Training Technology

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

Published by in Training Technology

Update 5/31/2017: In the three years since this article was written, gamification and game-based learning have both come a long way. Find out what changed below.

So, all this games stuff.

You know it’s important because the market is expected to be worth a solid $11 billion globally by 2020. (And speaking of 2020, Gartner has some predictions for what we’ll see from gamification at that point.)

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.

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.”

That may be true. But there are subtleties and differences that you need to know before charging ahead with a gamified or game-based learning campaign.


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.”
  • Duolingo: A good example of how far gamification can go to teach a challenging subject, Duolingo is a gamified language-learning website. By turning tests and lessons into challenges and keeping track of progress, Duolingo keeps learners engaged and motivated, even when they might otherwise be frustrated or bored.

Gamification has come a long way since its inception. Rather than being a rare thing you might encounter on occasion, gamification is an increasingly default feature for multiple types of software, from learning management systems to performance tracking programs.

One of the major changes in modern gamification is how subtle it has become. When it was introduced, you’d find system where gamification was the first thought, last thought, and most thoughts in between. Every piece of a gamified system had to be gamified. We’ve grown and learned since then. Now you’re more likely to see two or three gamified aspects of a system, without sacrificing the entire functionality at the altar of the cool new thing.

Want an LMS app that tracks completion and offers badge rewards? You can have that. Want to just add some little reward badges to your regular Moodle? You can do that, too. The offerings are sleeker, more piecemeal, and more easily integrated than ever.

If you’re someone who looked at gamification’s initial rise and wondered what the heck the point was, we’ve got an answer: reporting. Reporting is possibly the best thing about modern gamification. Progress trackers, time trackers, achievements, and leaderboards are all simple gamification elements that tell you tons about how your learners are performing, at a glance.

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:

  • McDonald’s Till Training Game: High addictive, engaging, and directly useful for its users, McDonald’s game to train cashiers is everything excellent game-based learning should be.
  • 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. It’s a good example of game-based learning. (Though it sends some weird messages about sexual harassment being unavoidable, so take the content with a grain of salt.)

Game-based learning is considered an effective way to teach people new concepts given the interactive nature of playing games. And while you might see it in some corporate training, you’re more likely to see game-based learning before an employee ever sends a resume.

Game-based learning has taken a backseat to game-based recruiting. Everything from hotels to the U.S. military have found success in using games to give prospective applicants and recruits a little taste of what life with their organization might be like, and to see if someone might have a natural aptitude for the job.
On an interesting note, game-based learning targeted at children has seen some push back in recent years. Some theorize that the reporting elements prep children for life in a surveillance state. Scary stuff, though likely an overreaction.

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!

Looking for Training software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Training software solutions.

About the Author

Halden Ingwersen

Halden Ingwersen

Halden Ingwersen is a former Capterra analyst.



Comment by Mareike Brensing on

I like the way you explain the difference between those two ways of motivating learners. People love to mix them up. 😀 I’d add that the learning game also tries to simulate reality, so the learner can train and perform in a realistic but safe surrounding. So it’s not only interesting for application processes but can be for (further) education too. Our company develops for example serious games that simulate the managment of companies. They are used by educational institutions as well as private corporations.

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Comment by Vickie McGee on

Invalid link – (Source: University of Colorado Denver)

Comment by Joe bear on

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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Comment by Renata Zin on

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

Comment by Anu Nevalainen on

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:

Comment by Akanksha Garg on

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 –

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