Games v Sports: What’s The Difference?

sports psychologyTo many, it is little more than semantics. To others, it is a debate that they feel extremely passionate about.

It is extremely unlikely that anyone would ever refer to chess as a sport, for example, nor poker. Both of those are cerebral in nature, requiring a sharp mind over a sense of physical prowess. For that reason, most people feel comfortable referring to them as games, but the same isn’t true of something like darts or snooker, in spite of the fact that neither sport requires the same level of physicality as a sport such as rugby or golf.

The fact that both are contested between people and that there can be extreme levels of competitiveness attached to them means that we often conflate the two. There is also a degree to which there are levels, regardless of what it is that you’re talking about. There is definitely both skill and physicality involved in darts, for example, even if the people that play it aren’t usually as fit and capable as those that play other sports. A professional footballer wouldn’t necessarily be good at darts, nor vice versa, so does that make one more of a sport than the other?

What Is A Game

gerwyn price playing darts
Sven Mandel, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The reality is that there is an extreme similarity between games and sports. The difference between the two of them is a subtle thing, with some defining a game as ‘any mental or physical activity with rules that is done for fun’.

The problem is, this definition can easily be applied to the likes of football or baseball, should the participants only be taking part for fun. Certainly those things can be just as competitive as a game of Monopoly or chess, if those playing are determined to get one over on their opposite number during the game.

Games involved skill, knowledge and fortune, following rules in order to try to defeat an opponent. Typically, games are engaged in in order to enjoy some fun or entertainment, though that isn’t a guarantee. It is also fair to say that some games can be played alone, such as solitaire, meaning that the competition is just against yourself rather than another person. Games includes the likes of chess, mahjong, Scrabble, Monopoly, poker and dice. The dictionary defines a game as ‘an activity that one engages in for amusement or fun.’

What Are Sports?

football free kick illustration conceptAccording to the dictionary, a sport is defined as ‘an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.’

There are plenty that would argue that certain games would fit that definition, though it is likely that the ‘physical exertion’ is the genuine deciding factor. Though chess takes extreme mental dexterity, there is little physical exertion involved, bar moving the pieces on the board. Similarly, other than moving cards, poker isn’t really a physically demanding activity no matter what proponents of it as a sport might wish to suggest.

Both games and sports can be extremely competitive, but the physicality involved is what separates the two. Darts is the example often used by critics of this deciding factor, pointing to the idea of a lot of darts players not exactly being the best example of what you might call physically fit. Indeed, darts players of years gone by would often smoke and drink in between their turns at the oche, suggesting that the physicality involved is less than taxing. Even so, the skill level and dedication needed to become a professional darts player helps to set it apart from many games.

The Two Aren’t Interchangeable

businessman perplexed arrows pointing in different directions question marksThere is no question that some people like to get het up over the definition of a game when compared to a sport. In 2019, for example, the World Chess Federation teamed up with the French Chess Federation to present the idea of chess as a sport that should be included in the Olympics to the International Olympic Committee. To others, the very notion that chess would be thought of as an Olympic sport was ludicrous, given the lack of physicality involved in playing it. This is in spite of the fact that the IOC recognises it as a sport.

Despite what some people might think, the two terms are not interchangeable. This fact is complicated thanks to the use of the word ‘game’ when referring to some sports. That is to say, you might declare that you’re about to watch a ‘game of football’. This is because of the multiple definitions of the word ‘game’, rather than anything more nefarious. That is to say, you can declare that you’re about to watch a game of sport, but not that you’re about to watch a sport of game. This might seem semantic, but language is important.

The Debate Will Rage On

woman playing snookerFor some, the debate will never be settled. The truth is that there definitely is a difference between games and sports. Few people would ever refer to Monopoly as a sport, regardless of how competitive the family gets when it is played before you have your Christmas dinner. There is no real desire to have poker declared to be a sport or included in the Olympics, so there is an acceptance that there is a distinction between the two things. The question really shouldn’t be about what the difference is, but about where we draw the line.

What is about poker and Monopoly that means that the majority of people accept that they are games rather than sport? We could say that there is fortune involved, but anyone that has ever seen a football match decided upon by a fortunate penalty will know that there is just as much luck involved in most sports as there are in games. ‘Fun’ alone can’t be a deciding factor, given that most people have fun when playing sport. You can’t even point to the combination of fun and competitiveness, given how seriously some people take some games. There is a difference, but deciding upon what it is isn’t easy.