In 1970 the book Serious Games was published, written by Clark C Abt. In many ways, this book, in part due to it being published on a nice round year, is often the publication referred to when discussing the beginnings of the field of Serious Games, and Games in Learning as a whole. But what one can find as they dig into the literature, is that the real seminal writings on Games in Learning emerged a few years earlier, in 1966. One of these books is Simulation Games In Learning, an anthology edited by Boocock and Schild. One of the chapters, Games for Learning is written by none other than Abt (it is in fact a reprint of a white paper written for Educational Services Inc.).
The chapter to me makes the entire book extraordinarily relevant. To be honest, the term "Games in Learning" is derived in part from the title of the book itself, and this is mostly because of Abt's contribution to it.
The chapter is split into a number of sections, and I wanted to discuss one of them here. It is titled Similarities among Formal Games and Social Studies Topics. Abt focuses on social studies as a target for games in learning, but what he discusses is applicable broadly to all forms of the practice. Here he makes a point of clarifying what a "formal game" is. He begins by describing a number of informal games, namely ones that lack explicit rules, and are things that we play all the time. Examples include the romance games "If I Ignore You Maybe You'll Notice Me", and "I can't Understand You", the crime game "Getting Even", and the political war games of "Getting in The First Strike".
He starts discussing games by exploring the things we usually think of metaphorically as games. These informal games have implicit rules, and lack explicit rules. When we talk about "The Sales Game", "The Dating Game", "The Teaching Game", we're recognizing that we could describe these activities as games, if we don't worry about explicit rules. Which is fine. The general understanding of what a game is, combined with the power of metaphor and analogy, makes it all very understandable.
But when we talk about game games, the kind with boards or screens or cards, we're talking about Formal Games, according to Abt. He classifies them into three types:
Showdowns, are what also might be called contests. There is no direct interaction between competitors, they simply each perform, and the better performer wins. Things like races, games of golf, and to some extent gambling games like poker (we could argue on this one) are showdown games.
Strategy refers to games where players interact with one another, affecting the outcomes of each others efforts. Chess, Go, Shogi, are all classic examples, and Abt includes boxing and wrestling under this header as well.
Combinations are exactly what they sound like on the tin, either games that alternate between them (perhaps with strategy work leading up to a showdown), and Abt mentions a number of team sports such as hockey as examples.
I don't feel that this schema is terribly effective for thinking about games, but it does at the very least start to show you some pieces of thought about how games can look like. I particularly like that he has separated to some extent contests from other types of games. A contest is conceptually something where multiple competitors perform an act, and the superior performer is the victor. I think golf is a wonderful example of this sort of thing, due to the fact it is not as simple as "hit the ball further", but rather features some complexity to both its play and scoring. Basketball is a combination game, but a three-point shooting competition is a showdown.
Abt continues and compares real life games (e.g. informal games) to formal games, and the problems the latter might have in modeling the former. He highlights how formal games typically have equity in starting resources, fixed rules, and other features which real life does not. Of course, the year is 1966, and many modern "formal" games very excellently have asymmetric play, fluxing rules, and address some of these problems, but the point remains. Especially in his focus on social studies, he draws a very virtuous point about the difference between the social games to be taught using "formal" games in learning.
The rest of the book features a number of more scientific reports about the ways games are used, or can be affected in how they are used, but Abt's chapter procedes onward with further thoughts on the nature of games for learning, and so I will surely return here for more discussion.