In Honor of Bernie DeKoven

Napoleon Martinez

In Honor of Bernie DeKoven

This last Saturday, March 24th, the games industry lost a incredibly impactful and inspiring figure and we at USC Games lost a long time friend and early contributor to our program. Bernie “Blue” DeKoven passed away at the age of 76 at his home in Indianapolis, surrounded by family and friends. Those of us here who knew Bernie will never forget his gentle spirit and deep insights into the nature of play. His teaching here at USC inspired the work of students and faculty alike and influenced the program and community in many immeasurable ways that will be a lasting testament to his life and work.

Play was a guiding principle in Bernie’s life. Early in his career Bernie established a unique retreat center for the study of games and play in Eastern Pennsylvania. The Games Preserve offered classes in game and play studies as early as 1972, making it perhaps the first institution to recognize the value of formal game and play studies. Prior to this, in 1971, Bernie had developed his “Interplay Curriculum” for the Philadelphia School District, one of the first play-based curriculum developed for K-12 education.

In the 1970’s, Bernie became involved in the New Games movement, a pre-digital games movement that sought to replace competitive sports with cooperative ones, and spectator sports with participatory ones. The movement had its roots in the anti-Vietnam war protests and the Human Potential Movement, and involved large, public play events focused on non-competitive social games. The movement framed play as a way to connect with others and create modes of human relationship-building. The influence of the New Games movement led to the creation of New Games Foundation, of which Bernie became a director. The Foundation published The New Games Book as well as a training program that disseminated the ideas of the New Games movement. This program made its way into elementary schools and parks and recreation programs across the United States. Anyone who has ever played with a parachute on a playground or with a large cage or “Earth” ball has played with the ideas of the New Games movement. And, more recently, New Games had had an strong influence on genres of play such as Big Games.

In 1978, Bernie published his seminal work The Well-Played Game, a beautiful treatise on how human beings play together. This book, which was recently released by MIT Press, has had a lasting influence on the modern field of game studies, inspiring authors Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman in their 2004 text Rules of Play, which extensively references both The New Games Book and The Well-Played Game. At this time in the early 2000’s Bernie’s work was also being rediscovered and used in early game design courses like those of professor Tracy Fullerton at USC Games. In 2004, in the first game studies course taught at USC, Fullerton and her students became inspired by reading the ideas of the New Games movement. Students, including Kellee Santiago (thatgamecompany) and Susana Ruiz (Darfur is Dying) were so interested in the concepts of non-competitive and social play, that they decided to hold a New Games Day.  In preparation for the day of play, Bernie came to speak to the group, and trained them in the methods and philosophy of New Games play. It was a magical day for all, solidifying the community and beginning a relationship with Bernie that would eventually turn into a faculty position and a long-lasting influence on the goals and tenor of the program. As those of us at USC Games know, we still retain an emphasis in our program on meaningful social play, and each year we see groups of students and faculty out on the grass in front of SCI playing New Games and honoring the methods that Bernie taught us.

 

In addition to his work philosophical work in games, Bernie was also a prolific designer, creating award-winning games for Ideal Toy Company, Children’s Television Workshop, CBS Software, and Mattel Toys. He consulted with LEGO on the development of the LEGO game system and in 2017 was awarded the Lifetime of Play Award by Games for Change. 

For those of us at USC Games who taught and learned and played with Bernie, his loss will be forever irreplaceable. Rest in play, Bernie, you are our original “prui”.