Games and Activities

ActivitiesA presentation once asked the question, what is the difference between a game and an activity in an educational environment? The presenter went on to provide their own definition, one that obviously did not reflect a reading of The Grasshopper by Bernard Suits.

An activity has pedagogical value, whereas a game is engaged in purely for fun.

This, of course, is nowhere near the definition of what a game is as defined by the field of game design (which you can read more about here, and about the pedagogical value of games here). It did however, raise an interesting question, how can we differentiate between activities and games within a classroom?

Let us begin with a structuralist anaylsis of the elements that make up a game and see if activities share some of those features. Briefly, the features of a game are

  1. Goals,
  2. Rules,
  3. A feedback system, and
  4. Voluntary participation.

Both games and activities have goals associated with them—a thing the player is attempting to achieve. In good activities and games for the classroom, the goal will always have a sound pedagogical value. The goal of any activity or game used in the classroom should at it’s very core encourage learning.

Both have feedback systems associated with them to let the player know how they are progressing towards the goal.

Both (despite what teachers would like to believe) are voluntary. A player cannot be forced to take part in a game or an activity against their will. The can be encouraged, rewarded, or coerced, but cannot be compelled.

The area where activities and games diverge is in the rules associated with them. Game rules can be likened to placing unnecessary obstacles between the players and the goal. In pool or billiards the goal is to get the ball into the pockets, but the rules introduce an obstacle—the player must use a stick to hit one ball into another to accomplish this goal. Reaching the goal would be so much easier if you used your hands to deposit the balls into the pockets—like a small child I once saw who remarked as he did it that this game wasn’t difficult at all.

It is impossible to play a game without rules of this type. It could be said that games, by their nature, are an attempt to use sub-optimal means to achieve a goal.

Activities are based around attempting to achieve the goal using optimal means. For example, a fill in the blank activity has many ways in which a student can attempt to complete it. They can recall the appropriate information. They can reach for reference material. They can guess. They can copy from another student, or use any other method of solving the task at hand. The choice of which method to use is open to the student, and they will pick the one most suited to themselves. However, if a teacher/player/designer makes a rule against a certain optimal solution, the activity instantly becomes a game as the players are encouraged to use sub-optimal means of achieving the goal. An activity could be defined as being focussed on the attainment of the goal using the optimal means available.

In summary,

A game encourages the sub-optimal way of reaching the goal, Whereas an activity encourages the optimal way of reaching the goal.

At first glance, the definition above would imply that teachers should be using more activities inside the classroom. They help the students reach the target in the quickest and easiest way possible, as opposed to having students struggle.

This raises the fundamental question of whether the purpose of education is to impart information in the optimal way, or is it instead to produce learners who can go on to discover new information by and for themselves while overcoming obstacles?

Is education about the goal or the journey?

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