Thursday, February 14, 2008

The History of the New Games Foundation

Play Hard. Play Fair. Nobody Hurt.

"New Games" was a movement which began in the late 1960s. New Games encompasses a number of diverse philosophies that once challenged many old traditions about games. Some of these philosophies include:
  • Play and physicality were as important to adults as they were to children
  • Competition and cooperation should co-exist; but while competition can be important, winning and losing is not
  • No one should be left out, eliminated, or unable to play
  • Games are living culture, adapted and changed as required
  • Play should require no or little equipment
  • The rules should be dirt simple and fun
The guiding philosophy infusing all of these was: Play Hard. Play Fair. Nobody Hurt.

The New Games Foundation was founded to promote these philosophies after several New Games events were held in California in the early 1970s. It prospered for a while, producing two successful books: The New Games Book and More New Games.

Eventually, the changing times, differences in which philosophies to stress, and some financial setbacks brought the foundation to a close in 1990 (**).

While the foundation is gone, the philosophy of New Games lives on in modern cooperative games, team building activities at workplaces, and other formats. Several of the original directors and trainers continue to promote New Games activities in their current lines of work.


The origins of both the New Games movement and the New Games Foundation can be found in the first book, The New Games Book. It began with Stewart Brand.

Stewart was a member of the Merry Pranksters, Ken Kesey's communal, hippie, drug-using group made famous by Tom Wolfe in his book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Stewart published The Whole Earth Catalog, something of a hippie's bible containing tools and ideas that were supposed to serve you throughout life. Stewart's later life achievements also include founding The Well (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link) online community.

When an anti-war group in 1966 asked him to create a public activity to oppose the war, he created the game Slaughter. Slaughter was a game of no-holds barred physical combat with nearly no rules except: throw everyone else out of the ring, and dunk the six foot ball over "the other side of the field".

Slaughter was a game of intense physicality and competition, which was almost a slap in the face to the event organizers who preached non-violence. On the other hand, the actual experience of Slaughter was art. The ball was painted like a small Earth. It was impossible for everyone not to be involved. Teams were not declared, they simply formed. But interestingly enough whenever the ball got closer to one side of the field, people spontaneously switched sides to defense.

There were the two "teams", who were really one team, pushing the Earth in different directions for no apparent reason, but switching sides to help out when the other side was losing. If that's not art, nothing is.

Out of this experience, Stewart teamed up with George Leonard, a famous Aikido master and proponent of Eastern thought, and Pat Farrington, a community organizer, to propose the first New Games weekends in October, 1973. 6,000 people showed up.

Stewart's idea was that people needed to play, and that play could suit everyone's needs. George brought the notion that playing creatively and hard did not necessarily imply having to win; he believed that cooperation was a key step to moving society forward. Meanwhile, Pat was a key proponent of the idea that cooperation, inclusion, and trust were essential ingredients in these new games.

Stewart went back to his own work, while Pat stayed on to help organize the next New Games tournament with the help of Ray Murray, who worked with San Fransisco parks. The events were held in the outdoors; a major part of the philosophy included the idea of getting back in touch with the outdoors. Several thousand more people came to this event, as well as the third and fourth ones.

The magic of the events was that everyone was included. Some of the games were old standbys, such as Tug of War, only with several hundred players all playing at once and switching sides whenever one side was winning. Some of the games were totally new. Organizers showed a group how to play by gathering and playing with them. Then they picked someone else to organize the next group. So players became organizers, and organizers were players. A few people circulated reminding people to play hard, play fair, nobody hurt. The rules changed as necessary to accommodate different numbers and types of players.

Most of the games required no equipment, but some special equipment was used for some games: a large rope for tug of war; giant six foot cloth-covered and painted Earth balls for cooperative or competitive ball games; and parachutes for an assortment of cooperative activities and games.

The New Games Foundation was born along with the second event. The second and third events received national mainstream media coverage (e.g. Time Magazine's 1978 article). Organizations, schools, and communities across the United States, and eventually around the world, began asking for help running their own events and workshops.


The Foundation's founders were good at their vision, but not always as good at their business. "Successful" events sometimes left them in debt. They couldn't always take salaries. The first book almost didn't make it to print.

The first book, The New Games Book, was edited by Andrew Fluegelman. It contains dozens of games for two to two hundred or more players. Most of the games have rules that are a sentence or two long. Many are what I would consider activities rather than games. But many are highly intense, physical, and competitive.

The book also contains a history of New Games up to that point, ideas for how to form and run New Games events, and articles by Stewart Brand, George Leonard, and Bernie DeKoven. Bernie was, as he still is today, something of a hippie, a game designer, and a play facilitator.

After the fourth tournament, Bernie (a co-director), along with play enthusiast John O'Connell (also a co-director), and the Foundation's executive director Burton Naiditch, developed training programs in New Games. They guided, or trained others to guide, hundred of sessions and tens of thousands of people in several countries; one of whom was Dale LeFevre (see below). This was the bulk of the Foundation's work, much of it based on Bernie's professional play training experience at the Games Preserve. Bernie left in 1979.

The second book, More New Games, follows the same format as the first one, but subtle changes were already taking place.

The new book wasn't edited by one person, but by a board that included Nancy, Pam, Ray, and Bill Michaelis. While not devoid of physical activity and competition, the tone of the games and the editorials in the second book place far more emphasis on cooperative feel-good activities. There's a lot more chanting, group circles, and so on. It seems to my untrained eye that the direction of New Games had shifted away from the no-hold-barred physicality originated by Stewart and George.

According to John O'Connell, by the mid-1980s the first book had sold 750,000 copies and the second 250,000.

Decline (*)

The 1980s brought about a radically different culture from the 1970s. The "Me" generation were less into cooperation and more into personal success.

Meanwhile, the loose, change-the-rules culture that worked so well for New Games was not always as successful at the Foundation. Groups usually got their training and equipment, but it wasn't always easy to keep track of who had what, how much came in, and whether or not the insurance was paid last month.

A few nasty incidents occurred. In one particular case, an Earth Ball, often sold or rented out by the Foundation, may or may not have been lent to a certain college in Ohio for a New Games event. A passerby saw the ball and tried to climb up and balance on it. He broke his neck. He sued the college, the Earth ball manufacturers, and the Foundation for good measure.

While the Foundation did, in fact have insurance to cover this suit, the policy had been misplaced. The director spent three years covering lawyers fees out of the Foundation's money as the case dragged out. The drain on the Foundation's finances was only topped by the drain on the spirit of the members. In the end, the insurance policy was found and all money recouped, but it was too late to restore the Foundation's spirit. And this was not the only personal injury lawsuit the Foundation had to endure.

Furthermore, the philosophies of New games take many forms. Some are more competitive and physical, others more cooperative and peaceful. Some are into international world-changing, others into local community-building. Some wanted to use the game format to engender change in other areas of life, while others wanted to stick specifically to games. The board, the directors, and the trainers began to drift their separate ways.

Finally, the Foundation was closed in 1990 (**). According to John, all assets, as well as rights and licenses, were sold to the YMCA. I couldn't find any reference to this on the net or on YMCA's site.


The Foundation was closed, but the idea of New Games lives on in corporate team building exercises, camp activities, cooperative games, and other places you might not expect.

As an example, John O'Connell and Bill Michaelis were approached by NBC before the start of the Survivor TV series to join on as possible consultants. After all, Survivor is a bunch of people playing cooperative physical games. It was a tempting offer, but the direction the TV studio wanted to go was too far from the New Games principles, according to John. There was no way (initially) for the viewers at home to participate, which made it more spectator than sport. And elimination is fine for a game when there's no strong consequences for being eliminated; if you're playing for a million dollars, it's no longer play for play's sake.

I occasionally run across academic reference to New Games, such as this paper (PDF) on how to bring New Games concepts into the digital age. The paper equates the cooperative and game changing elements in some online games with those of New Games (and also recounts a New Games seminar taught by Bernie in 2004).

I asked John the same question about how New Games might apply in this world of modern video games, and he also pointed out the cooperative aspects of many MMOGs. He couldn't say much more about it as he doesn't play these games, although his son does.

Where Are They Now?

Many of the original figures of the New Games Foundation are still involved with promoting the aspects of New games that most interested them:

Interestingly enough, I asked Pat Farrington what's up with her and New Games and she wrote back that she was never more than on the periphery of the movement.

There are a couple of sad notes. Burton Naiditch passed away twenty years ago or more. Andrew Fluegelman developed cancer and his car was found near the Golden Gate bridge in 1985. He has never been seen since and is presumed by his friends and family to have committed suicide.

In 1982, John and Bill Michaelis started an annual program with city of Pacifica, CA which is running until today. Every September they get 50 to 100 participants in New Games activities, although they need to limit it to 75 due to space constraints.

John still does training sessions sometimes on request. His main work now is corporate team-building exercises. John and Bill also wrote The Game and Play Leader's Handbook in the 1990s.

Bill teaches New Games here and there (at the University of San Francisco, department of Recreation).

Dale LeFevre runs a site INewGames, using the terms, branding, and trademarks of the New Games Foundation; I don't think with permission, but I'm not entirely sure. I was unable to contact Dale or the other contact person listed on the website via email, nor was my call to the telephone number listed on the site returned.

Dale wrote a number of new books on the subject of New Games, including: New Games for the Whole Family (which uses the same look and feel as the two Foundation books; the subtitle implies that the book is a Foundation approved book, which I don't think is the case), Best New Games (with Todd Strong), Parachute Games (with Todd Strong), and The Spirit of Play, as well as several videos, DVDs, CD-ROMs, and so on with the New Games logos and branding.

Todd Strong's main field is Juggling, Dice Stacking, and other physical body tricks, for which he has produced a number of books and videos.

Bernie DeKoven is well-known. Aside from his excellent blog and his long-running Major Fun awards, he also pushes his own play philosophy, which he calls "Deep Fun" and is described in his books The Well-Played Game and Junkyard Sports.

I asked Bernie how his Junkyard Sports relates to the work of New Games:
Glad you asked that. It's one of my favorite questions. The one aspect of New Games that we had the most difficulty communicating was the idea that people could create their own. The New Games movement largely became based on a fixed, and eventually closed repertoire of games. That was very much contrary to what we (and certainly I) wanted to communicate. The most luck we had was when, during the New Games Trainings, we asked people to try to combine two sports and see what they came up with. It seemed to work well. They came up with some original games, some of which eventually became part of the New Games repertoire. Junkyard Sports is built on the kind of pick-up, informal sports that kids play - usually with the "wrong" equipment (junk), in the "wrong" spaces (on the streets, with the "wrong" people - neighbors. Here is a great resource describing games of that ilk. So, Junkyard Sports built on that tradition, to embody the spirit of New Games (Play Fair, Play Hard, Nobody Hurt), and inspire people to carry it forward with their own myriad of player-made games.
Bernie still runs New Games seminars and other play and game events; you can see videos of some of some of his sessions on his website. He and Todd are coming out with a new book, soon.

I think that the philosophy of the modern Euro-games I enjoy also embody some of the New Games philosophy. The Settlers of Catan is as much about cooperation as it is about competition. And challenging cooperative games like Lord of the Rings and Shadows Over Camelot exemplify the ideas of hard, fun competition without too much worry over winners and loser.


(*) Much of the remaining information came from personal conversations with John O'Connell and Bernie DeKoven, as well as other research.

(**) Update June 17, 2012: According to updated information from Bernie DeKoven, who received updated information from John LaRue and John O'Connell, the foundation was actually closed in 1983.
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