One year ago, almost to this day, I got an email from my friend, Bernie. We had been somewhat regularly in touch for a while, sharing ideas, thoughts and dreams. Like so many playful souls fortunate enough to meet “Blue”, I found in him a true kindred spirit, a beacon of hope and light.
So, the email. The subject was “hard news”, which was not a very Bernie-esque thing to write, you know, so I was instantly alarmed. Something was wrong. I knew he had health problems, but had no idea how severe, so suddenly reading “I was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. The doctor said I could possibly live for another year” hit me hard and made me sad (as it happens, he almost did live exactly one year from that day).
It was clear, however, that he had something other than sadness in mind. He didn’t want to dwell too much, and he certainly didn’t want me or anyone else to do so either:
So, anyhow, it’s kind of weirding me out this whole thing, so forgive me if this note is less than coherent. Fact is, I want to have as much fun as I possibly can have for as long as I can, and some of the best fun I have is helping other people have fun. Good luck – never mind, you won’t need it. But have fun, delight in all the delight you have helped manifest itself, accept the love.
Right there, my grief was almost entirely substituted with joy and hope, which, I guess, was exactly what he wanted. Shortly after I received the email, he bravely and completely unceremoniously announced it on his wonderful blog “Deep Fun”: “Hello. My Name Is Bernie. My Friends Call Me “Blue.” I Have Cancer And Maybe A Year To Live. This Is What I’d Like You To Do About It.”
Enough with the sadness. There’s too much of it in the world already. Way too. Do you really think I’d want there to be even more sadness? Who, me? Sure, a little grieving. Who can blame you? I, myself, am taking brief grief-breaks about every 22 minutes. But please, don’t let that distract you. Cancer, I say, schmancer.
If you want to do something for me or because of me, grieving is not what I need. What I need is for you to continue your play/work however you can. Play games. Play the kind of games I like to teach – you know, those “funny games” – harmlessly intimate, vaguely physical games of the semi-planned, spontaneous, just-for-fun ilk, basically without equipment, or goal, or score or reason, even.
Teach those games to everyone. Play them outside, these games. In public. With friends. And strangers. As many as want to play with you. Make up your own games. Make them up together with the people who play them. Play. Teach. Invent. Play some more.
Also especially – look into this playfulness thing too. Deeply. Because we’re not talking just games here. We’re talking about how you can let yourself be as playful as you’ve always been, how you can be playful almost anywhere with almost anyone, how you can invite people to be playful with you, in school and office and in the checkout line: all kinds of people with all kinds of abilities from all kinds of backgrounds.
He kept doing this, “Embracing Death. Celebrating Life“, openly and honestly, not pretending to be doing well, sharing the pain and suffering, admitting that “My body might not be able to keep my soul’s sometimes over-eager promises“, but insisting, nonetheless, on play. On living playfully, on seeing and accepting all the small invitations. As he kept saying, “playful people have more fun” (watching this now, hearing his gentle voice, almost makes me cry):
Until, one day, he said “Shalom And Au Revoir” and wished for us all that “may we be playful to the end“.
Some time before that, he wrote to me with the incredible generosity that was prevalent in everything he did: “Thinking of what I can do for you. What you need me to tell people about? what ideas of yours would you like my take on? Whatever is catching your heart”.
In a world where we’re usually taught to think more about ourself than anyone else, to always consider our own gain, Bernie refused to play along. He had a completely different, and exceptionally refreshing approach. It was not just “what can I do for you”, but also “what can we do together”? He was a constant reminder that play is all about generosity, reaching out, stretching to connect with the other, making an effort to create a deep, meaningful experience together.
See, this is what he talked about all the way back in the 70’s in “Creating the Play Community“:
We each take responsibility for discovering what we can enjoy together. It makes so much more sense to change the game than to try to change the people who are there to play (…) We are beginning to create a play community – not a forever community with a fixed code, but a temporary community with a code we make up as we go along, a community that we can continue creating anywhere, any time we want to create it with us (…) We begin the play community by embracing each other, by giving each person the opportunity to experience him- or herself as a full and equal member.
In play, we’re in it together, as we are in life.
To this day, I’m in awe of how he handled everything. When you have to face death, you’re inevitably forced to reflect upon the path you’ve chosen. If you do that and you still say to yourself and the world – “I want to keep on doing this for as long as I can”, well, you’ve been travelling along the right path; the playful path. It reminded me, maybe more than anything else, that if you consciously choose to live a playful life, to fully embrace and nurture play, you’ll get to look back, fondly, at a life well played.
I feel infinitely grateful for having known Bernie, for having had the privilege of calling him friend, for having joined him on his wonderful, playful path, if only for far too short a time. I felt he had some sort of trust in me, for whatever reason. He even told me that I should “be the champion of playfulness that I was in the way that you most want to be” and I was (and is) intimidated. As I told him, I could never do what he did. That magic touch, that graceful way of inviting play. I can’t do it. Always so kind, so eager to support and help, he assured me that “you don’t have to do what I do. Do what you do best.”.
I promise, Bernie, I will. I will do everything I can to honor you through my work & life, carrying your torch of play as far as I can.
While I’m saddened by his departure, and he leaves a big void behind with some huge shoes to fill, my spirits were instantly lifted when I saw the outpouring of love and reverence taking place across my social media streams:
Amy Beaupre shared a beautiful quote by Flavia Weedn:
“Some people come into our lives and quickly go. Some people move our souls to dance. They awaken us to a new understanding with the passing whisper of their wisdom. Some people make the sky more beautiful to gaze upon. They stay in our lives for awhile, leave footprints on our hearts, and we are never, ever the same.”
Some people move our souls to dance. That’s exactly what Bernie did, and with such beautiful ease, just by being present in a room.
Very sad to hear @BernieDeKoven has passed away. I had the pleasure of meeting him and playing games with him a few times, and he broadened my view on games and play in general. An inspiration to many game designers all over the world. https://t.co/0JBxi9MMc5
— Eline Muijres ✈️ GDC (@ElineMuijres) March 24, 2018
I'm sad to hear and share the news that my friend Bernie DeKoven has died, after an illness. Bernie was a game designer, an educator, and an inspiration to all who knew him and his work. pic.twitter.com/O48v32VuSr
— Richard Lemarchand (@rich_lem) March 24, 2018
What could be more beautiful than, even in death, continuing to inspire & encourage people all over the world to play & live a rich, playful life? What more could someone like us, the dreamers of the play community, ever aspire to? This is what encourages and emboldens me, even in the deep sadness, knowing that Bernie would have wanted us to approach his death as, quite simply, yet another invitation to play.
That’s how we honor him, remember him and keep his spirit alive for years and decades to come: we keep playing, we keep inviting people to join the play communities we cultivate all around the world, and we keep insisting that play needs no justification, no outcome, nothing but the sheer demonstration of freedom, joy and love that it is.