What is a game? Wait, no, it’s too soon; let’s work on something “simpler”:
What does a dog look like? What does a cat look like? What does an elephant look like? When you think of a dog, or a cat, or an elephant, there’s a picture in your head, not even a picture really, a silhouette, a shape.
The English word gestalt is a loanword from the German, where it means a shape, figure, form. The word has found itself in some psychology theory stuff as well, but it’s general meaning in English is that mental image we have of something that makes it recognizable. For people who collect mushrooms, or insects, or rocks, they develop a “search image” that allows their brain to pick the relevant gestalt out of the vast array of visual information you pull in all the time.
The reason I wanted to talk about the word gestalt is because it plays such a huge role in how we interact with things. If we can recognize the gestalt, it makes it a lot easier for us to lump it into a group, and the human brain loves lumping things into groups.
Norman has used the term affordance to describe things that visually convey their intended use intuitively. The best examples are the handles on mugs and cups, or, when used appropriately, push-bars and pull-handles on doors. Gestalts serve sorta as cognitive affordances: It looks like a cat, and so we can use what we know about cats to inform how to respond to this cat-shaped thing.
So here is where things become interesting. We have our gestalts for all these different things, but how does this inform our definitions of those things? What is a cat? a dog? an elephant? Use words to answer the question, don’t just form a picture in your head. Not as easy, is it? But should this be a problem? Someone talks about a cat, you know what they mean. Someone has never heard of a cat before, can you explain it to them, so if they then later saw a cat, they’d think “ah yes, that is a cat, like I was told about!”. But that is advocating for the devil. Common words like cat, dog, game, play, we have shared gestalts for. We don’t need to have a precise working definition, because we all have a working understanding.
So if someone, in an academic setting, asks me to “clarify” what I mean when I talk about games in learning, I tell them that that’s a ridiculous question, not because it’s difficult to answer (which it in some ways is), but because the idea that they don’t have a shared understanding of what a game is ridiculous.