Ways that Game-Based Learning Differs from Gamification

Gamification and game-based learning are both important educational concepts that can help students be better learners. At first glance, the two terms appear to be synonyms. It’s about making education engaging, right? Like a game?  

In fact, game-based learning and gamification are two very different things. While the use of one does not necessarily exclude the other, it’s important to recognize what makes game-based learning a particularly powerful teaching tool.

What’s the reward?

Gamification aims to incentivize an activity that a person might otherwise choose not to do. That might be a gold star for first graders who completes their homework or frequent flier miles for business travelers who stick with the same airline for work trips. In both cases, the gamification is not necessarily changing the way the person approaches the situation. It simply makes them more likely to do the work or take part in the activity.

In game-based learning, there is not necessarily any system of rewards or points. Instead, the reward comes from what you learn by playing the game. The games offer an alternative, effective way to learn.  

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic

What is the value of a gold star to first graders? Perhaps if the students get a certain number of gold stars, they will receive a prize. And if business travelers accrue a certain number of frequent flier miles, they can earn a free flight. Both of these rewards deliver short-term, extrinsic value to participants.

What you achieve from a game is an understanding of a subject matter that you previously lacked. What you acquire from the process is not an abstract achievement badge, but rather the intrinsic value of your new knowledge.

Does it change the nature of learning?

While offering rewards for completed work may push somebody to do better, gamification does not change the nature of the work the student is doing. Game-based learning offers a completely different learning experience by stimulating critical thinking skills.

Can you win?

Gamification does not necessarily have an end state. You can always earn more frequent flier miles or gold stars. You may never win or lose. In Game-Based Learning, however, there is always an objective that you strive to accomplish with specific Student Learning Objectives or SLOs. You either figure out the math problem or you don’t and you have to try again.  

Who can play?

A process that is gamified may be restricted to certain participants and apply different rules to others. You have to buy an airline ticket to get frequent flier miles. In contrast, games are accessible to all. Anybody can develop a game and anybody can play it.