A sampling of cooperative games

One of the articles in Play & Humor (IC#13)
Originally published in Spring 1986 on page 14
Copyright (c)1986, 1997 by Context Institute

Matt Weinstein is the co-founder and current director of PLAYFAIR, a group which produces audience participation play and comedy events. He can be reached at 2207 Oregon St, Berkeley CA 94705. Joel Goodman is the director of the Humor Project.

The following article is adapted from their book, PLAYFAIR: EVERYBODY’S GUIDE TO NONCOMPETITIVE PLAY, © 1980 by Matt Weinstein and Joel Goodman, and available from Impact Publishers, Inc., PO Box 1094, San Luis Obispo, CA 93406, for $8.95 plus $1 for postage and handling. Reprinted with permission of Impact Publishers. Further reproduction prohibited.

THE POSSIBILITIES FOR COOPERATIVE PLAY ARE VAST. In our book, we describe over sixty different games and activities we use in our PLAYFAIRS, and those sixty are just a small corner of a very large field. We don’t have space for anything like that here, but we would like to share six of these games to give you a flavor for what is possible.

The instructions for these playful activities are written from the point of view of a leader giving an introductory noncompetitive play experience to a group of adult players. Within the instructions you’ll come across three dots . . . from time to time. These mean that the play leader should pause for a few moments, usually to allow the players to complete a step in the game.

The instructions are not intended to be used verbatim – they are just a starting point. In the book, we include commentaries on each of the games which provide insights into the games, how to lead them and how to vary them, but to pack the most variety into these pages, what follows is pure game-stuff.


This is a game about forming and reforming groups as quickly as possible. I’m going to bang the cowbell (or blow the whistle, or turn on the siren, or flick the lights on and off, or whatever else you can think of to get the group’s attention . . . Have some fun with this part!) and call out a group for you to get into. Don’t worry if you’re not even into the first group by the time I call out the second group; just head right for the second group. The idea is to meet as many people as you can in as many different groups as fast as possible. Okay (BONG!) Get into a group of three . . . (BONG!) Three plus one . . . (BONG!) Get into a group of five so that everyone in your group has one item of clothing the same color as you do . . . (BONG!) Think of your phone number. Think of the last digit in your phone number. Get together with every single person here who is thinking of the same number you are . . . (BONG!) Get into a group of three people and make the letter H with your bodies . . . (BONG!) Find four other people born in the same season as you are . . . link pinkies in a circle with those four people, and jump up and down nine times with them . . .


Find a partner who was born in a different month than you . . . Stand facing your partner, firmly grasping each other’s hands or wrists, whichever feels more comfortable to the two of you. This game is called OFF BALANCE and its object is for both of you to be off balance, yet totally supporting each other the whole time. Now lean your weight backwards, so that if it weren’t for your partner supporting you, you’d fall over . . .

Be careful not to put too much strain on your partner now – really try to work out an effective counterbalance between the two of you. Move around together, exploring different levels, different points of balance for your body. Use the support from your partner to explore things that you couldn’t do by yourself – you might try leaning backwards balanced on one leg, pivoting around close to the ground – try all sorts of things. Be sure you support each other.

Now stand back-to-back with your partner, leaning into each other, so once again you’re off balance and supporting each other’s weight. Move around and explore this new position with the same idea you had when you were holding hands – you’re both continually off balance yet continually supporting each other. . .

You and your partner join together with another pair now, to make up a group of four . . . The four of you try out a number of ways to be off balance together as a foursome. Again, start out carefully.


Have a seat, right where you are.

Everybody gets depressed once in a while – that’s just one of the facts of life. Some people feel there isn’t much you can do about it; you’ve just got to take your lumps. But what we’re trying to do here today is to create a special kind of supportive environment for each other, to create a place where we can each get a little bit of extra support, a little bit of extra nourishment for ourselves. Maybe you’ve been having a tough time of it lately, maybe you’ve had a tough day today, or a tough week, or a tough month. I’m not going to ask you to explain to us what’s been going on for you. But if you’ve been having a tough time of it lately, what I am going to do is give you a very special opportunity to get a bit of support and nourishment and celebration for yourself.

If for any reason you have been having something of a hard time of it lately and you feel like you could use some support for yourself right now, would you come stand up here right next to me. . . (several people go to the front) … Let’s hold hands, facing everybody else . . .

Okay, you see before you a group of people who for one reason or another have been having something of a tough time of it lately – let’s give these people the most incredibly spectacular, thunderous standing ovation they’ve ever seen!!! . . .

Let’s make an agreement . . . At any time during the remainder of this play session anybody can get to their feet and say, "I want a standing ovation!", and no matter what we’re doing we’ll stop and give it to him or her. There’s only one rule about that: you can’t be wimpy about it. If you’re going to ask for one, then take it like you deserve it – jump up on a chair or jump up on this platform or get two people to hoist you up on their shoulders, and hold up your hands over your head in a gesture of victory – go for it in a big way!


Let’s each join up with one other member of the group – perhaps someone you haven’t spent much time with yet today . . . Stand a few feet away from your partner, facing each other, with your hands at your sides and your eyes closed. Try to sense that other person across from you, tune into his or her breathing, make a silent connection . . .

Very slowly, let the index finger on one of your hands move up into the space between you and your partner and let it move around in that space until it comes into contact with your partner’s index finger. When that happens, let your two fingers fuse together and be still together.

Lean slightly into your fingers right now, put a bit of pressure on them. In your mind’s eye, take a step back from those two fingers, disconnect yourself from them, watch them as if they existed independently of the two of you. Think of it as if you are holding a divining rod which is seeking water – those fingers have a life of their own, a movement of their own . . .

Now those two fingers begin to move together, but neither of you is controlling them; the impulse to move comes from the fingers themselves. Sometimes it’s subtle, little movement and sometimes it’s big movement, but always the movement comes from the fingers themselves. Follow the motion of the fingers with your body if you have to, explore different levels, high and low. If you find that you’re moving around quite a bit, having to take steps to follow your fingers, then open your eyes but don’t focus them on your partner or on anything at all in particular. Just use your vision to keep from crashing into anyone . . . Sometimes your fingers will come to a resting place together. Allow them to do that, and the next time it happens, allow your fingers to say goodbye and to part from each other . . . Open your eyes and tell your partner what you liked about dancing with him/her.


Find a partner whose eyes are a different color than yours . . . Going out dancing is wonderful, but there’s one thing wrong with it – you always have to keep your eyes on your partner, and you never get to check out all the other people who are whirling around you on the dance floor. So we’re going to do a dance now that is the opposite of that – this time you’re going to look at everybody but your own partner!

So stand up back-to-back with your partner and link arms with him or her; in just a minute we’re going to do a very short dance together, back-to- back. Now, as you’re whirling brilliantly across this dance floor here, be sure to take a good look at the other couples whirling by, and give a nice smile of greeting as you catch someone’s eye.

Of course we have an interesting question to answer here: WHO’S LEADING? Try to make it so that no one’s leading, so that you and your partner are flowing harmoniously together, tuning into each other. Remember that is a beautiful human being that you’re attached to there, so don’t yank each other around the dance floor, or pull each other around the dance floor, but really create a beautiful back-to-back dance together. You might want to sing a little music as you dance together, or you might want to dance without music . . . Ready?


Find a partner who identifies with a different cartoon character than you . . . Stand about twenty feet away from your partner, but so you can still maintain eye contact with that person . . . Give your partner a little wave, so you can make sure s/he can see you. Imagine that your partner is your best friend in the world – from the time that you were both four years old. You haven’t seen him/her since then, but you just got a telegram saying "Meet me at the train station!" . . . So here you are at the train station, the train has just come in, and you are VERY EXCITED! This is your best friend in the world!

Now, one thing you have to know is that this whole thing takes place in slow motion. You are going to move towards your partner VERY SLOWLY, waving, blowing kisses, very excited to see that person, ready to embrace. All in slow motion . . . As soon as you get about two feet away, you realize that IT’S THE WRONG PERSON. Needless to say, you are mortified! You are very embarrassed, so what you do is you pretend that all along you’ve been waving to someone behind him/her. So you keep on going past your partner, moving slowly towards somebody else, and as soon as you get close to her/him – the same thing happens again! . . . Okay, begin by waving in slow motion to your partners – remembering you are VERY EXCITED to see them – and go to it.

If these six examples whet your appetite for cooperative play – great! If they’ve got you thinking about how to invent your own games – even better! To help you do that, we’ll leave you with the "recipe" we use as a checklist for our games:

(l) Does the game have a good sense of humor? Does the game allow, or better yet, encourage the players to laugh with (as opposed to "laugh at") one another? Does the game reflect the notion that it makes sense to sometimes engage in non-sense?

(2) Is the game cooperative in nature? Can the participants play with, rather than play against, one another? Is the fun in the playing, and not in keeping score?

(3) Does the game take positive action? Are the players encouraged to support one another? Is there an absence of put-down statements? Do people feel better about themselves during and after playing the game?

(4) Is the game inclusive in nature? Are people encouraged to play, rather than to spectate? Are people accepted for who they are, as opposed to what they do? Do the players feel more connected with other people as a result of playing this game?

(5) Does the game provide opportunities for the players to be imaginative and spontaneous? Does the game provide room for re-creation – a chance for the players to change the rules?

(6) Do the players have equality in the game? Is this a game in which the "leader" is also one of the players?

(7) Can each player set his/her own individual goals and standards? Is there an absence of interpersonal judgmental statements? Can each player define her/his own pace? Does the game avoid putting players on-the-spot by having them "perform" in isolation and be "evaluated" in front of the group?

(8) Is the game challenging? Does the game have a sense of adventure to it? Can the players feel competent while playing this game?

(9) Does this game put people before rules? In other words, is the focus on the players rather than on the game? Do the players have a chance to celebrate themselves and their own playfulness?

(10) The last one is the simplest of all: is the game fun?