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If you've never heard of the New Games Foundation, you're missing one of the best things that ever happened to recreation. Armed with the slogan "play hard, play fair, nobody hurt," a group of young San Franciscans created the Foundation in 1974 (SI, Jan. 7, 1974). Its purpose is "to foster and communicate a style of play encouraging participation, community and creativity...playing for the fun of it." The movement gathered force, and last year NGF workshops in 44 cities were teaching people of assorted ages and cultural backgrounds how to experience the joys of pure play—and how to pass that enjoyment along to others.
Those who call New Games a vague alternative to big-money competitive sport—cooperation instead of competition—don't quite get the point. A New Games game can be very competitive. The difference is that it encourages participation by all. In Earthball, which is pictured on the cover of the New Games Resource Catalog, teams struggle to push a large canvas replica of the planet across goal lines. But, nearing their objective, players on the dominant team often switch sides to keep the game going. In New Games, everyone is ultimately on the same side.
New Games is built on a firm philosophical basis, as the catalog graphically demonstrates. The leaflet contains reviews of relevant books and excerpts from 25 articles from the indispensable New Games Book itself, including the study of play, children's games, street games, mime and theater. If the New Games Book and catalog pose any threat to the reader, it's the possibility of getting so wrapped up in them that one forgets to get up and play. And playing is indeed important.
In his book Homo Ludens, John Huizinga argues that religion, law, culture and other important forces in civilization began as play. Our concept of "progress," he implies, minimizes play's value. "As civilization becomes more complex...and as social life itself becomes more finely organized, the old cultural soil is gradually smothered under a rank layer of ideas, doctrines, rules and regulations, moralities and conventions which have lost all touch with play. Civilization...has grown more serious; it assigns only a secondary place to playing."
Children's Games in Street and Playground by Iona and Peter Opie has a contrasting view of children and their games: "When children play a game in the street they are often extraordinarily naive or, according to viewpoint, highly civilized. They seldom need an umpire, they rarely trouble to keep scores, little significance is attached to who wins or loses, they do not require the stimulus of prizes, it does not seem to worry them if a game is not finished."
The message is clear: society either attaches too little significance to games or ruins them with codification and regulation. Better to stop thinking so much and play as children do—in a childlike, but not childish, fashion.
So let's play. Moving from theory to execution, the New Games Resource Catalog suggests new games and offers new ways of playing old ones. If you favor low-cost, noncompetitive racket sports, look in the Playing with Equipment section to see how to construct a racket out of a coat hanger, a nylon stocking and tape. There are at least eight different games for this instant racket, suggested by Peter H. Werner and Richard A. Simmons, authors of Inexpensive Physical Education Equipment for Children.
What about a nonviolent form of Rock/Paper/Scissors? In the original, we display either a closed fist (rock), open palm (paper) or two fingers (scissors). The order of one-upmanship goes thusly: rock crushes scissors cuts paper wraps around rock—sometimes painfully. In the New Games version, two teams huddle to decide on symbols, face each other across a line and call out their symbol. The team that selects the winning symbol chases the losing team, trying to tag as many members as possible before they reach a free zone. The losers are not eliminated—they join the winners.
Transformed volleyball? The solution is simple: rotation. Players rotate as they do in the standard game, only from team to team instead of within a team. Accordingly, winning is less important than playing.
Not every game, of course, can be detailed in this catalog format. For reasonable mail-order prices, one can purchase Frisbee tips from the masters and an instructional on the simple—yes, simple—art of juggling. New Games equipment includes, among other things, bouncing, foam-rubber All Balls and parachutes, which open up an endless variety of games.