What is a learning game?

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And does it really matter?

I’m in the camp that tends to think the definition of a game is kind of a moot argument. If I were to design a course or curriculum or training and wanted to make it more attractive or engaging to my students, I might include any number of different interactive activities to help students achieve their desired outcomes. I can’t imagine a scenario where the distinction between a game and not a game would really matter, so long as the activity motivates students by being enjoyable and helps them master content. In that light, the word game might be used generally, even though an activity might not fit a rigorous definition thereof. Take, for example, the telephone game. That’s the one where students stand in a line and have to whisper a secret message to each other from one end to the other. By the time it gets to the end the message is usually terribly distorted and inaccurate. I’ve “played” this “game” before to help students practice pronunciation and listening skills. Even though it’s not really a game in a true sense, it is something we played together, so we call it a game as a term of convenience.

If I were pressed to come up with a definition of a learning game in a strict sense, I would say that it is fun activity with an objective to win, where success or failure is based on a contrived set of rules and which furthers mastery of learning content in some way.  But still...does it matter that much?  

Based on this definition, I don’t think a hard and fast definition of a game really matters when thinking about educational goals. The intention is to give students a means to practice, learn, grow etc. in a way that piques their interest separate from the learning content itself. The content makes up only a part of a game which has an objective separate to content mastery, ie. win the game and as a side consequence you get better at learning X. Furthermore, since the game itself is not a part of the learning content, the outcome is independent of the instructional goals. Consider 5 different learning games designed to teach or reinforce instructional content. Each game is vastly different in rules and objectives than the others. Now imagine a sixth activity that doesn’t fit the strict definition of a game, but is interactive and playful and engaging in the same way. If all are beneficial to the learner, why would it matter that the one activity is “not a game” any more than it would matter that the other five have different rules?