The Well Played Game: A book review by Bob Morris

Well-PlayedThe Well-Played Game: A Player’s Philosophy
Bernard De Koven
The MIT Press (2013)

How and why well-played games become a well-played life, full of joy shared with others

As I read and then re-read this new edition of The Well-Played Game, a book first published in 1978, I was again reminded of another book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990), in which Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discusses a state (i.e. “flow”) during which creative artists, for example, are not consciously thinking about the next note to play or the next stroke to make on a painting. Athletes call it being in a “zone” as when Michael Jordan feels that he will make every a basketball shot or when Tiger Woods feels that he will sink every golf putt. That does not mean that their actions are random or mechanical or that optimal performance will continue indefinitely. Those in a “flow” feel as if guided by a set of internalized rules or strategies. These rules influence the result but those involved do not need to consciously “will” each intention in action. Results occur naturally if allowed to.

Bernie De Koven would describe it as “a well-played game.” In fact, he describes the state of mind/heart/spirit as an experience that transcends games, just as the games you will read about in his book “transcend the historical, geographic, social, and physical circumstances that divide us. It is not about any particular game, but about the spirit of play itself. Nor is it about any particular player, but about the relationship between players in pursuit of fun.” He believes — and I agree — that children’s games are truly theater, and that, like all good theater, they capture the human condition, they reveal the essence of optimal humanity. With regard to why he wrote this book, adding an insightful Foreword by Eric Zimmerman and a new Preface, “I hope it will do two things for you: 1) confirm your suspicions that, at their heart, games are all about fun, and 2) raise your appreciation not only for the elegance of a well-designed game but also for the ingenuity and resourcefulness of players. If successful, it will help you bring more fun to yourself, your work, and your community.”

What De Koven created more than 30 years ago with the first edition was (and remains) a “game” in the form of a never-ending process of personal discovery. As is also true of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim, the individual’s journey is one shared with others in an evolving community. “In order to play well together, we need something which we can all hold in common.” Yes, but commonality does not preclude individuality. On the contrary, it nourishes and enriches it. “When we’re playing, we’re not thinking about how well we’re playing. We’re not even thinking about playing.” To paraphrase René Descartes, “I play, therefore I am.” More to the point, “I play, therefore I am fulfilled.”

De Koven concludes his book by sharing a few “inklings of possibilities,” while urging his reader to explore the well-played game, continuing and extending in games played with others. These final thoughts are best revealed within the narrative of the book, in context. However, I suggest Bernie De Koven celebrates and affirms shared joy on what Oliver Wendell Holmes once referred to as “the other side of complexity.” That is, beyond brutish, self-serving competition; beyond elaborate rules and regulations, and even beyond the design of the given “game.” When you reach this state of mind/heart/spirit, although you may not be able to describe it, you’ll know. You really will.

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