I have always been fascinated with the English language. I am an avid reader, a crossword puzzle fanatic, and I pride myself on my diverse vocabulary. Recently however, I was at a loss for words when asked to accurately define the difference between game and play. I knew what both the words ‘meant’ but I couldn’t vocalize the root difference. I took the logical next step and sought out official definitions of both words, they are as follows:
Game: “activity engaged in for diversion or amusement” (From Merriam-Webster)
Play: “recreational activity; especially the spontaneous activity of children” (From Merriam-Webster)
These definitions do not clarify the difference, as they are nearly identical. We can agree that both games and play are active, and they are both for amusement, but what sets them apart? In order to explore the difference between games and play I have gone through a step-by-step visualization… just bear with it.
Its Saturday afternoon and you head down to the local park. The air is crisp and the sun is shining. You lazily stroll along a winding path until you come upon a group of toddlers. The small children seemingly wander about aimlessly, but upon further investigation you realize that they happen to be chasing small butterflies. You think to yourself that these children are at play, innocently engaging in a freeform activity for the sake of amusement. You continue along the path until you come across jungle gym swarming with 9-year-old children. The children seem to be participating in a game they refer to as cops and robbers. At first the activity seems to be completely devoid of structure, but upon further investigation you find that there is a rudimentary rule set. There are two teams, waging battle, but you would not necessarily consider this a game. Children switch sides at will and they fail to follow any unified set of conventions. Soon the activity ends as children begin to wander off. This seems to be a more organized form of play, but it’s not quite a game. Once again you proceed along the path until you come across a group of elderly gentlemen playing chess. Surely we consider this a game. The men play for amusement, but unlike the younglings they follow a strict set of conventions. Each piece has a unique style of movement, limiting the player’s options. The battle is waged turn by turn until one player reigns supreme, there is a clear end game.
Hopefully what this visualization shows us is that a clear set of rules separates games from play. The toddlers activity is completely spontaneous, it is play in its most basic form. The 9-year-olds are participating in something slightly more complex, as they are beginning to form a rule set. Cops and Robbers is somewhere in-between random wanderings and chess. The elderly gentlemen are completely dependent upon a rule set, and it’s the rules that separate games from play.