Playing is free to try, safe to err, no rules of engagement, no necessary equipment, riches. Gaming is costly, requires resources; there are rules, structures, clear definitions of success, even engagement depends on chosen strategy. Educational theory claims playing is constructivist, while gaming is behaviorist, hence only suitable for acquiring lower level skills or training.
Are we sure gaming is good for learning?
Let’s seek the answer elsewhere: Socratic or open-ended questions are a great way to initiate creative thinking, alongside inquiry-based learning. Consider this question “How would life evolve to be, if Earth never rotated?” A room of experts would give quite a different answer to this question, compared to a room of children. That’s what we presume. Experts might stoically conclude that “there won’t be any life at all” and children may cheerfully draw pictures of “creatures that evolved in shadows” while learning quite a bit about evolutionary biology. Is that really the case? Studies on “collaborative inquiry” and “action research” suggest that faced with such open ended tasks, if the students/inquirers don’t have rich enough foundational schemas, they quickly converge to banal, cliché responses. The reason is, in the lack of basic rules (dogmas) they choose their own starting assumptions, and do so very conservatively. So, the responses to the above question turn out to be the opposite: experts ponder about shadows and children explain why there won’t be life! For the less competent to be creative, there has to be some structure to the task, and some indicators for what is expected (such as disclosed rubrics or a constructed response pattern). Then, within the wisely set boundaries they can feel confident enough to be creative. In other words, they play the game.