New Games of Old: In Search of the Well-Played Game

… of Old

I had won.

At the of eleven I had come first in a competition at the local high school fair. The goal was to decorate your ride. Atop the decorated spokes of my bespoke scooter, I took my rightful place at the head of the parade, itself the culmination of the day’s festivities. The adulation I awaited never came. I expected to be flanked by the bikes and other scooters I had conquered. As it turned out I was the only entrant. Playing to win didn’t feel like play at all.

As the parade formed the excitement seem to come from behind me. The crowd I expected to move towards me was in fact forming around what appeared to a giant ball decorated to look like the earth. Anything taller than me was by definition giant so a six foot diameter ball certainly qualified. The crowd jostled the ball. The crowd found play in keeping the huge ball aloft, moving in the direction the parade moved. I can remember that image to this day, decades later.

I can’t remember what I won.

Later that year I didn’t win the election to become school captain. Such lofty heights were reserved for the footy jocks. Vice-Captain was as close as I got and that was a fine role. The image of that giant ball had stuck with me. With the support and prodding of my mother I went outside my comfort zone to call the gentleman who ran the group that played with the giant ball. I was elated when he said he’d be willing to come to my primary school.

The name of his group was New Games. At that age all I knew was that they could bring that ball to the school and that seemed like fun. I didn’t expect more than a few people to come to the event. The adults decided to suggest 50 to give the gentleman a limit to plan for. The gentleman came with a small crew, a parachute and the ball. On that fine evening for play, so did 300 people.

What happened that evening was the difference for me between games and play. For a game planned for 50, 300 folks become a problem. The rules would have to change. New agreements. Trades offs to the true definition of the planned game. Delays in starting. Maybe people turned away.

When all that is planned is the chance to play, 300 people turning up gets more than more play. The gentleman and his crew effortlessly spun up games without needing more props. Play multiplied. With their help we found new ways to play. For them I imagine came the joy of finding play when they had not expected to need it. True to the name of the group, we played New Games until we could not see each other anymore.

A Return to Past Playing

I had forgotten about that day of play. I grew up and became serious. As time went on play started to creep back in to my thoughts. Playing with daughters. Coaching soccer. Changing careers from engineering to managing to a journeyman servant leader of Agile [software development] teams. I saw the word “play” appear as I read and learned. It caused me to poke around texts on play. One day for no reason in particular I searched for “New Games”, maybe to see if the ball was still around. My life arced back in on itself as I discovered New Games was not an isolated group’s name in now far off Australia. It was a movement that spawned a foundation that offered the books and training that had led no doubt to my experience with it. One of the directors of the Foundation was Bernie De Koven, the author of what has become one of my favorite books on play,”The Well-Played Game”. I leave it to another, sadly recently departed, master of play to describe Bernie’s unique and warming view of play:

I like to think of it as ‘kindly fun’—like the fun that families share when they are enjoying each other, or the fun that children share with each other when they are feeling safe and free from supervision.—Brian Sutton-Smith, author of “The Ambiguity of Play”

New Games

Every few months our large software program gathers for a day to plan the next release. The day starts with presentations on aspirations. This day the themes seemed to be about how connected the systems we dealt with were and the challenges that created. Even though we are working in a government project in a very challenging context, the mission of our work is motivation itself. We had finally turned a corner on meeting the genuine needs of the organization’s customer. We celebrated the stories that showed how we were finally making their lives better.The client gave a wonderfully motivating talk about “Playing to Win”. It was based around a typical sports analogy to describe how we must focus on always trying to win and how coming second never feels as good. With a surge of energy we attacked the planning process.

The process is structured yet chaotic. The client gets to see how the sausage is made and we have to create the illusion we are not merely grinding good ideas and jamming  them into casings called Sprints. With over 100 people this game is seldom well-played. Each team takes a corner of the room and goes about negotiating the size of chunks of work and the assignment or resources to do it. The Sprints’ contents are represented with flip chart sheets representing the Sprint and post-it notes for each task or deliverable. We regroup throughout the day to see what challenges are emerging.

It is noisy and messy but seems to meet the needs of those keen to leave with a plan in hand. This time it was particularly noisy. We were crammed into a room that was too small for the purpose. It was not the side conversations that alone were a problem. Whatever was happening in the conference room next door was very distracting. It sounded like an all day party was happening with random hoots and hollers. We couldn’t imagine that group being involved in anything as purposeful as our detailed deliberations.

Adding Play to the Day

At the end of the day we regrouped to listen to the results of the teams. Standing in front of flip charts of summary stickies, team leads ran the gamut from the cheerful to cautionary. After all the teams presented, I ran what has become a tradition where I finish off with a bit of a frivolity around a vote of commitment called Fist of Five. My intro resonated with the themes of the day. Firstly, Connectedness – in this case of the teams to their work for the next release but also Play. Rather than “Playing to Win”, I talked of how important play was to the workplace to foster the innovation the client had earlier celebrated.

It’s a challenge to make the exercise a little different each release. I had wanted to add something like The Lap Game but the space was too small. Instead I cottoned onto the idea of using the “noisies” next door as inspiration. Rather than the teams just voting one after another, I would count to three and have the whole room squeal. As soon as the squeal went out the team voting would thrust out their fists. It worked well. We made jokes about that play people added themselves, like the guy who had to look up at his own fingers to remind him how he voted and the other guy who made his vote 2 ½ by “blinking” a finger up and down. It was energetic, it was a different, it engaged all in the room. It felt like a better way to play.

The following speaker struggled to run a retrospective on the day over the commotion of next door. It was then, the client revealed what they had learned was the reason for the commotion. On the other side of those thin walls the Tourette Syndrome Association was running Youth Ambassador Training with teens that have TS. The mood  of our room sank with that sense of self loathing and self judgment that needs no words. The day could not end soon enough.


Somehow I did not feel that sense of having done something wrong. My recent understanding gained from reading and practicing Non-Violent Communications told me that the self judgement was an opportunity to check in with myself. The long trip home gave me the silence.

I came to the conclusion that I didn’t feel bad because I didn’t play to hurt the folks next door. I had found a way to use what was in our space, their noise, to find a better way we could play. I also concluded that rather than damage my case for play, it made my point. Stuart Brown talks of how when we “grow-up” we leave behind the very playfulness that was the secret to our becoming resilient on our journey through adulthood. As we tend to judge those who continue embrace play as frivolous and wasteful, we inadvertently label and separate us from them. That day, in the classification of our neighbors “condition” we found some unwanted sense of superiority. We allowed ourselves to win against them when they had never asked to be a part of our game.

This then was a source of our self judgement. Before the label of Tourette Syndrome we saw them as spontaneous. We imagined them as having more fun than us and felt some form of envy. We assumed they had some form of intentional disrespect for our sacred ceremonies of software. They of course were being themselves, exhibiting an analogy to spontaneity we lose as we “grow-up” and reject options to play. Their day was spent teaching teens to become ambassadors for TS to bring the understanding necessary to counter a judgmental label. That is, to invite the likes of us to their play and to find a common ground in some well-played game that might seed a greater sense of fellowship.

I’ll leave it to Bernie to say what I can’t. how this experience has ended up reaffirming how I see the workplace as a well-played game:

“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” ~ Bernie De Koven “The Well-Played Game”


About guywinterbotham

An Agile Buccaneer navigating the corporate storm
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