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The Cancer of Competition:
Notes and Questions

The questions and thoughts which follow are personal but are based on over 30 years of involvement with games. I've been designing games since the age of 8. I've had a game in Virgin Megastore's best seller's list. I've played chess at county level and drawn with a British Chess Champion. My gut feeling is that competitive games are not conducive to learning.


Winning isn't everything - it's the only thing

Vince Lombardi

Political campaign illegalities, scientific fraud, corporate trickery, the use of steroids in sports - the link is competition. The desire to be first, the desire to be top, the desire to have the most - the link is competition. Competition is a cancer. Competition destroys lives. It kills people. One doesn't need any great intellect to realise this. Simple observation of the current world should suffice. However, it is worth examining the concept in detail, as it is through understanding that enlightenment and change can come about.

Alfie Kohn (1992) defines competition as MEGA:

Mutually Exclusive Goal Attainment

It follows from this that one cannot compete with oneself. Competition is something that occurs at the expense of others. I win by making you lose. Such an ethos should be abhorrent in the classroom.

Competition is created through scarcity. A prize is a form of artificial scarcity. It's worth considering how often teachers inadvertently create competition in the classroom. Asking for a show of hands to determine who will answer a class question creates an instant competition. Whoever the teacher chooses wins, everyone else looses. Comparing students, displaying work and of course tests are all potential sources of competition.

Many teachers believe that competition breeds excellence. "In general wanting to win can be a powerful motivating force." David Paul (1991). I believe the desire to win only makes people interested in winning. In the worse cases victory in games can become a horrible one-upmanship. The activity is not enjoyed for its own sake but becomes a means to put down others. Children especially are keen to play games but often lose interest when they feel they have no chance of winning.

Once a child feels there is no chance of winning the child 'switches off'. A clear signal is the way the child uses the game equipment (cards, dice, or whatever). If the child begins to mess around with the equipment or use it in a laborious or exaggerated fashion then that is indication that the child is not focused on the activity. And if the child is not focused then the value of the activity is nil.

One solution is to engage in what David Paul calls 'creative cheating'. The teacher should use surreptitious ways to keep the game balanced and therefore interesting. But as a game purist I would suggest that if cheating is necessary then somewhere there is a fundamental design flaw. Cheating does work, but the teacher runs the risk of being accused of favouritism. This can be very damaging to the cohesion of children's classes, especially when the children are young. Moreover such tactics lead to the class being teacher-centred rather than student centred because control is focused on the teacher. Surely it must be better to redesign the games so that cheating becomes unnecessary?

Moreover, because competition leads participants to focus on the result it can mitigate against learning. When children play, and when children compete there is a difference in focus. Play is process orientated. It is an end in itself. Competition is goal orientated. It follows that the true nature of play and competition are different. For me, learning takes place in a safe motivating environment. Play is conducive to learning. Competition militates against it.

For teachers who are still doubtful of the differences between competitive and non-competitive games a sure way to find out is to start by reducing the level of competition in games they use and observing the result. Here are some ways to reduce competitiveness:

Non-competition and Co-operation

In competitive games the challenge is in beating the other players but in co-operative games players work together to achieve an objective. This might be escaping from a monster or completing a puzzle or meeting particular conditions to create a specific outcome.

One of the advantages of co-operative games is that they are open to adaptation. The key to an enjoyable game is finding an appropriate challenge. Anything that is too easy will quickly become boring. With co-operative games there are no opponents to take advantage of so there is no compulsion to keep the same rules. The process becomes more important. Students can learn that by creating their own rules they can determine their own feelings of accomplishment. It becomes possible to look at the structure of games which is one step towards looking at the structure of learning. When students start to learn about how they learn they are well on the way to becoming independently motivated learners.

In learning situations information is a resource. Competition encourages learners to hoard information. Co-operation encourages learners to share information. Learning requires a safe, stress free environment where mistakes can be freely made. Competition forces learners to focus on failure and creates stress. Like begets like. Competition breeds aggressiveness. Co-operation breeds co-operation.

A timer is the single most useful piece of equipment for general co-operative games. One that has a stop watch function as well as a count-down function is best. This allows a group to time an activity and establish a time to then beat. With activities let students set their own targets. Keep a record of the targets. Improving and extending targets is truly motivational. It is also intrinsic to the learning process in a way that beating an opponent is not.

The difference between a non-competitive game and a co-operative one is whether the players are required to work together to achieve the objective or not. Either way, the objective does not involve beating an opponent. In competitive team games players on the same team do co-operate together, but to beat other teams. Usually for games involving English learning the requirement of beating other teams is unnecessary and can be removed. I would say that if a game requires beating an opposing team to make it interesting then that is the sign of a poor game. A game should be fun and challenging to do in it's own right. Let's work our way through an example.

Imagine a game called Dungeon Escape. By spelling words children get to roll dice and move keys to a door. The keys are being chased by a monster. Here are some possibilities:

A key is assigned to an individual or team. If the key is caught by the monster that team is out!

Each team has several keys. Teams compete to see how many keys can be moved to the door.

Keys are not assigned to individuals or teams. Any player can move any key. Players see how many keys they can move to the door.

Keys are not assigned to individuals or teams. Any player can move any key. Players succeed by getting all the keys to the door. If the monster catches even a single key the game is over.

I use variation 4. Within the story line of the game this is the most logical. All the keys are required to open the door and escape the dungeon. When introducing the game for the first time I always make sure that the number of keys is different from the number of players. This helps players to realise that any key can be moved by any player. When introducing a non-competitive game it's important that the participants realise that they are not in competition against each other. Because competition is the norm in modern society participants often assume they must compete. With Dungeon Escape I use actions to show what the players must do to win.

As usually played Dungeon Escape is a non-competitive game. I give players individual flashcards to spell. This way I can choose to vary the difficulty according to an individual's capability. Players are working on tasks individually, even thought the objective is shared. But I can make the game more co-operative by changing the rules, for example, by choosing words with more letters than the number of players. In this case each player could write one or two letters of the same word. The players would spell the word together. This would make the game more co-operative.


For those impressed by research the group of David and Roger Johnson reviewed 122 studies on the effect of competition on result improvement. It included every study they could find on achievement in competitive, co-operative and/or individualistic structures. 65 studies found that co-operation promotes higher achievement than competition, 8 found the reverse, and 36 found no statistically significant difference. Co-operation promoted higher achievement than independent work in 108 studies, while 6 found the reverse, and 42 found no difference. The superiority of co-operation held for all subject areas and all age groups (Kohn p47-48, ref. D. Johnson et al: Effects of co-operative, competitive, and individualistic goal structures on achievement: a meta-analysis Psychological Bulletin 89, 47-62, 1981).

For myself, I've found that by eliminating competition from the classroom I have had better results, both in terms of class atmosphere and learning. I will stress, however, that I don't ban competition from my classrooms as I believe choice to be important. I've had instances of children requesting competitive games and I've used them. But almost universally, children are happier using non-competitive and co-operative games. It's true that finding games that are not competitive isn't always easy. A change in thinking and perspective is required. But once that change is embraced, the quest for co-operation takes on a life of it's own.

References and Resources

Deacove, J (1987) Co-op Parlour Games Family Pastimes.
Family Pastimes is a company specialising in co-operative games. They have over 40 titles. Write for a free catalogue to Family Pastimes, RR4 Perth, Ontario, Canada, K7H 3C6 or visit their web page

The George Jacobs Website A good starting point for those interested in theory

Richard Felder's Homepage Information about applying co-operative learning at University level and more!

Kohn, A. (1992) No Contest: the case against competition Houghton Mifflin, Boston. The text for those wishing to critically examine the effects of competition.

Kagan, S. (1992) Cooperative Learning Kagan, San Clemente

Maley, A. & Duff, A. (1978 etc) Drama Techniques in Language Learning Cambridge University Press

Orlick, T. (1982) The second Co-operative Sports and Games Handbook Pantheon. Parachute games are great!

Paul, D. (1991) Finding Out 1 - Teacher's Book Heineman English Language Teaching, Oxford

Sobel, J. (1983), Everybody Wins 393 non-competitive games for young children New York: Walker and Company. The games need adapting for language classroom use.

Ur, P. & Wright A. (1992) Five-Minute Activities Cambridge University Press

Wise Hat, an expanding collection of activities, games and CDs. Online - here!

January 1998
Last Updated February 2002

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