Gamification, Game-based Learning, and Serious Games: What's the Difference?

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With all the posts floating around on the internet from a variety of sources, especially from authors with elementary understandings of the subject, it’s easy to get confused about the terms gamification, game-based learning, and serious games. There are articles out there that essentially describe gamification as anything related to games at work, leading to a very obscured meaning of what gamification is (and is not). Never fear! We here at Ronin are committed to helping you navigate the waters of all things game-related and giving you a basic understanding of the concepts and how they apply to the business world.




Notice the levels, leaderboard, and caps (badges); Image source: Social Media Today

Let’s start first with gamification. Gamification is probably the trickiest definition to nail down (there was actually quite a bit of controversy about this recently). We’ll stick at this point to a minimal definition to encompass the diversity of gamification. Gamification is at its simplest the use of game elements in non-game contexts to motivate people. Let’s explore that a little further. Game elements refer to  a wide range of features prominent in games, including progress, immediate feedback, levels, quests, narrative, game-like aesthetics, and yes, even those dreaded points, badges, and leaderboardsNon-game contexts encompass any application of these game elements outside of the game itself. It’s essentially stripping away the actual gameplay from the game. You’re performing a task – learning a foreign language, coding, tracking sales,  taking a training course, or engaging with a brand on a platform that features game elements. The motivation element is key because gamification at its core purpose hopes to be an avenue to use game design to engage people, to encourage them to perform tasks better or seek personal improvement.

Game-based Learning

CR crystal caves

Our learning game, Company Retreat, is designed to teach a specific leadership model

The definition of game-based learning almost appears too obvious and self-evident as I’m about to type it. You’re probably already thinking it in your head. It’s the use of games as instructional mediums. The game itself provides the learning content, and by playing through the game, the learner masters the skills/knowledge the game is designed to teach. Game-based learning does not have to be digital, although when we at Ronin discuss game-based learning that is what we are referring to. Digital game-based learning has the benefit of being (generally) more immersive, visually appealing, and providing tracking analytics. In the corporate sphere, game-based learning readily applies to employee training and development.

Serious Games



Image source: University of Southern California

Serious Games is a term that encompasses games intended for more than entertainment. The term results from the perception that games are solely for fun purposes and attempts to separate those which have a different primary intent. While it’s often used as a substitute for game-based learning, learning games are really a component of serious games, which also include games intended for social change, emotional health, or other non-entertainment purposes. An example of a serious game that is not a learning game is Darfur is Dying. The game is designed to educated players somewhat about the issues in Darfur, but more specifically it hopes to spurn them to action to help solve the crises that Darfur faces.

The Difference Between Games and Gamification

I’ll illustrate the relationship of gamification to the game as a whole further through an example that our CEO, Scott Kohl, gave the other day in discussing the concepts. It’s an example that’s been used previously by others, but I think it’s a particularly good way to understand the relationship. Think of March Madness brackets. There’s the actual games themselves, and then there’s the bracket competition surrounding it. The bracket competition is the gamification of March Madness. You don’t actually play anything; you make choices and often receive points for correct picks and are ranked against your fellow group members. Without the actual basketball games, there isn’t really anything of substance there. The gamification is a layer of competition (although gamification is not always competitive) on top of the basketball tournament.

bracket-gamification-march-madnessNot my best year…

Perhaps this example is somewhat confusing because basketball itself is a game. So, let’s consider a bracket competition without a game as the competition underpinning it. Imagine you work as an account executive and your manager starts a bracket competition surrounding weekly sales quotas, and each week you compete against a co-worker, with the person who sells more moving on to the next round. That’s actually not a very good example of effective gamification that changes/encourages the target behaviors, but it at the very least demonstrates the relationship between gamification and games. Gamification is the overarching elements (competition, points, levels, etc.) that make up a game.

Hopefully this post helped clear up any confusion surrounding the different game-related terminology as it applies to the business world. Please check out more of our posts for more detailed insights into game-based learning and gamification!

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