October 6th, 2015 Instructional Design

If you have been around the elearning world long enough you have probably heard of using games in learning.

You have probably heard of gamification.

Chances are you have also heard of game-based learning.

In the situations where you heard these terms being used you likely thought that they were referring to the same thing. However, to some people these three are entirely different.

Sure there are some overlapping features among each one, but the argument is that there are defining characteristics that apply to each individually.

To help demonstrate the differences between these three, Upside Learning has created a nifty infographic using the popular game “hopscotch” as an example (see end of this article).

Personally I have heard of gamification and game-based learning (and know that there is often confusion between the two). I have heard of “games”, but only in the context of, well, games.

I don’t think that there is much confusion in the elearning or training industry towards regular games. The definition for which seems rather straight-forward.

Where there certainly is confusion is between gamification and game-based learning.

Even in looking at the infographic below you are likely to still be a bit confused as to the clear defining factors.

As I had mentioned there is overlap between gamification and game-based learning. This overlap is what leads people to use the two interchangeably.

Of the two, gamification is likely the more popular. We see gamification on nearly a daily basis. If you’re involved in elearning then you’re well aware of the points and badges that are so often used.

What do you think? Are you using these two terms interchangeably? Do you think there are negative consequences to doing so?

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About Justin Ferriman

Justin Ferriman started LearnDash, the WordPress LMS trusted by Fortune 500 companies, major universities, training organizations, and entrepreneurs worldwide for creating (and selling) their online courses. Justin's Homepage | Twitter


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It is a tricky subject, and as an elearning designer I do see a clear distinction between three options:
– game-based learning; Use an existing game to achieve learning goals that were not the ‘intentional goal’ of the game
– basic gamification: the use of scoring, badges, leaderboard to heighten the motivation of a learner to complete parts of teaching materials and achieve higher scores.
– gamified learning: where principles of game design and mechanics are used in the design of learning to heighten engagement and easier access to the learningmaterials. This is the area I am particularly interested in. Examples are: emergent storytelling in scenariobased learning, where the story of the character unfolds itself through learner interaction instead of giving the story ‘up front’; to let the ‘rules of the game’ be learned through interaction with the learning, not by providing info ‘as is’; to include consequences of choices to learn instead of classic feedback (e.g. wrong choice in medical module makes you start again as patient died).
This last category is not really included in the infographic.

Avatar Miranda Verswijvelen

Hi Justin,
Trust you are doing fine. Nice write-up: Gamification!

I like the hopscotch analogy, it works well. However I don’t agree with the way the infographic breaks down the characteristics of game, game based learning and gamification.

For a start games always have rules, maybe not around learning, but in terms of the world and how the objects interact with each other in that world. Also you can’t separate out rewards from game play – they are intertwined. To do so misunderstands the joy of games.

To say you may not win or loose as part of game based learning and gamification is wrong. One of the key reasons why you should use game thinking and game design in learning and development is to allow learners to fail, and explore the consequences of that ‘failure’. Now granted failure might be classed as just not choosing the best option, it doesn’t mean catastrophic failure, but there should always be an opportunity to choose your own path, to take ownership of your actions. And in gamification, loosing or failure, is classed as not being the top of the leader board, it’s not having all the badges or all the points.

Playing a game/game based learning/gamification system should always be intrinsically rewarding, it may not be the primary driver behind the approach, but it should always be part of the design.

And finally game based learning is not always hard to create and expensive. I’ve been designing and producing serious games (game based learning) for 13 years and when you see the ROI stats for game based learning the argument just doesn’t stack up. Gamification may be the cheapest solution upfront but this is incredibly misleading. Gamification often delivers short term fixes quick fixes, but to be really effective they require a lot of maintenance and upkeep.

Games, game based learning and gamification all have the same underlying foundations; game design. The difference is primarily in where and how you apply that game design. They should all align to the same fundamental principles of good design to build user engagement and retention.

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