Media, Technology, and Education
GamesMaking Meaning

Game or Sport?

While we were in Barcelona, I picked up the European (Summer Journey Double Issue) edition of Time magazine because it’s about the games that people play around the world. A number of the articles are fascinating, describing activities that I had never heard of.

For example, one article describes parkour like this: “It’s not quite a sport, and it is certainly no game. But for sheer athleticism, the French-born extreme activity is unmatched as a spectacular thrill.” The article goes on to describe parkour as part gymnastics and part tai chi. It involves moving through an urban landscape as quickly (running) and as efficiently (leaping over obstacles such as walls and gaps between buildings) as possible. Clearly, it requires considerable skill to not get hurt. We saw some young men engaging in this activity while we were in Spain and would have had no idea what they were doing had I not read the article. It’s difficult to imagine without seeing someone do it (pictures, video). But the thing that I found most interesting about this article is that it was about an activity that is “certainly no game.” If this special issue is about games that people play, why would parkour be included?

The question came up for me again in another article about competitive computer gaming in South Korea. Apparently, however, to call this activity computer gaming is to commit a faux pas. Instead, the activity is called e-sports. Gaming doesn’t engender the same respect that sport does and the professional gamers in South Korea definitely want respect for what they do.

So this got me to thinking about what distinguishes game from sport. And why does one activity command respect while the other doesn’t? I’ve had a similar conversation with Liz and Ann about art vs craft. I think it’s human nature to want to categorize things and so there are furious debates about what is art and what is craft. Apparently, lots of people have also argued about the difference between game and sport. Until I read the Time magazine articles, I hadn’t given serious thought to what is sport and what is game. In fact, the only reason I think this is an interesting conversation is because of the respect that seems to be accorded to one and not the other.

According to, sport is: athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess and often of a competitive nature, as racing, baseball, tennis, golf, bowling, wrestling, boxing, hunting, fishing, etc.
2.a particular form of this, esp. in the out of doors.
3.diversion; recreation; pleasant pastime.

And a game is: amusement or pastime
2.the material or equipment used in playing certain games
3.a competitive activity involving skill, chance, or endurance on the part of two or more persons who play according to a set of rules, usually for their own amusement or for that of spectators.

Each word has about 15 or 20 other definitions that are not quite related to this discussion. For example, someone can be a good sport or be in the real estate game. I’ll ignore those possibilities.

These two sets of definitions are very similar. Both a game and a sport are a “competitive” “pastime” involving “skill”. One difference seems to be that sport involves “skill or physical prowess” while physical prowess doesn’t seem to be part of the definition of a game. Instead, games involve “skill, chance or endurance.” But that makes me wonder why ESPN, which considers itself to be “the worldwide leader in sports”, shows the World Series of Poker (WSOP). One could argue that because winning the WSOP requires days and days of poker-playing, it requires physical endurance (which makes it a game) but there is no way to argue that it requires physical prowess.

Wikipedia says: “Sport is an activity that is governed by a set of rules or customs and often engaged in competitively. Sports commonly refer to activities where the physical capabilities of the competitor are the sole or primary determiner of the outcome (winning or losing), but the term is also used to include activities such as mind sports (a common name for some card games and board games with little to no element of chance) and motor sports where mental acuity or equipment quality are major factors.”

Once again, physical prowess appears to be an important factor. But this definition might help us a little in understanding why poker is shown on ESPN. According to this definition, some games, those with “little to no element of chance”, are also sports (presumably even though the games do not involve physical prowess). The role of chance in poker has a name–we call it “a bad beat” when someone should win a hand but chance intervenes to make her lose. While chance might play a role in a particular hand or even entire game of poker, in the long run (perhaps over a series of games), the poker player with the better abilities will come out ahead of the lesser player. So perhaps we can say that poker is on ESPN because chance plays only a small role in determining the outcome. And perhaps that’s also why the South Korean gamers insist that they play e-sports. My guess is that most of the computer games they’re playing leave very little to chance and the very best gamers win these competitions.

I don’t think the distinction between games and sports is important except to the extent that the playing of games is considered “kid stuff” and accorded little respect. In Everything Bad is Good for You, Steven Johnson argues that today’s popular culture, including video games and television, is making us smarter because of the complexity presented to us through these media. I would argue that games (including non-video games) have made us smarter throughout all of history (not just today). Through the playing of games, we practice and develop mental and physical skills in a safe space, a space that Johan Huizinga called “the magic circle”, where the stakes are lower than they are in “real life.” In other words, the magic circle is a learning space. Rather than demanding that our game activities be called sports (as in e-sports), we should be proud to play games since doing so shows we are engaged in lifelong learning.

Article written by:

I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in astrophotography, game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.


  1. carolinebender

    From this moment forward, “do a lazy,” will be in active use in my vocabulary. I retired early as a traceur, freshman year, after losing the bet “I can jump on top of that from a standing position.” I’ll show you my scars some time.

  2. cleblanc

    You, of course, would have been a traceuse.

  3. Ann McClellan

    Today on CBS’s Sunday morning, there was a story on Warren Buffet and Bill Gates donating $1 million to teach American’s youth how to play bridge. It must be nice to have so much money that you can create a foundation to insure that kids keep playing your favorite game. πŸ™‚

    But it did make me think about ageism in gaming. Most of the time, adults think gaiming is for kids. Here, we have a game that is for ‘old people.’ Is the reason it’s dying out because the older generations won’t/don’t teach children how to play? It’s considered ‘too difficult’ for most.

    I think when I come back from Ireland we’re going to have to start a bridge club.

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