your office place.

Drew: In the number of years that you’ve been working, and you’ve created this list vast number of games, and partaken in your own number of Junkyard Sports, do you have a personal favorite game you enjoy playing?

Major Fun

Major Fun

Bernie: My favorite is the one that I’ve been playing most recently–I’m kind of a game slut.  If I’m having fun doing something, then that’s my favorite.  My other website is where I review board, strategy, and chance games, manufactured games and boxed games.  And that’s another aspect of play.

I’ll review a game and I’ll start playing and think “Gosh, this really is major fun.”  And that’s my favorite game for at least a week.

But there’s one game that’s kind of a Junkyard Sports game that I developed that I’m really very happy with.  It’s now called Found Object Olympics.

As the name implies, you use whatever junk you have with you, whatever’s around the room, in your pockets briefcases, or backpacks.  People get into groups, pool their objects,  and each group develops an Olympic event that you could play on a table top.

I remember one group invented Lipstick Tube Slalom because someone had lipstick tubes in their purse, and someone else had chopsticks, so they invented a kind of slalom race where you had to roll the lipstick tube, using the chopsticks, around other found obstacles.  Calling it the Olympics gives them the model so they know kind of what they’re trying after.  But they have to use a tremendous amount of creativity and share deep communication in order to be able to come up with some kind of fun, silly, challenge that they find actually meaningful enough that they want to share with people.  It’s just a beautiful game.

I recently did that at Lego for a big team-building event for their Lego designers.  Everywhere that I’ve played, it seems to be not only an invitation for delight but an invitation to a lot of deep discussion and conversation about the world, the universe, society, play, creativity, community, sharing, and competition.

I would say that’s the closest to a favorite.  I’ve been working with that for quite some time because I’m very excited about what it does for you.

Drew: I can imagine where that would be a great team-building event.  Not only are you having participants be creative and make use of their environment and be resourceful, but also developing  that aspect of play, team-building and the spirit of competition.

When I teach improv workshops for different groups, whether kids, adults, or companies, one of the things that’s impressive to me as someone instructing them, is seeing all of the creative things they come up with that are completely unique that I never would have thought of.  It’s always great to how see someone whose participating takes that and becomes very creative and you see the type of stuff they come up.  You see that and think, “Wow I never would have thought of combining these things together and now you have this Olympic sport for it.”

Bernie: Exactly.

Drew: Well I think that covers quite a lot of information.  We’ve talked about each your websites. has a lot of information on fun and is a great resource for people to check out, again you’ve been working on that for a long period of time.  Then you have which is getting to the idea of Junkyard Sports and that concept of making a sport out of what’s around you and being resourceful.  And finally, which is also an in-depth site that reviews board games, card games, chance games–games that are great for kids and adults.

Before we go, is there anything else that you feel that the listeners should know?

Bernie: The whole idea of being a funsmith is that you apply the idea of fun to very real things.

I remember one person who lost a spouse in a traffic accident and was trying to recover from that experience.  As a funsmith, I spent a lot of time with him, and my purpose was to help him use play and fun as way of restoring his own sense of life and purpose.

I also wanted to see if I could attach the idea of fun to the idea of meditation.  I was kind of bothered by how somber a lot of people get about their practice of meditation.  There’s a secition called Recess for the Soul on my website and there you can read and listen to stories of my meditations on the “Inner Playground.”

It’s a good thing to explore, to take those ideas of games and play and structure and re-structure them into your own personal conflicts and personal self.

Another thing on that site is a Collection of Pointless Games.  I call them pointless because most of them don’t have any score, so you don’t really count points.  The only real purpose to playing them is to have fun.  I’ve found those to be a very powerful way of helping people reclaim their sense of fun within their own communities.

Those are the two other things that I thought would be helpful.

Drew: I think you touch on important aspect of fun and humor in general.  People feel like sometimes my work is too serious to have fun or this situation is too serious.

I remember doing a stand-up show and after the comedy show, there was a couple in the audience who you came up to me and the headliner and the man started thanking us for getting on stage and talking about silly stuff because it was helping him get through a rough time after his friend had passed away.

That ability to laugh again–I think there’s this human need and human condition to want to do that.  In a serious time, laughter keeps us all sane.  I think it was Gandhi who said “If it wasn’t for laughter, I would have committed suicide a long time ago.”

I think it’s that aspect that allows us to accept and get by in the world.  Especially because there are things that are serious, sad and depressing.  And laughter is a way to come back out of it and get back that sense of life and that sense of purpose.

Bernie: Laughter is very important, and actively playing with each other, with the world, is how you engage and re-engage.  Laughter is the doorway, but the path is play.

Bernie DeKoven

Bernie DeKoven

Drew: Thank you very much, Bernie.  A lot of great insight and information here.  We’ll certainly send everyone to DeepFun, but also JunkyardSports and MajorFun as well.  Thank you for joining us on this interview and that’s it.

Bernie: Thank you, Drew, it was fun talking to you.

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{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Bea September 9, 2009, 8:48 pm

    I love the Cubicle tennis using stress balls. I’ll have to figure out a way to play that with my grandkids! And I will definitely have to pass the rest of the ideas on to a friend who’s office co-workers will have a blast with some of them, especially Lipstick Tube Slalom. 🙂 Thanks for the fun ideas!

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