Playing Together

Jim talks about his inspiration for co-operative games.

I realize what has bothered me about the games we have bought for our two girls. The game always puts them in conflict with each other. The point of the game is to beat one another and because the older one has the advantage of experience and co-ordination among other things, she usually wins. The younger one either has to be coaxed to go on playing or, worse, she cheats in order to even up the odds. After all, the whole point of the game is to beat her big sister! Then big sister doesn’t want to play anymore. “Christa always cheats!” is the complaint.

I reflect also on situations outside the family. I teach Sunday School in the local church. We have our lesson from the Bible and we discuss finding non-violent ways to solve problems. We explore the meaning of compassion, sharing, affection, and so on. Then I set up the recreation program and the kids pound and push each other something awful. What a contrast here!

They often drift through the class lesson listlessly, but have great vitality for the games. I now see how my recreation program is not reinforcing my lessons on living. Let’s be honest. That recreation program is undermining my lessons. I reflect on my high school teaching as well. A lot more things come together.

Competition is an effective tool for classroom management, for realizing various academic goals. In the short run, this is the devilish attraction of the competitive technique. You get those quick, short-term results. It’s messy and takes too much time to take the co-operative route which tries to nurture action through understanding. I can get my daughter to clean her room by setting up comparison/competition images with her neat friend, Amanda. Tanya will clean up under that kind of pressure. But will she understand what cleanliness, punctuality, etc. are about if I go on doing that to her? I no longer think so.

That day, over forty years ago (1971) on my back porch, shook up my perspectives for good. I challenged myself to begin the adventure of doing things differently in the family, the neighbourhood, the church, and my teaching in the school. I had many objectives in those areas of endeavour, but now I was challenging myself to realize them by cooperative rather than competitive means.

For our family it meant going to toy and game stores and asking the salespeople for games that stressed sharing and helping each other. “We want a good family game.” I remember well the first store owner laughing aloud, then seeing that we weren’t laughing with him, gave serious consideration to our request. Then we were flabbergasted. He couldn’t find a solitary thing in the entire store.

We were forced to change the rules on many of the games we had at home. We changed Scrabble around and instead of keeping individual scores we kept a family score. Just that simple rule change created subtle shifts in the dynamics of the game. Some examples… We allowed each other to use the dictionary freely. We permitted helping each other to spell words. We didn’t hide behind our tokens. Not only did we expose them, but we even traded them. Finally, instead of using my cunning to maximize my own score with the treasured letters X, Q, Z, etc. and burying them so no one else could use them, I now could still be ingenious by using the letter well, but also play it so as to create opportunities for others. Let me tell you that I felt a thousand times better using my mind to assist and share rather than as a weapon.

Why the good feeling? The reason is simple. Our initial impulse to play a game is social; that is, we bring out a game because we want to do something together. So how ironic it is that in most games we spend all that energy and effort trying to bankrupt someone, destroy their armies, or in other words, we try to get rid of the very people we just invited over to play with.

I am always asked, “How did you get started making co-operative games?” I answer by remembering out loud … I’m in our backyard on the porch watching the neighbourhood kids playing some games. Like most families, Ruth and I have been teaching our two little girls such values as sharing their toys, helping mom and dad, being kind to pets, and so on. We’ve been finding that more and more energy is needed to maintain these values in our home. Sitting now and watching the kids at play, some very heady insights are occurring.

The kids gather round and talk over what game they want to play next. They listen to each other’s suggestions. Everyone is heard out. Big, little, fat, skinny, skilled, unskilled. A consensus is achieved and the game begins.

A whole new scene emerges. The kids are aggressive. They push each other around. Strength is used to dominate. They pick on each other’s weaknesses, exploiting them for their own advantage. What I am witnessing is a change from consensus to confrontation. I begin to wonder what would happen if the nature of their decision-making process were transferred into the game situation itself.

A little later when the kids are again deciding on a game, I shout out to them that I know a new game they might like to try. I make up the fine points as I talk to them. “It’s something like HIDE AND SEEK, but I call it LOST AND FOUND.” I go on to describe how I will start the game by covering my eyes at the Home Post and count to a 100 by 5s. Everyone is to hide so no one else can see them. We will pretend that everyone is lost and I am coming to rescue you. When I find someone we will join hands, rush back and both touch the post, which is the Rescue Station. Then the two of us will go out and each try to find someone and bring them back to the post. This goes on until we have just one person left to find. When this person is rescued, since he or she is the best at hiding, you get to start the next game.

I finish counting to a 100 and wander out, keeping my eyes open. I find a little girl first. With great delight, big person and little person join hands and hippity hop to the Rescue Station. Already I feel that something tremendous is about to burst open within me. I’m joyously discovering something here. The child looks at me, eyes free of fearing that this big person is going to wipe her out of the game. The delight on her face is teaching me a lesson which marks my soul deeply.

“I’m not very good at finding people,” she confides shyly at the post, adding “Can I come with you?” I agree to her suggestion. It’s a friendly, flexible game, so we change the rules right there. Soon three of us are running to the post. Then I venture out alone again and the little girl and her friend go as a pair of rescuers.

The game is nearing an end, but we cannot find one nine year old boy. We gather at the post, by now making up an impressive search party, and compare theories. “Have we looked by Riley’s garage? Lots of good spots to hide there.” We devise other plans, but don’t find the boy. Then someone says, “Hey, we’ve been looking everywhere but up!” We immediately spread out and look up. Sure enough, the rascal is up a tree and enjoying the spectacle of us scurrying around. A big cheer goes up when we find him. We carry him on our shoulders to the post. He gets to start the next game.

Later, on the porch, I reflect more about the game. I know that this is a turning point in my life. I can’t look back now. The laughter of the kids. The collective good will. No one eliminated from the game. Even the youngest playing and making a contribution right to the end. The nature and quality of the relationships of the participants felt healthy, and everyone feels better for it. Besides altering existing games, I began to cook up my own. The old cliché about Necessity being the Mother of Invention holds true in my case. I couldn’t find any co-operative games, so I simply began inventing them.

Once my mind began seeing the possibilities, I found myself creating original games for birthday parties, Play Days at school, co-op games as gifts at Christmas time, and it wasn’t long before friends suggested that I start selling them. Ruth and I ran a few advertisements and were encouraged by the response. Slow, but steady growth in sales made us move the little business, which we called FAMILY PASTIMES, from our living room into a prefab cottage. We literally had a cottage industry.

I have invented several hundred games over the years. They fall into roughly three categories: (1) Co-op sports and activities such as LOST AND FOUND, which I’ve written up in a couple of manuals. (2) “Parlor” type games in board, card and block format, and (3) Large wooden table action games, which are co-operative answers to Table Hockey, Table Soccer, etc.

What makes a co-operative game different? My working definition of a co-operative game is simple. I never have people being against people in any of my games. I have to make this clear because often I am asked at conferences and workshops if I don’t consider such-and-such a sport an example of co-operative effort. I acknowledge that a group may co-operate among its members, but they do so in order to obliterate the opposing group. The goal cannot be separated from the means to get there. We can extend this and point out that even fighting a war requires a form of co-operation. The ultimate “game” for altogether too many people!

I see game reviews in magazines refer to various organized crime games and certain adventure fantasy games as co-operative. In each case, what the reviewer is describing is the opportunity the game offers for some players to combine efforts for a brief time in order to destroy another player. This is not my idea of a co-operative game. Very simply, in a co-operative game, people play together and not against each other.

To this day we still make a full range of co-operative games by hand in small quantities. We sell mostly by mail through a colorful catalog as well as through a variety of stores. Also there are a growing number of people who feel good about selling our games from their homes and churches. Schools sell them for fund-raisers.

Initially, I took my ideas to big game companies because I was perfectly happy teaching and had no intentions of becoming a full time game inventor and manufacturer. I was keenly disappointed by repeated rejection from the giants of the game industry. My approach was extremely naive. I went into the offices of game company presidents expecting to talk about the worthwhile game concepts I had developed and tested. I quickly learned that other priorities were uppermost. I became quite cynical about the brutally competitive toy and game industry. Behind the facade of cute and cuddly stuff for kids were hard nosed businessmen and women. Very few of them were cute or cuddly themselves. So that’s how and why I got started at co-operative games.

More remembering, but more recently…. I am giving an afternoon workshop for a church group. I like the format because children are invited to join in. The adults are well educated and sophisticated. From chit chat beforehand, I realize that they are not convinced. It’s a challenge to spend a couple of hours with folks who are skeptical about co-op games. I decide to play a typical little kid’s game with them. “Grown-ups, please be little children with me for the next while and begin to re-experience what a child feels in playing the games we offer them.”

The first workshop game is the first game I ever played myself. My grade one teacher did it with our class. Farming families, living far apart, had to send first graders who did not know each other and were apprehensive about starting school. The teacher used games to help us feel at home, to socialize us. She had us play MUSICAL CHAIRS. I was a shy kid and not tuned in to the cultural roles required to play the game successfully. In fact, I was very bewildered by the rush and push for a chair when the music stopped. I was eliminated from the game early and felt puzzled and embarrassed when told that I was out and had to take away a chair with me. Of course, the more we played it, the better I got at elbowing my way to a chair. Quick cultural conditioning!

I wondered what would happen in the workshop now as we played MUSICAL CHAIRS. The game spoke louder than words ever could. One little boy, 4 or 5 years old, was very eager to play. The music stopped. People pushed and took places, then looked around to see who the first casualty was. Some adults audibly moaned to see that the little boy was out. He was crushed and fled to his mom’s arms. After that some people were polite and were soon eliminated. A few didn’t try very hard and were also eliminated. Later they said that they felt uncomfortable being forced into an aggressive role of having to push others around. Children who drop out of the game early say much the same thing. Finally, we had a big group of spectators watching the last two participants go for the big win.

I knew that the adults could see how the game may begin as a socialization process, but quickly defeats this very objective since players get eliminated and must sit around watching. I spoke a bit about how I felt in grade one when I was made to leave the game early. I tried to make plain to adults and children alike why the games I make up today are different.

Then I introduced CO-OPERATIVE MUSICAL CHAIRS and got the players back again with their chairs. “People are now going to be more important than the chairs, so the only rule change is that after each round we take away a chair, but we keep all the people. It’s up to the imagination of the group to figure out how to make a place for everyone.” I can still vividly see the laughter as the people hug each other, sit on each other’s laps and succeed in all getting on one chair at the end. The little boy is on the shoulders of an adult. He is having a fine time.

The game uses the same hardware, music and people. The structure is changed, so the roles the people play change too. People relax after a few rounds when they suddenly realize that, hey, I don’t have to rush and push because I am guaranteed a spot. People afterwards remark on how good they felt using their strength to hug instead of to push. Children make the same remark over and over.

Q: Don’t you think that co-operative games and the co-operative philosophy will tend toward mediocrity, toward making everyone the same, while competitive approaches bring out individuality, qualities of leadership, etc?

A: On the contrary. The games I make and the games we played today allow for the gifted to do their very best and for those less able to make their best contribution too. Each is valued. Those with leadership qualities quite naturally emerged and contributed. What pleases me is that these leaders had to use their abilities in a responsible way that showed caring for others. They are not asked to dominate, exploit weaknesses for self-aggrandizement, manipulate and then defend themselves from others trying to take over and get rid of them. It’s a deeper challenge to the gifted to work with people in a co-operative way. You see, we like to think that co-operative games are for the losers only. Indeed, while a co-operative game does allow for the “loser” to express ability without fear of elimination, a co-operative game also serves the winner, whose character suffers from always winning at the expense of others.

A further observation I would make is that I see no harm in the quick-minded learning to be patient with the slow. Finally, one of the best features about our games is that most are fun for adults and children to play together. The trouble with many competitive games of strategy is that parents must deliberately play poorly in order to make the game fair and interesting for children. When competition between individuals is removed, skilful players are sincerely able to try to win, because their efforts help everyone who is playing. Thus, it is competition that forces the more skilled to be mediocre in their efforts in such situations.

Q: I need competition to better myself, to learn new things, to pursue excellence in what I do. Otherwise what is the incentive to get ahead?

A: If I may be a bit facetious. There is a lot of concern about getting ahead. What is wrong with the head you have now? Perhaps we spend too much time pursuing the ideal we aren’t and not enough time enjoying and realizing what we are already. We strive to be this someone else whom we are constantly comparing ourselves to. If you look at it closely you’ll see that this comparison is the very root of competition. For me, competition kills the pursuit of excellence. Let me give some examples.

When I have friends over for a meal, I go to a lot of trouble to provide a superb meal, the best I can cook. If someone comes early, I get him or her involved in making the meal. We are tasting, slicing, adding this and that until the meal shapes up “just right”. Getting things “just right” is what we naturally do. You see it in children when, say, their blocks fall down. They try again. They want it to be right. Now in making this meal what has been my incentive? I am doing it for it’s own joy. What is operating here is affection, simple affection for what I am doing. To introduce competition is extraneous and unnecessary. It’s only necessary when there is no affection. Really, I don’t need the Galloping Gourmet or some famous chef in the next room whipping together a better meal than me to drive me to do better.

Or let’s take dancing. My wife and I are dancing and there are a lot of other couples on the dance floor as well. We are both getting into the rhythm of the music and each other. We try some neat steps and just greatly enjoy what we are doing. Suddenly there is a spotlight focused on us and a voice over the P.A. announces that a dancing contest is on and the spotlight will move from couple to couple with the judges declaring a winner of incredible prizes. Personally, this would ruin the occasion for me. I don’t need the competitive element to make my dancing better.

I am reminded of when our two girls were in grades one and two. They loved to sing in the little kids’ school choir and to do the simple folk dancing in groups. Annually, there was a Music Festival or so it was called. A festival is a time for people to get together and celebrate, be festive, but , alas, this festival turned out to be a contest. A bunch of trophies donated by local merchants were awarded to the best choir and the best folk dancing group. The Killarney School down the road won both trophies. This happened the next year as well.

Coming home from this second festival, our older girl said she didn’t want to take singing or folk dancing any more. “Why?” I asked, a bit stunned. “Because Killarney always wins the trophies. They are better than we are and will always win,” was her solemn answer. You see what had happened to their love of singing and dancing? We adults with our structuring of winners and losers, trophies and hoopla had corrupted it. It happens slowly but thoroughly, until you get to be my age and don’t want to do very much unless prodded and pulled by the carrots of reward and punishment. Reward and punishment are central to competitive patterns of behavior.

Q: Don’t co-operative games tend to shelter, even coddle children?

A: I am providing a supportive play experience, it’s true, but recognize some cautions. I don’t protect children from not making it to the summit of the mountain or completing the space voyage. Our games are designed to offer realistic challenges. It is entirely possible for people to fail in our games. Of course, the failure arises and is faced differently than in a competitive endeavour. But the risk of failure is present.

In addition, I should point out that the cultural habit of competing and confronting adversaries runs deep. Some players end up fighting the game itself, even though it’s a co-operative game. We suggest that you’ll get better results learning how to get along with Time, with Winter, with Gravity, with Mountains and so on, rather than fighting them.

Q: What I’m worried about is that children are going to have to take their place in a competitive society and it’s a tough, even brutal society. Don’t we do them a disservice if we commit them to the kind of philosophy and environment that you are suggesting? They should be given the tools and skills to make their way in a competitive society. They have to be prepared to live in the reality of today.

A: First, let us not underestimate the amount of sharing and caring that takes place daily in our families, neighborhoods, societies… If we didn’t have at least 50% co-operation going on, we wouldn’t have much of a society at all. So, people can find places in society to live and work and be friendly, sharing humans. I think we adults have to be active in creating more such places for our young.

Secondly, it is an open question for me as to which is the best way to prepare children for that dog-eat-dog society you describe. I’ll say more about that.

Thirdly, I think that at some point you have to decide what kind of society you want to witness to. I’ve had a glimpse of compassion, sharing, caring and it feels a whole lot better to me than confrontation, violence, greed, etc. The danger in saying that society is brutal and then following that with the notion of preparing our children for it is that we accept the status quo and go on perpetuating it. I refuse to accept that way of living. I’ve seen and you have also seen that there is a better way for people to live and work and play together on this planet. And when this sense of caring gets firmly established within you, you have to act out of that source. You can’t help it.

But also see what happens when the caring isn’t there. Your relationships at all levels and of all kinds begin to change in the glow of caring. As a teacher I simply couldn’t go on doing the same old things as before. I had no new formulas, but the insight and intelligence newly uncovered began to work out better ways to teach and relate to the students in my care. In my family, life unfolded differently as well. The skills and values taught our children also just had to be different.

For us it meant moving out of the city and into a rural area. It eventually meant home-schooling and then a small parent-run school. We gave our energy to this kind of non-competitive environment for ourselves as adults and for the kids.

Now I admit that we were operating on faith about this, because at some point the kids would have to go to the local high school and then take their places as citizens in this brutal society you speak of. But Ruth and I had to find out, personally, if it was possible for people to live in a different way. Then maybe it would be possible for society elsewhere too.

Our girls are in high school now and the beginning was not without tears. They were inwardly prepared for all the competing for marks they knew would happen, but they were not as well prepared for competition for popularity, for peer approval. We worked through this and other traumas as a family. Our girls are friendly people and diligent students, curious and wanting to learn. So, they got to be liked in time and also got to be enjoyed by their teachers for being good students.

The girls have survived and thrived without being trained to compete, strive, and do all those things we think will better equip children to deal with a tough society. And they are not insecure, fearful, anxious as so many of their peers are. I think the key is that our girls don’t have a big emotional investment in winning and losing. They fail a test and look it over to see what went wrong. Winning and losing is not tied in with their sense of self-worth. They don’t feel somehow diminished as a person by not succeeding at something. But they do try to do their best – “get it right”. They have a self-confidence, flexibility, resilience that should serve them well when they become citizens. I am pleased with their growth and the intelligent adaptability they show in a competitive society. I want them to be good citizens in the special sense of goodness we have been talking about.

Q: Our family plays a lot of games and we get pretty enthusiastic about them. I’m wondering if it will be hard for us to play a co-operative game. It sounds like we would have a lot of re-educating to do.

A: Some reorientation will have to take place. You won’t have to view each other as enemies anymore, for one thing. Your enjoyment of games will take you a long way as incentive to play a co-op game. I think that the enthusiasm we have for games is a social impulse to do something enjoyable together. If that is your basic motivation, then you will adjust to a co-operative game quickly. However, if your enthusiasm and enjoyment have developed further than that and depend on gaining satisfaction from wiping out the other person, then you’ll have a tough time at first. You’ll be disoriented. You keep wanting to attack and keep waiting to be attacked and it never happens. Someone else gets in trouble and you can help out by sharing your carefully amassed fortune or else if you get in trouble and someone else extends a helping hand, you get confused. It’s a sad comment on our culture. But there it is. We see it every day writ large on the front pages of our newspapers. The fruits of a competitive way of life!

Q: Aside from all the serious ideas, are co-operative games at least fun to play?

A: I find them fun to play and it seems to me that anyone who experienced the games will agree that co-op games are indeed friendly forms of fun. I would like to add that for those who want to give their minds a good workout, we have challenging co-op strategy games as well. If you decide to play co-op games with your family, I think you will have an enjoyable, social time together.

Let me sum up this article. Games are used in various settings and for various reasons… Socialization, entertainment, academic learning and character growth to name some. Whatever your objective, I invite you to realize it by co-operative means. Parents and teachers trying to teach children to share, be kind to living things and to help others out are often troubled by games and recreation programs which undermine these values. Co-operative games provide the opportunity to experience sharing and caring behavior. My thesis is that we simply don’t have enough such experiences.

If you want to see an illustrated catalog of our co-operative board games, go to our website.

From an interview in The Games Journal