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Gamification vs Games-Based Learning: What’s the Difference?

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So, all this games stuff.

You know it’s important because the market for learning games is $3.9 billion, and will be $8.9 billion by 2017.

It’s also effective, as a University of Colorado Denver study found that students who learned skills from gamified eLearning courses scored 14% higher than those who learned through traditional methods.

Vector Online Game Concept

But the distinction between the above two concepts—learning games and gamified learning—is about as clear as mud.

There is a distinction though, and before you charge headlong into implementing one or the other at your organization it pays to understand the difference. What follows is the short answer, and then some more in-depth explanations with examples.

The short answer: Gamification is turning the learning process as a whole into a game, while Games-Based Learning (GBL) is using a game as part of the learning process.

Here’s what I mean:


Gamification turns the entire learning process into a game. It takes game mechanics and gameplay elements and applies them to existing learning courses and content in order to better motivate and engage learners.  Examples of these mechanics include:

  • Achievement badges
  • Points
  • Leaderboards
  • Progress bars
  • Levels/quests

In theory, you can gamify any activity, not just learning ones. Indeed, everything from fitness apps to LinkedIn’s profile pages can and have been gamified to increase user participation and engagement.

eLearning Gamification Examples

There are a lot of great gamification examples out there, from Deloitte adding badges and rankings to their digital Leadership Academy, to DuoLingo’s usage of skill points when lessons are completed. Here are a few more examples to give you a taste for gamification in the real world:

  • Quest to Learn: An entire, gamified school, Q2L uses game design elements like levels, missions, and quests to keep students engaged with learning material. “Boss levels” replace finals as a way to test students’ ability to apply acquired knowledge.
  • IBM’s Kudos Badges: Used for IBM Connections, Kudos Badges can be awarded to users based on custom adoption behavior (did they use the tool?) and also include leaderboards for some friendly competition, and profile progress for a sense of “leveling up.”
  • Xerox’s Stepping Up: Used for management training, this application takes employees through “quests” to apply what they’ve learned in training, and includes progress tracking through Yammer.

Games-Based Learning

Where gamification is taking a learning process and applying game principles to it, GBL is taking a game and using it for learning. GBL is aimed at teaching a discrete skill or specific learning outcome, rather than being a complete pedagogical system.


There are really too many examples to count here, but a few standouts include:

  • Microsoft’s Ribbon Hero: A game to teach users how to interact with Microsoft Office’s new ribbon interface, this game brings back the long lost (but not mourned) “Clippy” the helpful paperclip, as the game’s protagonist.
  • iCivics: This learning game teaches students all about the American form of government as they play candidates running for office, lawyers arguing real cases, and Supreme Court Justices casting deciding votes.
  • Broken Co-Worker: This Articulate game explores sexual harassment in the workplace as part of a mandated training course on the subject.

The Same Thing After All?

Given the above definitions and examples, you could almost say that gamification creates one big learning game, so it and GBL aren’t so different after all. In fact, Karl Kapp, author of The Gamification of Learning and Instruction, says,

“When you get right down to it, the goals of both are relatively the same. Serious games and gamification are both trying to solve a problem, motivate, and promote learning using game-based thinking and techniques.”

Whether you decide to implement a discrete learning game to teach a specific skill, or to gamify your entire learning process, hopefully the end-result is a more engaged and successful learning audience.

Have you already experimented with one or the other at your organization? Leave your experiences in the comments!

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About the Author

JP Medved

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J.P. currently works as a Content Editor at Capterra, a privately held technology and online media company focused on bringing together buyers and sellers of business software. He is a graduate of Georgetown University where he founded The Georgetown Federalist. Follow him on Twitter at @rizzleJPizzle.


Quite an informative piece! For games to be successful, we need to make sure that they provide excitement but have enough learning content as well. Here are a few ways to make sure that games are an effective tool of learning –

Hi, this was extremely informative blog post. And it indeed is very vague line between gamification and gamified learning… The whole idea about gamification and gamified learning is quite new to us adults, but the future generations get familiar with both concepts at school already. That’s something us adults should remember and take into use. My thoughts of the life-cycle of games in learning:

Gamified education is actually our future. It’s most simple way to engage students, also – develop their practical skills. Strongly suggest to try out

[…] and Education. New York: Pfieffer: An Imprint of John Wiley & Sons. Gamification in e-learning 4/2/2015 Rick Raymer (2011) Gamification: Using Game Mechanics to Enhance eLearning […]

Agree with most. I think you should also be talking about story-based learning, which is an important part of the game that’s less talked about.
I made a nice story based language learning game that teaches through conversations, you can check it out here:

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