Reimagine Learning

Gamification vs. Game-Based Learning

Gamification is trending these days. Or is it game-based learning? Or serious games? Or something else? Does it really make a difference? It’s possible to create an intricate matrix of terms and definitions on this subject,1 but does that really help anyone?

At Second Avenue Learning, we have our own take on these terms, but we’re also wary of “Eduspeak,” the jargon that learning professionals use and no one else understands. Language is important, and precision matters, but the terms we use should enhance communication and not set up arbitrary barriers.

In this case, there really is a meaningful distinction between “gamification” and “game-based learning.” It affects both the design and the delivery of learning experiences, and it’s worth considering. Here goes: gamification involves starting with something that isn’t a game and adding game-based elements, such as leader boards, badges for various accomplishments, and earning points that can be redeemed for something else the learner values. Those game elements do not enhance learning directly, but they provide an extrinsic incentive to participate in the experience. Gamification provides extrinsic motivation.

In game-based learning, however, the motivation in intrinsic. The game is an essential element of the learning experience. Succeeding in the game means that you’re accomplishing the relevant learning objectives, and you’re proving that you’ve accomplished them by succeeding in the game. For example, suppose that you want people to learn how to use mathematical ratios. A traditional teaching experience might provide a typical lesson followed by a quiz. Gamification of this experience might involve giving points for completing lessons and quizzes, awarding badges for answering hard questions, and showing adorable animal videos upon passing certain milestones.

A game-based learning version would be different: there would be some problem to solve that required skills with ratios. You could be assembling a team that needs the right ratio of skills, or designing an ecosystem with a stable balance of herbivores and carnivores, or something else. The learners might start with some lesson material, or they could check it out when they feel that they need it, motivated by the game itself. Learning about ratios and “scoring points” aren’t different. You show that you can calculate ratios by playing the game, and playing the game means that you are calculating ratios.

Game-based learning has the potential to turn a flat, passive experience into an engaging and interactive one. But there is a place for gamification as well. It can provide a quick way to improve a boring, traditional course, and extrinsic motivation is better than no motivation at all. Each approach has tradeoffs, and there’s even some grey area between them. That’s why we put so much work into gathering requirements, analyzing needs, and designing solutions. Defining terms such as “gamification” and “game-based learning” should help us make better decisions, and they should never be barrier between Eduspeakers and the rest of the world.