What is a Game?
In the world of games and learning games there are many definitions of what a game is. We tend to use a very simple one that redirects our thinking to a more important element. We think of games as simply a structured mechanism by which one can engage in play. By mechanism we mean some sort of agreed upon (game) rules and (game) elements that enable play to happen. Rules and elements may be very formal and agreed upon, as in the case of something like chess, or they may be minimal and ephemeral, as in the case of a child playing make believe.
Game is a Noun, Play is as Verb
The more important element alluded to above is play. And among the game theorists are a number of taxonomies for what constitutes play. Huizinga’s model includes the attributes that play must be:
- Free, voluntary
- Separate, not a part of real life (a “magic circle”)
- Uncertain, unpredictable, the outcome only becomes apparent through the act of playing
- Unproductive, imparts no consequence to real life
- Governed by rules; the game rules
- Make-believe, again not a part of real life
(It you are interested in theories of play you may want to read Homo Ludens by Johann Huizinga or Man, Play and Games by Roger Caillois. If you are interested in game design definitely read Rules of Playby Salen and Zimmerman.)
Johann Huizinga in his book Homo Ludens has a very interesting and compelling thesis about the concept of play:
Because of the characteristics of play, particularly its separate and uncertain aspects, one can argue, as Huizinga does, that play is a activity in which deep learning can and does occur, learning that can have a fundamental impact on culture. The case goes like this: Being separate and uncertain, within the realm of play we can ask “What if…” If we can ask “What if…” we can create hypotheses and test them–in the realm of play. If successful, a tested hypothesis can become knowledge. If useful that knowledge can become a cultural artifact migrating from the play world to the real world.
That is how games and play act as significantly effective learning tools.