Hope, Peace and Play
An Interview With Jim Deacove of Family Pastimes
Anyone who's looked seriously into specialty games over the last few decades must have come across a game created by Jim Deacove. I know I did, and I never took them very seriously. I remember when I first found his games on a website several years ago. I was somewhat intrigued by the idea of his cooperative approach to game play, but the games looked like an experiement to me and nothing that would have lasting value. When I found several of his games while rummaging through a stack in a large toy store one day, I was even less impressed. The small boxes cried out "small-press publishing" to me and I barely gave them a second look. Certainly if this cooperative thing was something of value big publishers would take a look, right?
Several years later, when I had children of my own, I found one of Jim's games in a thrift shop. It was Round-Up, his game based around saving horses in a mountain region. I figured my daughter and son might enjoy it and for less than $2, I had little to lose. I admit I was still skeptical when we first played, but I soon saw the value of a cooperative game. My children were excited, we worked together and discussed plans. At the end, whether we were successful or not in saving all five horses, we had a chance to talk about what worked and what didn't. It was a very refeshing experience compared to simultaneously trying to convince one of them to be a good winner and the other to not be a sore loser after playing our usual games.
Encouraged by that first (and the many that followed) experience with Round-Up, I contacted Family Pastimes to add some or all of the games to the Fair Play catalog. I wasn't sure how well they'd sell, so we only picked up a few copies of a number of titles Jim suggested. Much to my satisfaction, they sold very well. It was nearing the holiday season and many customers dropped one or more Family Pastimes games in their online shopping carts while shopping for gifts. We had to place a second order with Jim quickly to re-stock a number of titles. Terry ended up ordering copies of everything available and, well after the holidays, they still continue to sell steadily.
After doing some research on Jim's games and his company I came to realize cooperation is an idea he takes very seriously. It's the passion of his heart. As I conducted this interview with Jim, it was very exciting for me to me to hear, in his own words, how he's expressed a serious life's mission through the playful medium of games.
Mike Petty: First off Jim, could you give us some background on you and your family?
Jim Deacove: I come from a poor farming family in Western Canada. Two important factors arise from my childhood. First, being poor we could not afford much in the way of Christmas presents and I remember examining at length, and lovingly, the thick Eaton's Christmas Catalogues you got for free. My mother says that I used to study the color photographs of games such as Monopoly and out of scraps around the house make up my own versions with my own rules.
Secondly, being born in November meant that I was too young to start school. In those days, you had to be six years old before September. For me, it meant that I had an entire year to play and imagine. Later on, I can see upon reflection that growing up in a farming community was also very formative in my approach to designing games. I come from a background of wheat pools, credit unions, social health care, the entire federated cooperative movement that helped folks survive very difficult times by pulling together.
MP: What did you do for a living during the pre-Family Pastimes days?
JD: Bread on the table came from a variety of jobs, such as short order cook, when selling my artwork and playing in a jazz band just didn't bring in sufficient bucks. Did some high school teaching in public schools and later in a free school based on Summerhill principles that I helped start. This followed by 35 years of the games business. My mother still wants to know when I am going to get a real job.
MP: I know you've told it elsewhere online, but do you mind re-telling the story of how you were inspired to create cooperative games?
JD: I answer by remembering ... I'm in our backyard on the porch watching the neighborhood 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 occur.
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 hip-itty-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, felt very right.
MP: So, it's clear your work with cooperative games goes well beyond just finding a niche in the game market. You have a passion for cooperation--for people working together. Why did you decide to pour this passion into designing cooperative games rather than, say, writing books on the concept?
JD: I am a better visualizer than a verbalizer. As a child I drew and painted more than I read and wrote. Add to this that others, such as Alfie Kohn and J. Krishnamurti, have already written and spoken to this issue with such profundity that I think I should stick to making my social statement with the games. And also by trying to live the concept.
MP: I lead a game club at the school where I teach. I can think of countless incidents where competitive games have brought out an ugly side of students. Still, I have found great value in viewing competition as a means to push my opponent or opponents to do their best. Would you agree that both competitive and cooperative games can accomplish this if the players keep such goals in mind while they play?
JD: Yes, both modes can accomplish the goals you describe. In my own teaching experience and in our family, I found that the use of competitive games and other incentives did achieve short term objectives, but in the long term cooperative games and methods were better tools to achieve the same objectives. I found that while competitive games did bring quicker results, those results faded quickly as well and needed more reinforcement all the time. Cooperative games tended to foster an understanding of why some forms of behavior were desirable and once understanding the why is in place, you don't have to keep reinforcing and reinforcing through rewards, punishments and comparisons, which is what competition is all about. Competing is essentially comparing, even self-competition is drawing comparisons between what you are and what you aspire to be. I think you can accomplish all your goals in the classroom, the family, the neighborhood, in business by using cooperative methods. I
invite you to try it. Yes, it may take longer and be messier, but everyone seems to feel better and less stressed about it.
MP: Once you were turned on to the idea of cooperative games, did you ever play competitive games with your family again?
JD: Not for many years. We did play some competitive games, but always ended up trying to redesign them to make them cooperative or else have as many cooperative elements as we could.
MP: Are you still designing new games even now?
JD: Oh, yes. Last year (2004) was probably one of the most productive years in a long time--six new games and most of them for adult play, meaning much longer periods of research and design work spent on them than I do with games for younger ages. And I have three new ones coming out this year, so far.
MP: I'm sure it varies from game to game, but is there a general approach you take when you create a cooperative game?
JD: The only common element is that I draw from my own life experiences and after that initial inspiration the approaches vary a great deal. For example, my wife and I were vacationing in Arizona. We did a lot of driving around, following a travel plan based on our reading of Tony Hillerman's mysteries. The ranches we drove by and visited as well as the controversy about how to rescue the mustangs that were perishing in desert areas all became the spark for my Round-Up game. I tend to filter out the cooperative element from my life experiences. I saw ranchers pulling together to save the horses. We visited China and I didn't notice the building cranes and crush of cars with business booming everywhere. I saw instead the fishing cooperatives working together to bring food to various small communities. So once a particular theme grips me, the process of finding the "right" mechanisms to serve the theme begins. Also the graphic layout flows from the theme as well.
It occurs to me that underneath the general concept of cooperation, there is yet a more fundamental element that drives my designs. Often, I hear that there is a new cooperative game on the market and I rush out, buy, and try it out. In most cases, I find that I differ in what I define as cooperative with what other designers define it. My own rule of thumb is a cooperative game is one in which people are never against players. However, some designers describe their games as cooperative if during play you can form alliances, which you are free to break later on. Bottom line is that players at some point are still opposed to each other to become the ultimate winner and the rest become losers.
The designs of mine that to my mind are the purest are those in which players are not only not against each other, but they are also not against the game or some element in the game. For example, one of my wooden tabletop games, Pin n Ball, is often played with little success, because the players so imbued with our competitive culture that they make Gravity their enemy, while if they employed some understanding and finesse, they would learn to work with Gravity and do much better at the game.
Another example, is my board game, Mountaineering. Often players consider the Mountain as their enemy, instead of viewing it as just there. Yes, oxygen gets thinner the closer to the Summit you get. Yes, there will be snow-slides. Yes, there will be icy passages. But the Mountain is not out to get you with these natural occurrences. If, the team of players plans their strategies well, makes sure they bring along proper equipment, etc. the climb will be exhilarating. In short, learn how to get along with Mother Nature.
A further example, would be some of my card games that I call Talkies. They are pure cooperative games in that players are going through a process of exploration and discovery, assisting each other along the way. Games such as Personal Portraits, First Impressions and Not An Island are Process games.
I counsel people to approach all my games in this way, even if at times it appears on the surface that the game is your enemy. Probe a little deeper and see how the sharing and caring dynamic is really quite different. It take some catching on to, like learning to ride a bike or dance with someone. Don't fight with it. Get coordinated with the bike or your dance partner.
MP: I'm not familiar with these games you mentioned. Could you explain what the goal would be in your "Talkies" or your Process games? For example, is there a way in which players could win or lose together?
JD: Talkies and Process games are essentially the same. It is a matter of emphasis in how the game is mainly played. In Talkies, dialoguing is the primary "mechanism" in the game play, while the actual equipment of cards, movers, maps, is a subordinate factor, often just used to keep track of the results of the players' dialoguing. In the classroom game Together, for example, the players are attempting to solve World Problems with the equipment cards provided as the mechanism to provoke the talking. So, the emphasis is not on winning and losing, but developing strategies to solve World Problems.
Is there winning and losing? Yes, you could say that if a group is unable to come to a consensus on a solution, this would be experienced as a loss. However, in a Process game such as Personal Portraits, where there is some talk, but the manipulation of the cards, charts, koans and various booklets play a more dominant role in the game dynamics than the discussions. Again, there is no winning and losing, as we usually define these terms, but you could stretch these terms to say that at the game's end, when each player can correct the portrait others have created of you, you could say they may have failed to see you as you see yourself. But at no point is anyone striving to be a winner with the other players becoming losers. At least as we commonly use the terms, winning and losing.
MP: This also leads to a more general question. What distinguishes your games from being simply an activity?
JD: This is one of those interesting questions which provokes so many other interesting questions that we could have the makings of a masters thesis if we aren't careful. At what point can a game become only an activity? Is it when we refocus certain elements, such as competition? In other words, when we change what the obstacles are? After all, where is it written in stone that the obstacles we must overcome in a game should be the other people participating? And at what point does a game become an activity if we diminish the competitive element so that the competition is barely recognizable? In other words, if it looks like a game, smells like a game, plays like a game, but we aren't in conflict with each other or even with the game system, is it still a game? There are those who say no, it is no longer a game. I always ask them to define what they mean by game, so we can be clear that we are still talking about fruit, even though you may be talking about apples and I am talking
about oranges. You see, I welcome these shades of difference in kinds of games and add that the more alternatives there are, the richer the buffet is for gamers. But we aren't finished turning this question over yet.
It might clarify our perspectives or possibly muddy it further if we also ask, at what point does an activity become a game? Collecting stamps, dancing, skiing, cleaning one's room, brushing one's teeth "feel" like activities to me, but I know parents who make a "game" of brushing teeth and cleaning one's room by introducing sometimes competitive and sometimes cooperative elements.
Further, in this exploration of ideas, we should consider the matter of social interaction. Does Solitaire qualify as a game? Cards, rules, objectives, winning and losing are there. It must be a game. But no social interaction-unless someone is looking over your shoulder and participating, making it a cooperative "game". If Solitaire it is not really a game, but just an activity, then shouldn't the title of Games Magazine be changed to Mostly Solitaire Activity Magazine?
And what about a computer game? A kid sitting in front of a computer manipulating a "game" program-is that really a game or just an activity? It certainly lacks the social, people factor....
My last question would be directed at the Game of Living in Society we play each day. Has our daily life moved from being an activity to being a game? Every day, as I deal with promotions via fax, email, telephone, surveys, political solicitations, specials, options, choices, rewards I ask, why is Life beginning to resemble a Reiner Knizia game? Is Life now imitating Game Art or vice versa? Just kidding.
MP: No, I feel the same way myself at times! What's the design and playtest process like for your games?
JD: I have to confess that I am not very cooperative or committee oriented when I design a game. I first make it for myself and do all the testing myself. The entire game with all its variations and play options is developed in my own mind and imagination and at all times, awake or asleep. Ruth knows I am "creating" by my glassy-eyed look at dinner and/or by seeing my lips moving and my hands clawing at my shirt pocket for pen and notebook.
When I feel the design is complete, I get to work finishing the artwork so that the entire game is ready to publish. At this point, I leave the whole thing to cool off in my studio.
A week later I will come back to it, do a little bit of tweaking of the concept or rule polishing. I usually don't reveal a design to family, friends or our weekly game group until I feel it is ready to publish. I don't want to inflict roughs on them, waste their time testing a design or whatever. I want to give them as close to a finished game experience as possible. I admire those designers who print at the end of their game rules an extensive list of thank-yous to the twenty people who helped them with their design.
That is why many years ago I started my own game manufacturing facility, because early on I turned down many a contract from American as well as European publishers who wanted to alter my designs, sometimes for cultural reasons, sometimes for economic reasons, and also to enhance marketability, changing cooperative concepts to competitive formats. Too many cooks don't always make for a better soup.
MP: Did I understand you right that you do the artwork for your games?
JD: Yes, my training is in fine arts and design. When I had more courage, years and years ago, I had a painting studio and sold my paintings and drawings to put bread on the table and wine in the glass. So the artwork as well as the design for my games has always been done by myself. I still have an art studio apart from the manufacturing facility-not used to finish the artwork as much, though. Trying to run a growing business as well as design games means that more and more I am jobbing out my pencil roughs and specs to other illustrators for coloring and inking. I still do the photography, write-ups, promotional materials and the finishing touches on the packaging. I also enjoy designing the steel rule dies and other mechanicals in our wood and tooling cottage. I also now make use of a variety of computer software to assist me in this work as well as with the game graphics.
MP: You mentioned starting up your company. Could you give us a brief overview of the early beginnings and how the company has grown over the years?
JD: I didn't want to do this, you know. I took my ideas to the Pooh-Bahs of the big game companies first. I had just as many rejections as someone gets to their first novel. Even our local bank wouldn't lend us money to start the business. We began in our garage, put teacher pension money into a printing press and silkscreen equipment, took over the living room and basement of the house, making stuff by hand in small quantities, hit the road with truck and children to craft shows, flea markets, conferences of all sorts. Went to retailers, who were kind, but not interested.
We went to Trade Shows and got some interest from European publishers, but they wanted the right to make changes to enhance marketability. Which, when pressed for details, turned out to be an interest in the idea, but the wish to change the game idea into a competitive one. I remember, for example, the president of a U.K. company wanting my Harvest Time game in which the children are neighbors helping each other gather in their veggies before Winter comes. He thought the game would sell better if it were competitive and wanted to have the neighbor who finished first to win and also if other neighbors were starting to get ahead to introduce, say, a groundhog into the other neighbor's garden to slow them up. I pointed out that I was rooted in reality and, if I tried that with my neighbor, he would take offense and hurt me for sure.
After many tiring years on the road, [there were] family considerations such as kids wanting to go to school. We ventured into the mail order market, advertising in hundreds of magazines, newspapers, journals. That was when the business really grew. The volume of sales enabled us to build and equip a proper facility, hire help and begin the wholesale service. We have phased out the mail order service and at present concentrate on supporting our retailers. Our adventures with chains such as Toys R Us, major catalog houses, and middle level distributors is another chapter that some day I will write up and call The Further Adventures of Jim and Ruth in Alice's Wonderland.
MP: What's the biggest challenge for you when creating these games?
JD: Getting it right. I have talked to many painters, poets, novelists, playwrights, musicians and I have heard over and over that very same phrase - getting it right. And, I just know when it is right. Of course, my notebooks and shelves are full of designs that I never got right. I revisit some of them, waiting for the muse to speak to me again about them.
MP: With over thirty years of experience running Family Pastimes, I'm sure you've received a lot of feedback from families who have enjoyed your games. Does a particular case stand out that has always been very meaningful to you?
JD: I paused to search the memory banks for an answer. Truthfully, every response, even those who hate my games, is always spectacular. Be it a child in a school somewhere far away who loves a game, a parent who reconnects with their children, a speech therapist who values the communication skills nurtured, a hardcore gamer who finds it refreshing to put aside war games for a friendly game experience, and so on. I especially value putting up a table at various conferences, doing a workshop, doing a play day at a game store at which I get instant feedback.
I remember when the president of a large game company undertook to mass market in Canada about six of my most popular titles and when we signed the contract, he said that I was on the point of taking the next step and becoming a success. My reply then still holds true. When I sold my first game off a card table at the local flea market, I felt wildly successful.
By the way, that company tried to take the next step and deal with Wal-Mart. Bankruptcy resulted after some brutal negotiations about pricing and returns. So, my caution to designers is the next step may be down the staircase of so-called success.
MP: What's been your best selling game?
JD: I have had two big-for-me sellers. One year, I sold 20,000 Untrivia games, 10,000 of them in Sweden. I think that people were tiring of trivia games and to have a question game, the answers to which yield valuable and useful information, struck a chord with folks.
Another year, I sold 50,000 Behind the Secret Door. I felt that a combination of factors were at work here. It won several awards. It got big play in the media, consumer columns, TV interviews. Also, it's a children's game and cooperative games sell best for the younger ages. Lots of reasons for that. In short, it got a lot of publicity, most of it free. The best kind. That's what I think, although my sales reps tell me that, yeah, you can't discount publicity, but if the game is not a good game, then people won't like it, no matter how much hype it receives.
MP: What do you see as some of those reasons cooperative children's games sell better?
JD: We rightly think that children are more vulnerable to the slings and arrows of Society, so we feel protective and affectionate toward them, before we throw them out into the nasty future. And a lot of parents and teachers see that values such as kindness, sharing, helping each other are still worth something. Any kind of resource that nurtures these values in children, with the hope that these same values will be learned and transferred into adolescence and adulthood, seems to be part of the answer to your question. Care and hope, in short. Although, I have run across the unfortunate attitude that by the time a human is a teenager or an adult, it is too late to change. The die is cast-or is it rolled? Why do we feel that having some friendly fun is more suitable for children than for teens and adults?
The other attitude I hear often is that to survive in society, you need different skills than when you are young and learning to socialize. Teens and adults need the skills to do battle. So, cooperative games are of no value at these ages.
Isn't it interesting that in the U.K. the government wants to have schools for older kids learning the so-called old values of respect, politeness, kindness, cooperation? Whether institutionalizing such programs will work remains to be seen. Still it is heartening that there are people who see the need for teens and adults to develop a different set of values.
Bottom line-depends on the vision you have for society. Each of us has to make our choice for what vision we commit to and support. For the planet, I choose affection and peace.
MP: Which of your games is your personal favorite?
JD: All 95 of them have a special place, but my current labors of love are always my favorites. This Spring, my three new ones are called, Ogres & Elves, and extending the Somewhere In China into a series, the other two are titled, Somewhere In Honduras and Somewhere In The Rockies.
The first is a fantasy game resulting from talks with my four little grandchildren, who are big into the fantasy world and have taught me much about this subject. The other two titles result from further travels and observing the interesting ways that humans work together to accomplish something.
MP: Besides selling your games, do you do anything else to actively promote cooperative games?
JD: I personally do very little now on the promotion side, devoting most of my time to developing designs and day to day business operations. I am thankful to the many people who have taken up the torch to let others know that an alternative play experience exists. This includes workshop leaders, sales reps.
I am actually more interested in promoting cooperation as a different way to design society, different from the competitive model we are entrenched in and which, by all accounts, is quickly destroying the planet we should all be sharing. This means that in my personal life I give a lot of time, energy and money to various organizations that are trying to make the world a better place to live, work and play in.
It all goes back to the Cooperative Musical Chairs game that I started playing almost at the same time I started playing the Rescue game described before. How to play Co-op Musical Chairs can be found in my Co-op Games Manual. I think of it as a metaphor of how humans, by a simple change of the rules we play in the game of Society, could create a different way for people to relate. Instead of discarding people and chairs, who for whatever reason are unable to find a place, we work out ways and means to keep everyone in the game, even though the chairs are slowly disappearing. Instead of pushing and shoving to get ahead/get a chair, we use our strengths and abilities to include...maybe make more chairs.
MP: I'm curious if you've played Reiner Knizia's cooperative Lord of the Rings Boardgame. If so, what did you think of it?
JD: Yes, I own the game and its expansions. I have played it many times, with the family, in our game group, and also at game conferences. My only peeve is Reiner's or, perhaps his publisher's competitive variation added at the end of the rules, suggesting that if the cooperative version was a good enough play, then here's a better way to play. I followed closely the running debate in such magazines as Counter about whether it was a game at all. I had a big chuckle when one reviewer chastised the gamers for, on the one hand, claiming that they didn't play games for blood but rather for the social experience, but when Reiner served up a wonderful social experience, they, on the other hand, said it was hardly a game at all and in time would be broken, once the winning solution was found.
Of course, like any game, certain strategies will enhance chances of "winning" the game, but if it is well designed, and Reiner's game is, it will yield a lifetime of play with no one solution rendering it unplayable.
MP: Do you have a dream project you've always wanted to accomplish but haven't done so yet?
JD: Lots of them. Most of them not related to the game world, though. Over decades now, I have neglected my other passions such as jazz drumming, oil painting, live theatre, hiking, cartooning, among other activities. Time is running out. I started getting my Old Age Pension cheques late last year. A grand $217 a month. Such sums are a temptation to mellow into senior years and do nothing. Just kidding. $217 dollars won't even get me many of those beautiful Rio Grande productions at the prices they fetch these days. It's worse than you think, because that $217 is in Canadian dollars.
MP: Well, we'll do our part to keep selling as many of your games as possible!
Jim, I've greatly appreciated this interview. You've taken a life-changing experience and expressed it through your games. This is a refreshing change to the new-game-a-week, do-what-it-takes-to-sell pattern we too often see in the industry. Thanks for giving us lots to think about. I wish you well in your further pursuits and I hope you open many eyes to new possibilities.
You can find all of Jim Deacoves Family Pastimes games here Family Pastimes or here http://www.fairplaygames.com/games.asp?filter=Manufacturer%2DFamily+Pastimes