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Gamification vs. Game Based Learning in Education


As the debate and discussion for games and learning continue in the field of education, there needs to be some clarification in terminology. Educators and Advocates may think they are speaking the same language, but this is not certain. When I read the many blogs, articles, and resources on the subject, I see some lack of clarity, as well as oversimplification, when it comes to Gamification of Education and Game Based Learning.

So let’s start with the terms:

Gamification is the process of using game thinking and game mechanics to solve problems and engage users. The key takeaway here is that this is a process. You take something that is not normally a game, and make it so (nerd reference intended.) Gamification of Education is exactly what it sounds like; taking these games elements, from incentives, immediate feedback, rewards, and more to classroom instruction. It requires looking at the full package of instruction and changing the paradigm. In classroom instruction, it takes multiple instances, and a depth of time to see the full extent of gamification. As in, one visit to a gamified classroom will not allow you to see the entire extent to which that class has actually been gamified. You might see a specific mini quest with a formative assessment, but not the entire pedagogical structure, An classroom unit or a classroom in its entirety must be gamified. A prime example of this is Quest2Learn, a school in NYC where the entire structure of learning over the course of the unit, and year, is gamified. From boss levels and quests to avatars and incentives, the entire learning process is a game.

Game Based Learning or GBL is a a branch of serious games that deals with applications that have defined learning outcomes. GBL balances subject matter learning and game play with the objectives of retaining and applying said subject matter in the real world. Things get complex when juxtaposing GBL with Gamification. GBL is using games in the classroom. In a previous post, Andrew Proto, mentioned iCivics and TimeZ Attack as examples of great serious games. These games have clear learning objectives, from civic common core standards to math common core standards. These games can use a high degree of technology or it might be pen and paper.

GBL and Gamification overlap often. In a Gamified classroom, you make be using smaller games throughout the unit. You might, for example, use a game on iCivics to help teach one component of larger unit, to arm students for a boss level. On the flip side of this, if you are creating a intensive Gamified unit, then you are actually creating a large serious game. So we see that GBL can be a small component of the learning, or a  descriptor of the entire pedagogical model. Gamification, on the other hand, refers to changing the entire model of instruction to be a game or game-like.

Both GBL and Gamification of Education want the same thing: student engagement. They require students to wrestle with critical content as well as learn 21st century skills. They require a paradigm shift of the educator from “sage of the stage” to “guide on the side.” Regardless of which method or pedagogy you employ in your classroom, you are providing an opportunity for students who may not have been reach to engage in learning that will allow them to achieve success.


Andrew Miller (@betamiller on Twitter) is an international educational consultant specializing in many areas including online learning and games-based learning and gamification of education. He is also National Faculty member for the Buck Institute for Education, an org that specializes in project-based learning. committed to make powerful learning a reality for every student. He is also a regular blogger for Edutopia.



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