Game-Based Learning vs Gamification

Dave Eng
5 min readSep 4, 2019
Game-Based Learning vs Gamification

Game-Based Learning vs Gamification

Both gamification and games-based learning have entered popular culture. That means there’s been debate and misunderstanding about what they are; what they’re used for; and what differentiates them.

Some people want to use games-based learning when they mean gamification. Others want to use gamification when they should use games-based learning.

Just what is the difference between games-based learning and gamification?

Definitions and differences

Games-based learning and gamification sound alike but are really two different approaches. Games-based learning is an educational or an instructional method that uses games to teach a specific skill or reach a learning outcome. Games-based learning takes the content of your learning material and makes it fun.

Gamification is an application of game like elements in a non-game context. This is done to promote a specific desired behavior to drive those learning outcomes. You can see this clearly in the most public forms of gamification: points, badges, and leader boards.

The main difference between both of them is their application and integration. Games-based learning fully integrates games into the educational content. You can say the entire course or class has been turned into a game. Gamification on the other hand uses just elements from games to incentive rewards or for making progress.

More about gamification

So there’s another, and easier way, to think about gamification. It’s to view all of its applications as a system of encouragement mechanics. Gamification gets your students to want to do something in order for you to promote that desired behavior.

Courses that include gamification use some of the most popular methods of implementing badges, experience points, levels, and leader boards to incentivize students to complete readings and become recognized for their efforts.

Gamification can also be seen in commercial entities with engagement software that strives to motivate employees. These also include applications in some much needed areas like on-boarding, elimination of errors, and collaboration.

Gamification’s popularity has unfortunately also earned it a bum rap. That’s because its widespread implementation has motivated others to attempt to use it quickly. This leads to poor executions for those that want to hop onto the trend. Those poor implementations in turn make it the target of mass critique.

But gamification does have its positives. It is fast to implement because it merely augments the content that you already have. It’s incredibly easy to add gamified mechanics into your existing system.

Games-based learning

So how does games-based learning compare to gamification? Games-based learning is a type of active learning that is accomplished within a game framework. Games-based learning includes learning objectives and measurable outcomes.

Games-based learning isn’t even new. If you’ve ever played Oregon Trail then you’ve experienced games-based learning in one of its earliest forms.

Simply put, the core of games-based learning is learning through games. Not with games; not by games; but through games. Games are a central part of a games-based learning approach.

Compared to gamification, games-based learning uses games themselves to enhances the learning experience. A good example of this is the Stock Market Trading game you played in your high school economics class. This game serves as one of those implementations of theory to practice. Through that game I learned about supply and demand and a litany of other learning outcomes for high school economics.

The use of games in these environment is also linked to simulations and serious games. Both of them use the core concepts and structures of games in order to help students reach their learning outcomes.

In games-based learning, students are introduced to new concepts and skills where they can practice and implement them in a risk-free setting. This is advantageous because their retention and application of material is directly related to their development of understanding through game play.

Games-based learning can also be used in a corporate setting where employees are learning new skills for different applications in customer service, help desking, or teambuilding.

For all of its positives, games-based learning does have its drawbacks. It requires instructors, faculty, and trainers to create new copy, modules, and content. That can be time intensive, consuming, and exhausting. This makes games-based learning a significant barrier for many.

Though the pay-off for this investment can be substantial. Though using games-based learning, students must create their own knowledge and understanding experientially. The possible learning outcomes for students are endless when games are used.


They key difference between games-based learning and gamification is in the experience. In gamification, elements can be layered onto a traditional classroom environment. The most popular elements are points, badges, and leader boards. Conversely, games-based learning uses the core elements, structures, and rules of games to lead that learning experience.

While gamification is a much faster and easier method of implementation, it doesn’t always work best for all types of teaching and learning. It’s often best suited for content that doesn’t need to be memorized or requires a big shift in player behaviors. Gamification is best suited for “nudging” players into making small changes. Small changes made by many that affects the overall environment.

Games-based learning is about the game. Whether that is a serious game, simulation, the Oregon Trail, or the Stock Market Trading game; the game is the heart of the experience. The game’s content is the learning content.

Click here for access to the free course on Gamification Explained

Dave Eng, EdD

Managing Partner


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