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The Well-Played Game: A Player's Philosophy
by Bernard de Koven (2013)

The MIT Press, Massachussets and London

148 pages. ISBN: 978-0-262-01917-0
1. Games - Philosophy. 2. Play (Philosophy) 3. Game

An in-depth review by Roger Greenaway follows this overview provided by the publisher.

Publisher's Book Description

In The Well-Played Game, games guru Bernard De Koven explores the interaction of play and games, offering players -- as well as game designers, educators, and scholars -- a guide to how games work.

De Koven's classic treatise on how human beings play together, first published in 1978, investigates many issues newly resonant in the era of video and computer games, including social gameplay and player modification.

The digital game industry, now moving beyond its emphasis on graphic techniques to focus on player interaction, has much to learn from The Well-Played Game.

De Koven explains that when players congratulate each other on a "well-played" game, they are expressing a unique and profound synthesis that combines the concepts of play (with its associations of playfulness and fun) and game (with its associations of rule-following). This, he tells us, yields a larger concept: the experience and expression of excellence.

De Koven -- affectionately and appreciatively hailed by Eric Zimmerman as "our shaman of play" -- explores the experience of a well-played game, how we share it, and how we can experience it again; issues of cheating, fairness, keeping score, changing old games (why not change the rules in pursuit of new ways to play?), and making up new games; playing for keeps; and winning.

His book belongs on the bookshelves of players who want to find a game in which they can play well, who are looking for others with whom they can play well, and who have discovered the relationship between the well-played game and the well-lived life.

View Roger Greenaway's review of The Well-Played Game

The Well-Played Game: A Player's Philosophy
by Bernard de Koven (2013)

Reviewed by Roger Greenaway

If the title sounds familiar, it might be because 'The Well-Played Game' was first published in 1978 and was followed by a revised edition in 2002 – which is currently on sale at Amazon for 637! Its re-publication in 2013 gives these playful insights a new lease of life – and at a more affordable price! The 2013 edition also includes a new foreword by Eric Zimmerman and a new preface by the author, Bernie de Koven.

'The Well-Played Game' is difficult to classify because it is so original and unconventional. For example, it ends with a 'Nonconclusion' comprising four 'Inklings'. The three main reasons that I enjoyed re-reading this unique treatise are:

1. It is a detailed forensic analysis of how games (of all kinds) work – providing clear insights into the social 'DNA' of a well-played game.

2. The style is entertaining and playful – making the journey wonderfully consistent with the subject of a well-played game.

3. There is an unrelenting focus on the experience of a well-played game.

As with all good books, it can be enjoyed at many levels – as a player of games, as a play leader, as a game designer, or as a designer/facilitator of any activities (educational or recreational). By the end of the book I could even accept the author's "Inkling # 3" that "If we can create even larger games that we can all play together – all of us – then there will be no separation between us and others, no we and they. We will all be one community. All one species."

'Community' is a key theme: the book explores many fascinating facets of game-playing that teeter-totter between the 'game community' and the 'play community'. In the 'game community', the rules decide if you are good enough to play. In the  'play community', the players decide if the game is good enough to play – if it isn't, players change the game until it is good enough. A 'play community' could be a mother and child playing together because when the child starts crying the mother stops playing: players matter more than the game. Or a 'play community' could be children playing in the street who play more softly when a younger child joins in. A 'game community' is best characterised by competitive professional sport – where the game and the result become all important. My understanding is that a well-played game is possible in both communities, but that good sportsmanship (people putting people first) is often harder to find in a 'game community'.

The well-played game is a process. Details of the process include intriguing concepts like 'The Well-Timed Cheat', 'The Fair Witness', 'The Practice Game', 'The Bent Rule', 'Restoring Balance', 'Quitting' and 'Quitting Practice'.

As an example, the logic of 'Quitting Practice' goes something like this: to be sure that we are playing with people who want to be playing, we need to be sure that people feel able to quit the game whenever they want to. So practising quitting makes it easier for people to leave and serves to increase our confidence that everyone who is playing is playing because they still want to play and not because they feel obliged to play. Playing a game that you no longer want to play is clearly not a recipe for a well-played game.

But what if a quitter wants to rejoin the game? That should be OK too, so there is a section on 'Getting Back In'. And there is a section on 'Being Left Alone' – which is how someone who quits may prefer to be treated by former playmates.

This is just a taste of what you will find. There are many more such angles on playing well that may not seem that relevant when first encountered, but soon turn out to be yet another essential feature of a well-played game. Every new angle triggers my own memories of game playing or other life experiences that would readily support its inclusion in this treatise on the well-played game.

And then there are things that happen outside the game itself – such as 'The Prelude', 'The Interlude' and 'The Postlude' (such as the 19th hole) – which all deserve consideration. Even within a game there are rituals which may not be strictly part of the game but can still contribute to a game being well-played – such as the stories or theatre games that precede a game of tag.

And in case my examples make this book seem to be all about children's play, I can assure you that the concepts and practices apply to all ages. There are also some more adult-like games considered: 'The Con Game', 'Poker', 'Dangerous Play' (such as war games), and 'The Well-Struck Bargain'.

Bernie's writing makes me smile and brings me many 'aha' moments. It has been a considerable influence on my own approach to designing (and playing) debriefing games, such as making it easy for people to opt in and out, designing half games that leave space for participants' creativity, and always keeping the Joker (wild card) in play – giving everyone the right and opportunity to change the game.

As in 2003, I thoroughly recommend this book – it is still full of fresh insights that are credible, playable and strangely familiar.

(Roger Greenaway, 2013)

The author, Bernie de Koven also has a very active and playful presence as Major Fun at

Roger Greenaway's review of the 2002 edition of The Well-Played Game (the one currently for sale at 637)

"Games are not life. They are, if anything, bigger than life." (Bernie DeKoven)

This book is worth more than any other 'games' book I have come across. By getting a more fundamental grasp of what matters most about playing games you 'win' in at least two ways:

1. You will find it easier to create (or co-create) original games.
2. You will be able to generate fun for all by playing games 'well'.

It is not about winning and losing. It is about high quality experiences for all - through 'healthy competition'.

Bernie DeKoven was the co-director of the New Games Foundation. He wrote the original Well-Played Game in 1978 and brought out this revised edition in 2002. The book (and the author) have helped to revolutionize physical education worldwide. His message has become increasingly relevant. It is an intelligent read without being heavy. He interweaves examples and discussion in an engaging and persuasive way.

"When we are playing well, we are at our best. We are fully engaged, totally present, and yet, at the same time, we are only playing."

"What connects games with reality is that they are lifelike. What separates them is that they are not for real. What unites them with the totality of experience is not just their metaphorical quality but the manner in which they are played."

If you are looking for lots of games, find another book. If you want to enjoy or facilitate well-played games, you have just found the answer.

(Roger Greenaway, 2003)

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