The Game of Shoes
By Bernard De Koven
There is a game. It belongs to the genre of what
is unfortunately referred to as ice-breakers. I prefer it to think of it
as a game of group levity. It's called Shoe Pile Mingle, although I would
be surprised if that's all it's called. I prefer to think of it as "a game
When we played it at our New Games events, we liked
to create a fantasy around the game, because it made the subsequent silliness
somewhat excusable, and also because it helped transport us, as a group,
to someplace else.
The story: Purportedly, during World War II, on some
island somewhere, an airplane accidentally dropped a box of boots into the
middle of the purported jungle. The natives, finding the box of boots, immediately
assumed that it was a gift from the gods, and, over the years, developed
an elaborate ritual of bootish gratitude and wonder.
And we (everyone except the “chief” a.k.a. “you”)
are anthropologists. As anthropologists, invited to participate in this
sacred ritual, we must do our very best to remain inconspicuous – not asking
questions, following as best we can.
(Feel free to elaborate on this story in whatever
way you are so moved, as the only purpose of it is to get people in the
mood for deep silliness.)
When the ritual begins, each player holds a pair
of shoes in his or her hands – one shoe in each. The Chief raises one shoe,
and chants, loudly, while shaking the shoe solefully – or however the Chief
thinks the shoe should be shaken. Everyone follows, enthusiastically, but
The Chief then raises the other shoe, and again chants,
shakes and moans. The community follows.
The Chief continues in some appropriately magical
manner, calling the gods forth, giving the shoes tongue, shaking and clapping
the shoes together while bowing and twirling and jumping and things.
At a Chief-determined point, all motion suddenly
stops. The Chief, facing center, raises both shoes heavenward, yells something
spiritual, and throws one shoe into the center of the circle. And then,
after the Chief, seized by the trance-like power of the whole thing, has
finished dancing and ranting appropriately, the second shoe is thrown in
the center (with the Chief, perhaps, facing out of the circle, and throwing
the shoe between his or her Chiefly legs).
So what you now have is a group of shoeless people,
standing in a circle, laughing at all the meaningless pomp (insert “pump”
pun here), facing a pile of shoes.
When the Chief feels the rightful respect has been
re-established, she or he ritualistically strides to the shoe pile, selects
a shoe, and raises it heavenward – shaking it meaningfully. The Chief then
repeats this very act with a second, non-matching shoe, and motions to all
assembled to do the same. While the congregants are engaged in shoe-hunting,
the Chief admonishes anyone who holding a pair of matching shoes to chuck
one of the shoes back into the pile and search for a non-matching replacement.
Here we reach a conceptual bifurcation. Ideally,
players would then begin putting the shoes on their feet, but, from time
to time, this opportunity is greeted less than enthusiastically, as it entails
wearing someone else’s shoe, which, for some, is simply too odious or odorous
of a task. If the group can rise above it, so to speak, the putting-the-shoes-on-the-feet
is a far more satisfying and silly-making choice. In case of resistance,
the Chief instructs the players (through mime and moaning) to keep the shoes
in their hands.
The final part relies heavily on the Chief’s theatrical
abilities. The goal is for each player to find the matching shoe for each
of the shoes in his or her possession, without letting go or losing their
chosen shoes. How the Chief manages to communicate this can be indeed wondrously
Finally, and, evidently, surprisingly, everyone is
in a circle again, all shoes are back in their pairs, and the ritual has
achieved its natural conclusion. The Chief then directs the players to step
into the shoes that they claim to be theirs, and, once uniformly shod, to
give thanks to the shoe gods for their accomplishment.
Yes, there is a great deal of laughter to be had.
And yes, there is no real significance to the whole exercise except the
fun, which, from time to time reaches extraordinary levels, considering
the sheer ridiculousness of the whole activity. Order has been restored.
Magically mystical mayhem has been transcended. A moment of shared, collectively
created, mock (but not mocking) spirituality (yes, spirituality) was most
definitely experienced, despite and because of it all.
In 1971, Bernie De Koven completed a collection
of over 1000 children’s games, organized according to different forms and
complexities of social interaction. Called the Interplay Games Curriculum,
and published by the School District of Philadelphia, it led to his founding
of The Games Preserve, a retreat center for the exploration of games and
play for adults, which functioned as a branch of The New Games Foundation.
In 1978, he published “The Well-Played Game,” which was re-released by MIT
Press in 2013. His most recent book “A Playful Path” was published the following
year. He has designed games of all kinds, for couples, families, children,
elders. But his greatest impact has been his development of a theory of
fun and playfulness, which can affect every aspect of personal and interpersonal,
community, and institutional health.
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