Is Game-Based Learning Different from Gamification?

Shauna Carson

Gamification was always just industry jargon to me until my friends started getting Fitbits. Suddenly, everyone was so obsessed with their leaderboard standings that not only were they all taking the stairs instead of the elevator, but one of my friends was circling the living room while she watched television at night, and another was pacing during his morning shave.

Obviously, gamification works to motivate people, and more and more organizations are leveraging its benefits to engage learners in their training. But what exactly is gamification? How is it different from game-based learning? Which one would best benefit your organization, or should you be looking at a combination of both? Let's cut through the confusion by taking a closer look at each of these concepts.

What is Gamification?

Gamification is the application of gaming principles and mechanics to non-game contexts to promote certain learning outcomes. As Kumar and Herger point out in their paper, gamification "attempts to make technology more inviting by encouraging users to engage in desired behaviors and by showing the path to mastery. From a business viewpoint, gamification is using people's innate enjoyment of play".

Moreover, according to the Training Industry, gamification can be as simple as adding levels or progress bars to existing content. But it can also be more complex, like giving points for correct answers and placing employees on leaderboards.

Other examples of gamification include features such as achievement badges and tiers that allow learners to "level up" and unlock different learning items as they progress through their training. These elements transform a training program into a quest, and instill a sense of friendly competition, motivating learners to complete their training.

For more information on gamification, and how it can help your organization, check out 7 Benefits of Gamification in eLearning.

What is Game-Based Learning?

Game-based learning (GBL), though closely related to gamification, does have some key differences. It's easy to see, however, why there is some confusion concerning what we mean when we discuss these concepts, as even some of the existing eLearning literature uses the two terms interchangeably.

GBL is a type of game play that has defined learning outcomes; it immerses the learner in a training experience that feels like a game, and teaches real-life skills in a risk-free setting.

Think of it this way: while gamification employs gaming elements to make a non-game-based training program more fun and engaging, with game-based learning the game itself is the training program.

Game-based learning is a valuable way not only to teach a new skill, but to help ensure the learned knowledge is translated to real world situations. A great example of this is the Lifesaver crisis simulator, a fully immersive experience used to teach participants CPR techniques.

For more examples of game-based learning, check out 5 Killer Examples of Gamified eLearning.

Pros and Cons of Gamification and Game-Based Learning

Various studies have pointed to the role that gamification and game-based learning can play in the retention of learned material. For instance, features such as brief retrieval quizzes can increase retention by as much as 40 percent. Additionally, when the material is more engaging, retention rates tend to go up, with one referenced study stating that these elements resulted in a 300 percent increase in retention.

Those are compelling statistics, but it is important to remember that implementing game-based learning, in most cases, means creating an entirely new training program, something that can be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming.

Gamification can be relatively fast and easy to implement since it does not involve the creation of new content. However, there is also a downside to this approach. Some studies show that the results of gamification could be due to a novelty effect. These results highlight the importance of using gamification mindfully; simply adding points and leaderboards will not provide the desired results.

Gamification and Game-Based Learning Considerations

Should you decide to introduce some combination of gamification or game-based learning to your training program, there are some questions you should first consider:

  • Will gamification be mandatory for all learners? How will you deal with learners who do not wish to participate? Will mandatory participation cause resentment among resistant learners?
  • How can you mindfully introduce gamification or game-based learning? Some organizations seem to believe that they can simply "bolt on" features like points, badges and leaderboards, and somehow transform their learning program into something their users will find fun and engaging. Unfortunately, this is not the case. A poor gamification interface can do more harm than good, and yield undesired results.
  • Who is your end user? This builds off the last point, and, when considered, can help you create a mindful gamification or game-based learning platform. Think about how your users learn, what motivates them, and what your desired outcomes are. Your learning strategy should be built upon a solid understanding of your learner, what you want your learner to know or do, and how you will endeavor to make that knowledge transfer happen.
  • What type of information are you asking your users to learn? Which concept will bring the most benefit to your training program? You might want to use game-based learning when teaching in-depth topics that may be less accessible. Making the training of such complex concepts fun and challenging helps maintain employee engagement, allowing better transferal of complicated material. Gamification, meanwhile, might be the preferred method for conveying basic, easy to understand material that can be memorized by the learner.
  • How will you determine success? What metrics will you use to determine if the gamification features or game-based learning program has been a success? Will you ask for feedback from the users? How often will you evaluate these features?

Remember, your answers to these questions will help you determine what combination of gamification or game-based learning will work best for your organization.


Both gamification and game-based learning can serve an important role in motivating and engaging learners, and encouraging learners to become active participants in their own learning and training process. A clear understanding of what each of these concepts entails, and how you can make their benefits work for you while avoiding their drawbacks, is key to ensuring their introduction to your training program is a success. What other goals should learning professionals be aware of to measure the success of game mechanics?

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Shauna Carson

Shauna graduated from the University of Toronto in 2002 with a Master of Arts in English before moving home to Calgary to work in the fast-paced, detail-oriented oil and gas industry. Now certified as a technical writer, Shauna is comfortable writing in a variety of styles, and for a variety of audiences.