Bernie DeKoven has made fun his career: He studies and lectures on the benefits of play, designs games and authored The Well-Played Game. He calls himself a fun theorist and named his website DeepFUN. When we talked to DeKoven while researching our July trend report, “Play As a Competitive Advantage,” he explained how he came to realize the importance of play for adults and why we need to give ourselves permission to play. “If you’re really enjoying yourself, then entertain the possibility that you might be doing something that’s good for yourself,” he says.
What are the benefits of adults making time for play?
There are a lot of people who have written about the benefits of play—all kinds of medical measurements about the endorphins being released and all those cool things. But basically, I think that when you are playing, you are at your healthiest, and generally at your happiest. Therefore, if you want to be happy, you should play—but I think it’s the opposite: If you are happy, you will play; if you’re not happy, you’re not going to play.
The benefits are that when you are playing, either by yourself or with other people, you’re at your best. You’re engaged. You’re excited. You’re using your mental and physical skills. You’re feeling good about yourself and the world. You’re feeling intelligent. You’re feeling skilled—and you’re getting more skilled because you’re using your skills.
Do you think technology has affected the idea of play in the last few years, either for better or worse?
Well, it’s made it more accessible. It’s a lot easier when you have so many invitations to play now. Before technology, you might have had a closet full of games, but unless you were highly motivated, unless somebody came over and said, “Let’s play,” you wouldn’t necessarily go and play those games. What technology has done is made the invitation much more present in your life.
If you’re on Facebook and you see all these opportunities from Zynga and from everybody else that wants you to play their games, and you have an iPad, you can buy a game for 99 cents, and it’s just really accessible everywhere. Before, you would have to go someplace in order to play. Now, wherever you’re connected, you have an opportunity to play—and the exciting thing about that is there’s more and more kinds of play available to you. It’s a constantly growing repertoire of games and kinds of play that are being opened to you, from a game of solitaire to very exciting, immersive games to going outside. And there are [online] games that involve you also being outside in the world: There’s a version of Pac-Man you can play walking out in the streets with your iPhone.
What are some examples of games that are beneficial for adults?
Every game that you play that’s fun for you is beneficial. Any game that you play that isn’t fun for you is not beneficial. It’s just as simple as that.
In general, do you think our lives have less time for play these days?
No, it’s just a question of what our choice is. I think the only difference that has happened is that we have chosen, because of some very realistic pressures, to ignore play, both for ourselves and for our children.
One of your main goals is pursuing a “playful path.” Can you describe your idea of the playful path and the value it provides to adults?
Essentially, our culture has had much of its success because of all the fun things it creates, such as movies and television and amusement parks. I mean, we have a multibillion-dollar entertainment industry. But despite all that, people are feeling very oppressed, very unhappy, and they’re not choosing fun. And the culture doesn’t really support you choosing fun. And the pressures of the economic situation, and God, if you spend three minutes watching the news, you want to commit suicide. It’s not what I would call conducive to play.
So you have to make a conscious choice to have fun, and that’s very hard, and oddly enough it takes a lot of discipline, because you have to give yourself permission. All you really need is to give yourself permission. You have people in your life that help you give yourself that permission—they kind of permit you to play. And those are your lovers, your children, sometimes it’s even family, although that’s pretty rare. Your good friends, that’s why you keep them as good friends, because they always invite you to fun, to play, and you enjoy being with them.
If you want more of it, then you have to just say yes more often to opportunities for fun in your life. And that’s why it’s called the “playful path.” It’s basically just saying yes to the opportunity.
How did you get interested in play initially?
I have a masters degree in theater. Theater, especially improvisational theater, has been a driving force in my life, because I learned things in improv that really struck me to the core. I got hired in 1968 to write a curriculum in theater for elementary school children, and this was by the school district of Philadelphia. I wanted kids to have that kind of experience with improv. And I wanted them to create their own theater. I made it my task. I found these things called “theater games,” and they liked that. But if I walked out of the room for a minute, they’d stop doing it.
And I made that my test, so if I could walk out of the room for two minutes and come back in and they’d still be doing it, then I’d know I had found some kind of stage the kids really wanted to maintain. In the process of it, the kids taught me about their own theater, which is children’s games. And I had never really understood or even thought that games were anything as elevated and meaningful as theater, even improv theater. I was in this quarter-million-dollar amphitheater in this brand-new school effort, and we were just playing games, duck duck goose and hide and seek. But I learned that this really is theater.
Not only could they support, maintain and direct it, and not only did it have a very strong element of improvisation, but the themes it was dealing with, that children’s games are dealing with, are very profound, certainly for children. I wound up writing a curriculum in games instead of theater. The curriculum was called Interplay, and we had a thousand different games.
By playing them, [teachers] would help children, because there is no real opportunity for kids to learn about each other in most school settings. You know, they sit in rows. They’re not allowed to talk to each other. Where they can is in the lunchroom, and they’re told to be quiet. And then they go out in the playground, and they’re either given very organized games, or they’re not allowed to play anything at all, and they come right back three minutes later. Socialization is not really something kids are given the opportunity to do, and it’s gotten a lot worse.
The next job was to teach teachers how to use the curriculum. I had eight games I wanted to teach them. I started out with what I thought would be the simplest and most contained game, “duck duck goose,” which you play in kindergarten. I was ready to go on to the next one, and they said no. And 45 minutes later, they were still playing duck duck goose.
And that’s when I realized that games are at least as important to adults as they are to children, and that if we want to do anything for children to give them more opportunity to play, I need to start educating adults about the importance of play in their own life. Because otherwise, they just won’t recognize it. Consequently, we moved to a farm and I had a big barn, and I converted it into the ultimate playroom.
So you and your family called this the “games preserve.” What was its purpose?
Its purpose was to help adults explore the phenomenon of play as it related to them and their work setting. We had people from prisons coming in to talk to us. There was a professor from the University of Pennsylvania named Brian Sutton-Smith who used to bring his kids there. He turned out to be an amazing find, because he’s one of the very first people to study children’s play in the first place. I had no idea. And then we had recreation therapists and therapists and teachers, of course, and youth leaders and strangers, people who happened to walk by.
We were able to provide them with a very profound, rich experience, because at that time I was also writing game reviews, and the game companies were sending games. We had hundreds and hundreds of games, and it was impossible not to find a game you would be interested in. And no matter who you were with, there was something you could play together. We had one of the walls converted to a chalkboard. And then we had air hockey and Pong and pinball and ping-pong and flying rings. And there was a sculptor named Harry Bertoia who loaned us his musical sculptures.
There were such a variety of things to play with that the phenomenon of play itself became really evident. It was an environment where you were surrounded by invitations to play. And the barn, you went outside, and there were all these woods and fields and quiet. My mission was to find as many ways as I could to help people experience, and validate the experience of, play in their own lives and then, hopefully, in each other’s lives.
Why is play important in the workplace?
That’s a real hard one. I know there are lots of things people try to do to make work more fun, and they have outside programs, and they have parties, and they have dress-down day, and all those. But I believe that at some level, work really is fun and that all those attempts to make work fun kind of don’t work because they deny the fun that is part of the work experience.
So what has to happen in work is not so much to make work be fun but to let work be fun. And when you have a good meeting, that’s really fun. And when you’re really engrossed in something, and you’re feeling focused and alive and engaged and well-used, that’s just tremendous fun. You could have a good group of people to work with who acknowledge your strength, and you acknowledge their strength—that’s such a fun experience.
You have to look at the work setting in terms of what inhibits the fun. And there are a lot of things that inhibit fun. There are a lot of bosses who rule by fear rather than by love, appreciation or respect. And the fact that every minute now you can see how well a company is doing on the stock market, that’s driving people insane at the workplace. But some people are just very good at helping people find access to the fun that really is there anyhow. That makes for a good workplace.
You’ve worked as a professional game designer. What elements did you find essential to ensuring that players have fun?
Humor is a very useful thing in a game. Anything humorous is the invitation to fun. And if there are ways that people can change the rules, that adds to the fun because then they feel creatively involved, and they take more charge of the game. So if there’s a couple of good variations, or if the game is so well designed that you almost don’t have to read the rules to know how to play, people will have fun.
What is some basic advice for making life more fun and playful?
One, never turn down an opportunity to have fun. Have faith in fun. If you’re really enjoying yourself, then entertain the possibility that you might be doing something that’s good for yourself. Constantly increase the opportunities you have for fun. If you like a game, that’s great, but maybe look for other games, too.
Play with children, or just watch children play. I’m at the stage now where I’m an old person, I’m 70. I can be like those other old people who just sit next to a playground and watch kids play. If you watch delight, it delights you. Get a pet dog. You know, dogs are permanently inviting you to play with them.
There’s a repertoire you have of things you do for fun. The more you can increase that repertoire, the more likely it is that you’re going to have fun. And increase the repertoire of the people you know that you can have fun with. I’ve been married for 45 years, and one of the main reasons is because we have fun together.