What is a game?
To understand gamification and its impact on teaching, this is possibly one of the most fundamental questions. It is also surprisingly difficult to answer.
One possible way of answering is to look at the purpose games fulfill for humans.
Games allow us to do many different things. They let us experiment with novel solutions to problems within a low risk environment; if we fail in a game, there are no actual lives on the line. This encourages players to experiment within the framework of the game.
They allow players to analyze patterns and to make predictive assumptions based on those patterns. These patterns can then be applied outside of the game environment.
They allow players to experiment with different identities, and how we view ourselves interacting with the world. This leads to a better understanding of the various parts of an individual’s persona.
They help players understand expected roles within a culture, be this gender expectations inherent in games of house, or the appropriate roll of a tank class in an MMORPG.
The purposes of games for humans is wide, varied and too large to be an effective model for answering the question.
Johan Huizinga argues in his book “Homo Ludens” that play—and by extension games—are a precursor to human culture, making it almost impossible to define games by their function in society as they are what is necessary to create a society.
Another approach is to define them based on elements that they all have in common. Jane McGonigal takes this approach in her book “Reality is Broken,” pulling out four traits that all games share.
1. They have a goal.
This is an end condition which dictates when the game is over. This can be a time limit or a resources limit or an achievement goal when the game ends when you have reached a certain condition.
In the example of football (soccer, not American football) the goal is to get the ball into the opposing teams net as many times as possible while preventing the opposing side from putting the ball into your net within the time frame allowed.
2. They have rules.
These are unnecessary obstacles, things that make it more difficult to achieve your goal.
In the case of our football game, the easiest way to achieve the goal would be to disable the opposing team; if they are all injured and incapable of standing, getting the ball into their goal while defending yours becomes very simple.
Rules add difficulty to the scenario and create obstacles to the easiest way of achieving the goals.
3. They have a feedback system.
All games tell you how you played the game in some form.
It can be feedback at the end of the game; who won and who lost and by how many points. Or it can be feedback during the game process itself (video games are very good at giving immediate feedback from the +1 in World of Warcraft to the multi kills in FPS games.) This feedback lets you adjust how you are playing the game while you play.
No matter the type of feedback it encourages reflection and figuring out how to play the game better.
4. They have voluntary participation.
People can be encouraged to play a game but can’t be compelled to take part. If someone really doesn’t wish to take part in a golf game they don’t have to.
Placing a gun to someone’s head and saying you will take part changes it from a game into a life or death situation, thus removing a lot of the benefits of game play in the first place.
The framework for what is a game as outlined above is incredibly broad. This covers a lot of human social interactions as well as group decision making processes and many other fields.
Investigative gamification can be seen as looking at any human activity from the perspective of this framework. Asking firstly does the activity include these elements, and if it does then examining it for how to improve on the system.
So what is a game?
Practically everything that humans do contains some of the four game elements, and from that perspective, Johan Huizinga was right to name us “Homo Ludens” or “man the player.”
To paraphrase Shakespeare “All the world is but a game and the people merely players.”