Gamification vs. Game Based Learning in Education

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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  1. This is a major issue that I have also noticed in discussions about gamification. When I tell colleagues that I am interested in “gamification,” the assumption is that I’ve somehow turned into a game developer (note: I am a psychologist). It takes some convincing to explain that, no, I am just adopting psychological principles of motivation commonly seen in games to make some pre-existing process or learning tool more intrinsically interesting to students. I’ve attempted to state a definition in a recent journal submission that distinguishes these two ideas, but we’ll see if it makes any difference!

  2. “both GBL and Gamification of Education want the same thing: student engagement.”

    The goal of many educators and trainers is NOT “engagement” but actual learning. Or even better… Performance gains on representative tasks for the domain. In other words, usable and transferable knowledge and skill. Engagement is not an end, and can even be misleading as some reports about KA have shown… Kids (by their own words) engaged around earning the badges rather than the actual learning.

    And given that performance on so-called “mastery quizzes” and actual transferable performance over time is quite thin, engagement can produce slot-machine-style activity and enthusiasm with only the shallowest veneer of actual learning.

    Also, given that you start this post with what I believe is an important goal: clarifying terminology, you then went on to use “game thinking” as part of the definition of gamification, and nobody has a clue what “game thinking” even means. Ask a gamer, a “social gamer”, and an actual game developer what that means, and you will surely get dramatically different — if not mutually exclusive — definitions. Evidence: two of the three “elements from games” you mention — rewards and incentives (and I am not sure why you list those as two separate things given most uses of those terms) are considered by game designers to be NOT among the “Things that make games engaging, good, fun, compelling, etc.”. However, you did mention feedback, and that is the one above all others that matters deeply in education. If, as Amabile describes in “The Progress Principle”, we were to use JUST the feedback aspect of games and dial down or kill the extrinsic reward part of gamification, we would be left with something very useful and powerful.

    Unfortunately, way too much potential useful education gamification is completely destroyed by being so enamored with engagement metrics (and even short-term shallow quiz gains) that it sacrifices deeper and more sustainable learning that *could* be enabled with some of what games DO have.

    • Well said Kathy. You are awesome.

      Although adding badges and rewards to classroom instruction may be a popular application of what people are calling gamification, this isn’t actually a very good way of gamifying education.

      As Raph Koster points out, learning and mastery are what make games fun. Balancing challenge level with the skill required helps to create the ongoing engagement that sees people play commercial video games like WoW for years at a time. A big trap for schools is that students want to learn maths. They don’t. They want to build robots and blow stuff up and dress up and draw pictures and look after animals etc. If you build a game about these things that requires skills like maths and art etc, be learnt and applied incidentally within the game, then you’re at a good starting point.

      As soon as I get points and badges for answering maths questions you’re missing the point as Kathy says. It becomes about the points.

      The role of a teacher where games are used to teach is to help teach collaboration skills to the students.

    • It’s incredibly important not to miss the fact that engagement generally precedes achievement in the behavioral funnel for education. Without getting student engagement, it’s hard to get one to learn anything, let alone love learning it.


  3. I found this post very interesting and informative.

    Would you consider a different tone if the target of gamification was Higher Education or Adult education rather than K – 12?

    Does the older student change your definition of engagement or success in gamification?

    What if the students are global students … around the world with multiple languages, multiple learning pedagogy?

  4. Thanks for making the distinction between the two terms, this is a great explanation 🙂

    However, I think the real issue to adoption isn’t whether we say “gamification” OR “game based learning” but rather that there are those such as Kathy above who question the value of either in education.

    At PLANE we certainly understand the value of gamification & gbl, and are including courses for educators on GBL and developing a game about game-based-learning, however even we internally are having discussions about how much we can apply this to design of professional development courses and features when our users will be teachers (some of whom will view ‘games’ as trivial or childish rather than ‘professional’).

    Would love to hear your thoughts on this – is gbl and gamification applicable to all sectors, audiences, and topics including those that have traditional notions of what is ‘professional’ and ‘serious’ learning? Can we be playful AND professional? New blog post thinking on this: