The Difference Between Gamification And Game-Based Learning

flickeringbrad-gamebasedlearningThe Difference Between Gamification And Game-Based Learning

Gamification and game-based learning are each buzzwords (and buzzphrases) in education. Each can offer your classroom something, but many mistake one for the other.

Can you tell the difference?

The Definition Of Gamification

The definition of gamification is the application of game-like mechanics to non-game entities to encourage a specific behavior.

What It’s Not

Gamification is not game-based learning, nor does it require students to play games, with toys, use electronics. It also doesn’t necessarly require you to create elaborate systems of experience points, unlocks, and badges (though you could).

When Does It Make Sense To Use?

  1. To encourage a specific response or behavior
  2. To increase the visibility and perceived importance of otherwise “minor” and less visible actions
  3. To promote competition; to engage students
  4. To help students track their own progress


Leaderboards (e.g., Class Valedictorian), badges, trophies, points systems, XP, “unlocking” certain content via mastery of preceding content.

As stated, gamification is the process of adding game-like mechanics to non-game entities. Another way to think of gamification is “encouragement mechanics.” A system of carrot sticks to promote desired behavior.

Letter grades are a kind of gamification. Let’s make a game of collecting the most valuable letters. Same with GPA, gold stars, student of month, trophies, certificates. Perform this action in this game according to these rules and get this reward.

Terry Heick wrote for us recently that “life is itself “gamified”—loosely, through informal social competition (“keeping up with the Joneses”), to the buzz extreme couponers get comparing receipts, to comparing 401k portfolios, gaining access to “Platinum” or “Black” credit cards, or collecting frequent flyer miles. Even sticking a push-pin into the map of every traveling destination you’ve ever visited is a form of “gamification.” As are Boy Scout Badges. You’re making a game out of something that isn’t.”

The Definition Of Game-Based Learning

The definition of game-based learning is simply learning through games.

What It’s Not

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Obsessing over video games, nor does it absolutely require you or students to play the games (though ideally, you would); it also doesn’t require video games—that would be video game-base4d learning. It is simply the use of the inherent design of most games (more on that below) to learn.

Learn what? That depends—could be simply becoming better at the game, but in most educational settings, students will instead learning academic and non-academic content by playing games.

When Does It Make Sense To Use?

1. To repackage academic content

2. To promote critical and strategic thinking

3. To “engage” students not otherwise engaged

4. To support both struggling and talented students

Among the ideal uses of game-based learning is learning simulations. Historical simulations like Civilization V are powerful learning tools, as they allow students to sit with, analyze, interaction with, and otherwise struggle with complexity.

They force players to play the rules of the game’s universe (or they are designed to let the players create their own rules). This requires students to understand complex ideas—resource management, political tactics, diplomacy, communication, etc. Unlike a traditional lesson or activity, in game-based learning, unless the student refuses to play they have to learn the rules, and then respond to a constantly changing world.

Games of any kind—whether serious games like Fate of the World, simulations like “The Universe Sandbox” or popular games like “The Last of Us” or “Fallout 3”–encourage practice, competition, self-direction, scaffolding, collaboration, trial-and-error persistence, patience, strategic thinking, self-efficacy (for some), and a variety of other important possibilities.

The Difference Between Gamification and Game-Based Learning

So what’s the difference?

Gamification is first and foremost about encouragement mechanics and the system that promotes them, while game-based learning is first and foremost about the game and its cognitive residue (whether from the game’s content, or academic content).

They each can use one another.

They both can lead to content mastery, but neither are expressly designed for classroom use—which is why, done well, your students will probably like them.

Image attribution flickr user flickeringbrad; The Difference Between Gamification And Game-Based Learning

  1. What You Need To says


    Are these your definitions, or have you taken them from somewhere else?

  2. rinidas says

    Thanks for the post. Very informative.

  3. Robin Turner says

    I’ve argued that game-based learning is actually part of gamification: “Educationalists often make a distinction between ‘gamification’ and ‘game-based learning’, with the latter referring to the use of actual games and former simply to the use of game features; however, [we may] use ‘gamification’ broadly to include both of these. While hangman, for example, is a game, not a gamified activity, the insertion of word games into a curriculum can still be seen as gamification, because a curriculum is not a game” (Paper presented at Bilkent University / BALEAP conference, 2012). Anyway, I think it’s too early in the game (sorry!) to make hard-and-fast distinctions between terms like “gamification”, “game-based learning”, “play-based learning”, “serious games” and so on.

    1. terryheick says

      Good point. In general I agree, but outside of education I think some of these distinctions have already been made.

      Plus there is the issue of semantics. While a formal academic committee may not have agreed that X means this and Y means that, for many teachers, some definition may help ease the murkiness (provided said definition isn’t incorrect).

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