The Well-Played Game

The Well-Played Game by Bernard DeKoven

The Well-Played Game: A Player’s Philosophy was written by Bernard DeKoven and published by The MIT Press in 2013. This book was originally published in 1978 and became a classic treatise on how human beings play together. However, with the emergence of the digital game industry, the author updated this edition to reflect how the original study of games and play is still relevant to the gaming community and what is experienced as the well-played game.

To define what a well-played game is required an explanation of basic terms. The author describes the concept of games as social fictions, performances, and works of art that provide the players with a common goal. Games like football, cat’s cradle, gin rummy, and peek-a-boo have no bearing on real life outside of the game, but they do reflect reality. Play on the other hand is the enactment of anything that is not real, and that is not intended to have consequence. Its only purpose is for the joy of playing with no goal in mind. Playing a game combines both play and games to incorporate rules to follow as a script in the play. When playing well, players are fully engaged, totally present, while still only playing. The well-played game then is a game that becomes excellent because of the way it is played.

Chapter 1 – Searching for the Well-Played Game relates that the accomplishment of winning a game does not constitute a well-played game. To play a game well requires the players to play well together; it’s not determined by who wins or what game is played, but rather by the quality of playing that was created together. How the game is played is more important than winning the game.

Chapter 2 – Guidelines suggests certain methods to use to discover games that can be played well together. All players must be willing to play the particular game with the intention to play well, must feel safe within the game, and must also be able to feel safe with the other players. Familiarity with the other players and following conventional rules such as taking turns, playing fair, playing the game through to the end, and showing good sportsmanship will continue successful play. All players must be devoted to the search for the well-played game.

Chapter 3 – The Play Community differentiates between a game community and a play community. A game community is devoted to the pursuit of a particular game that is measured in terms of the success or failure of the players of that game. Winning the game becomes more important than playing well together. The play community embraces the players more than any particular game and focuses on the willingness to play together. As players feel safe with each other and seek playing well together, the actual game being played isn’t important.

Chapter 4 – Keeping It Going explores the conventions of play that allow it to continue. The concepts of giving hints, fairness, cheating, boundaries, bases and safe zones, time out, and interference are described. Balancing community and the game can become difficult as players get involved in the game. Establishing fair witnesses, called umpires or referees, allows players to focus on playing. Nurturing the play community may require clarity of the rules of play and a practice game that doesn’t count to play well together. The roles of spectators and coaches affect the maintenance of the well-played game as well.

Chapter 5 – Changing the Game shows the delicate tension required to try to balance the playing mind and the gaming mind. Playing well requires an ongoing process of negotiation and renegotiation. To continue playing well may require changing the rules of the game as long as all players understand and agree to the changes. The purpose of changing a game is to restore equilibrium and promote playing well together.

Chapter 6 – Ending the Game examines the issues surrounding the freedom to quit playing and the permission to rejoin the game. Ways for players to end a game include giving up, losing, winning, and being eliminated. When playing games that are cooperative or collaborative, the end of the game happens when all players have either accomplished the goal of the game or admitted defeat.

Chapter 7 – Encore explores the desire to continue a well-played game. However, since the circumstances cannot produce the same excellence achieved in the game, another game must be sought. The willingness of the players to find another game and using their intuition from past experiences will lead to a successful find. The activities in the prelude of a game can contain silliness which can be enjoyed by the community of players.

Chapter 8 – People, Places, Things describes offering community places set aside for game play. The author describes The Games Preserve he built in his home that had hundreds of games available to play and suggests making similar spaces in classrooms, hospitals, and community centers, for example. The author also describes the New Games Foundation that was founded in the early 1970s. This organization hosted outdoor community games that engaged over a thousand players at one time.

Chapter 9 – Playing for Keeps describes the type of game that when the game is over, there are real consequences in real life. Con games, gambling, and games of chance can be played even realizing the odds are against the players as long as cheating is not involved. Some players engage in dangerous play that could be hazardous to their health. The stakes for playing could be for growth, knowledge, release, and freedom among other things, but if players play for anything they can’t afford to lose, they can no longer afford to play.

Chapter 10 – Playing to Win vs. Having to Win discusses the differences in the motivations to play. When playing to win, rules are followed; when having to win, rules can be broken and the player is not concerned with fairness or the feelings of the community.

Chapter 11 – Completion explores the need for the feeling of completion when playing well together. Winning does not provide a sense of completion. Experiencing the excellence of a well-played game with others creates the sense of completion itself.

The book ends with a playful Appendix: A Million Ways to Play Marbles, at Least, which suggests changing games in an infinite number of ways to promote play.1

  • 1. DeKoven, Bernard. The Well-Played Game: A Player’s Philosophy. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. 2013.