Education as Game

Medieval picture of gaming
Players of Nine Men's Morris

Recently, an e-mail list participant recommended a book which I’d never heard of—Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse. While waiting for that book to arrive, I revisited Johan Huizinga’s wonderful book Homo Ludens. And I also read Karl Oles’ Scholars Online blog post before it was posted.

Both of the books address play as an important part of life. Play is also intimately related to learning—whether it’s chess, go, or football, whether it’s a spelling bee or “Math Olympiad”, a game involves learning, and it involves learning on several different levels.

The first and simplest is “the rules of the game”. The rules for playing go are simple and can fit on a single page with space left over. (This does not make go a simple game!) For some games the rules are complex, perhaps even baffling to an outsider (for me, one of those games is cricket). Without knowing the rules, you can’t even begin to play. So you need to learn the basic rules, the basic motions, the basic notations for what you do. A violinist learns fingering and bowing and “playing the right pitch”. A baseball player learns how to swing a bat and reliably connect with the ball. A chess player learns that a bishop moves only on diagonals. And each of these skills is only a small part of “the rules of the game”.

The second and much harder level is sometimes called “tactics”. Tactics are localized, small-scale patterns of action and thought, patterns that generally lead to “success” (however that’s defined!) In a spelling bee, one common tactic is to repeat the assigned word, and ask for its use in a sentence. In baseball, a player may “lead off” the base in preparation for a hit, to shorten the run to the next base. Musicians practice scales and other simple patterns of notes.

The third level, which requires mastery of the previous two levels, is sometimes called “strategy”. Strategy is an approach to the whole game—and it may have to change during a game. It can involve the choice of different tactics in different contexts. In sports, it’s often the coach that works on strategy. In music, it can be the conductor or director. In go, it can be the solo player in a game.

To master a game, to become so proficient at playing that your abilities are recognized by other players (and perhaps by an audience), you have to have dedication and perseverance. It can be a long haul—one common rule of thumb I’ve heard is that “mastery takes 10,000 hours”. Since there are only a bit more than 8,000 hours in a year, and sleep, eating, and other necessary activities take up time, mastery takes years to reach.

One thing that keeps people going, keeps people involved and active, and keeps the “game” fresh and fun, is love—love of the game and love of the people. And ultimately, the whole structure of education, the whole of helping another person to learn (called “teaching”), is love and the joy that comes with it. 

Thank you Karl, Johan, and James!


  1. You are welcome. I’m reminded of the story about the American baseball player who asks the Englishman, “Can you explain to me the rules of cricket?” After some thought, the answer is “No.” You make a good point that games involve learning. It can also be said that some aspects of learning can be like games. I still remember fondly my efforts at geometrical constructions in high school (using compass and straight edge to do things like bisecting line segments and angles. That was very game-like.

  2. Two small matters to follow up on Karl’s reply: I have recounted here previously ( my own adventures with compass and straightedge, even when trying to do something that was intrinsically impossible (e.g., trisecting the angle). It was fun, and the fun might have been lessened had I known for sure that it was impossible ahead of time. (I already knew that nobody had done it).

    Second, while cricket is bewildering to most Americans, I have had the experience of watching my English son-in-law Graham discover American baseball, with a similar “Oh, now I get it…” sense of dawning revelation. There may be some mutual incomprehensibility going on there, but ultimately it can be bridged.

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