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What's the Difference Between an App and a Game?

What's the Difference Between an App and a Game?

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I’m a huge advocate for gamification and using games in the classroom, but I get nervous when I see some of the so-called games being marketed to teachers. Many are not games at all. They are apps! Games do something different that apps, and the difference matters. Here's why:

Problem Solving and Application

Games not only requires us to know something, but they also require us to do something with that knowledge. Games force us to problem solve. Sometimes this is directly related to content in science or social studies, and sometimes it is content related to the storyline of the game. We play games because we like to be challenged.

Some apps I play aren’t challenging from an intellectual perspective, and some apps don’t require application of the content. Rather, some apps focus on rote knowledge and skill demonstration instead of using knowledge in a new contexts or challenges.

Authentic Scenario and Story

Great games have a narrative or scenario that calls for players to dive into another world, place or time. I see some apps (that claim to be games) where the story makes no sense or there is no story at all.

Fantasy is great, but fantasy in the game must make sense. These don’t have to be epic RPG story lines--small scenarios and simulations work too. This is an important “look for."

As more and more teachers use technology in the classroom, we need to make sure that they know the difference between apps and games. I know there many other “look fors,” so let’s turn the question over to you. What is the difference between an app and a game, and how do we help each other know? Add to this checklist, and feel free to give examples of both!

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Kevin Jarrett's picture
Kevin Jarrett
Maker Educator, Google Certified Innovator, Dreamer, Doer. Learning experience designer, workshop leader/speaker, author. Stanford #Fablearn Fellow. #GoogleEI

Good points, Andrew - there definitely are differences, as you say - but I would like to point out that both have their role in the classroom when used properly and should be encouraged! It's helpful to ensure our colleagues use the right terminology; it's even more helpful to ensure they use the right technology tool for the job at hand. Apps can be great gateways to games in the classroom as they are more compact in focus and purpose, building confidence among teachers new to the idea of student-led activities like this of ANY kind in their classroom. I would help ensure the teacher's lesson goes well while highlighting positive outcomes (and unpacking any negative ones) and then engage them in a conversation about taking things further and looking seriously at games in their lessons. There is plenty of room in the educational ecosystem for both apps AND games - ensuring teachers understand the differences is key to promoting greater and more effective utilization. It's all about the learning!


Andrew Miller's picture
Andrew Miller
Instructional Coach at Shanghai American School

I totally agree. both have merit. My concern is that educators will claim they are using a game expecting a specific result, and may not get it. It's important that teachers use and play with these apps/ games as well so they know exactly what is being achieved, and how this achievement can intentionally fit into instruction. If you place a game in a place, or app for that mater, in a place where the instructional intent doesn't match, pitfalls can occur. It's about knowing the tech, and knowing the difference between apps and games will help teachers make better instructional choices for the tech.

Josh Mitton's picture
Josh Mitton
Founder of PlatoPath

This is a great question, Andrew!

My informal definition of an app is that they are a tool which enhances the way an individual can perform or measure a task.
For a game, I align very much with your points, in that there must be some sort of objective that the user is moving towards. This can be story-driven or even based on achieving a certain score, but the overall intent is to accomplish a specific goal. I feel that apps don't have this, and rely much more on the user to create valuable content.
Thanks for the great insights!

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