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Three Questions to Ask Before You Embark on Gamification

By Yi Yang / November 2014

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Gamification is one of the biggest buzz words of the past several years. You have probably read blog posts, articles, or reports about how great gamification, or learning games, are. An article in GamesBeat states the $1.5B gamification market is headed toward $2.3B by 2017 [1]. According to Pew Research, 50 percent of corporate innovation will be "gamified" by next year [2]. This raises several questions. What exactly is the difference between game-based learning and gamification? Do they mean the same thing? More importantly, as an instructional designer, when should you consider game-based learning versus gamification?

Let's start with the definitions for each term. Many researchers have defined game-based learning from its pedagogical method, educational value, and instructional approach. Connolly and Stansfiled defined it as "the use of a computer games-based approach to deliver, support and enhance teaching, learning, assessment, and evaluation" [3]. Whereas Prensky defined it as "an approach based on the integration of educational content into digital games and leading to the achievement of the same or better results" [4]. Chen and Wang focused on the motivational aspects of this learning environment by defining it as "an effective means to enable learners to contract knowledge by playing, maintain higher motivation and apply acquired knowledge to solve real-life problems" [5].

Nick Pelling first introduced gamification in 2003, when he described his work as a consultant for making hardware more fun. But the concept did not gain popularity until 2010. The definition of gamification is also varied. The commonly adopted definition is from Gabe Zichermann and Christopher Cummingham's Gamification by Design, where the term is defined as: "The process of game-thinking and game mechanics to engage users and solve problems" [6]. Deterding, Dixon, Khaled, and Nacke further suggested gamification should be more focused on the gameful elements rather than the playfulness. Hence, they defined gamification as "the use of game design elements in non-game contexts" [7].

The simplest answer to distinguish these two terms is: Gamification relates to gaming techniques while game-based learning carries the learning through the form of games. Ask yourself the following three questions if you struggle whether to use gamification or game-based learning.

Question 1: What is the purpose of my eLearning/training/instruction?

The fundamental difference between gamification and game-based learning is its purpose or instructional goals. In another word, what am I going to achieve or what do I want my target audience to learn? The purpose of gamification is to motivate and change learner behaviors. This purpose can be achieved by adding gaming elements such as competition, rewards, mastery, and productivity into one game. Game-based learning contains a series of games and its purpose is to promote learning by using the games for teaching knowledge and skills.

A good example of gamification is This website encourages users to cut back on water consumption or purchase greener products by rewarding points which are redeemable from vendors such as, the Honest Company, Macy's, etc. Users can compare their rank against other users to gauge green-living status.

The "Lemonade Stand" is game-based learning, which teaches users the supply and demand concept by running a lemonade stand. A recent Capterra blog provided a few more examples on both eLearning gamification and game-based learning [8].

Question 2: Are there any defined learning outcomes involved?

Game-based learning is supported by well-defined learning outcomes. The outcome of the game is to enhance or stimulate user learning. The learning outcomes for game-based learning should also align with the Bloom's Taxonomy [9]. The following diagram (see Figure 1) compares the revised Bloom's Taxonomy by Anderson and Allen Interaction's Gaming Taxonomy.

Figure 1: Revised Bloom's Taxonomy and Gaming Taxonomy.
[click to enlarge]

Gamification, on the other hand, does not need well-defined learning outcomes. It is the process of adding game mechanics to non-game contexts to engage a specific behavior. Turning a math test into a quiz show game is a good example of gamification but not game-based learning, because gamification does not change how students interact with the concepts.

Question 3: What are my desired end-results and how do I get there?

If your primary desired end-result is to design and develop a highly motivating and engaging online learning experience, you can probably choose either gamification or game-based learning. Your decision should be based on the pedagogy you will be utilizing instead of the delivery method.

To design a successful gamified-learning experience, you need to focus on creating challenges, fun, and happiness. You must include Points - Badges - Leaderboards (PBL) or reward, recognition, and motivation in your gamification.

Other gaming mechanics include:
  • Progress bars
  • Levels/quests
  • Virtual goods
  • Gifting/charity
  • Loyalty
  • Social connections

To design game-based learning, consider the Garris, Ahlers, and Driskell's Input- Process-Output Game Model [10]. In this model, a learning game needs Input, Process, and Outcome. The Input takes consideration of instructional content and game characteristics before developing the learning game. The Process is the actual game cycle where the game will be developed based on user judgments, user behavior, and system feedback. The Output is whether the learning outcomes are met by the game.

Whether using gamification or game-based learning in education or business, the ultimate goal is to create meaningful and memorable experiences and to increase learner engagement. The trend of education or training is not to spoon feed knowledge or skills to learners, but to encourage and motivate them to learn by themselves.


[1]Takahashi, D. With a Mobile Boom, Learning Games are a $1.5B Market Headed Toward $2.3B by 2017. GamesBeat. August 16, 2013.

[2] Anderson, J. and Rainie, L. The Future of Gamification. PewResearch Internet Project. May 18, 2012.

[3] Connally, T. M and Stansfield, M. H. From eLearning to Games-based eLearning: Using interactive technologies in teaching an IS course. International Journal of Information Technology Management 26, 2/3/4 (2007), 188-208.

[4] Prensky, M. Digital Game-Based Learning. Paragon House, Minnesota, MN, 2007..

[5] Chen, M. P. and Wang, L. C. The Effects of Types of Interactivity in Experimental Game-based Learning. In Proceedings of Fourth International Conference on eLearning and Games, Edutainment (Aug. 9-11, Banff, Canada). Springer, Washington D.C., 2009, 273-282.

[6] Zicherman, G. and Cummingham, C. Gamification by Design: Implementing game mechanics in web and mobile apps. O'Reilly Media, Sebastopol, CA, 2011.

[7] Deterding, S., Dixon, D., Khaled, R., and Nacke, L. Gamification: Toward a definition. In Proceedings of CHI�2011 (Gamification workshop), (May 7-12, Vancouver). ACM, New York, 2011.

[8] Medved, J. Gamification vs Games-based Learning: What's the difference. Training Technology. June 11, 2014.

[9] Allen Interactions. [@customelearning] The Taxonomy Alignment for Gaming tool! [Tweet]. June 24, 2014.

[10] Garris, R., Ahlers, R., and Driskell, J.E. Games, Motivation and Learning: A research and practice model. Simulation & Gaming 33, 4 (2002), 441-467. DOI: 10.1177/1046878102238607

About the Author

Dr. Yi Yang is a professor at Franklin University where she teaches instructional design and human performance improvement. Her research interests include eLearning, game-based learning and gamification, social learning, and emerging learning technologies. Dr. Yang also provides consulting services in training/instructional design, performance improvement, and program evaluation. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to contact her.

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  • Tue, 20 Jan 2015
    Post by Tom Richard, MEd/Insys

    It seems to me that, although gaming techniques are of necessity incorporated into both the concepts of gamification and game-based learning as defined by Dr. Yang, there are nuances between the two that are demonstrated through Gagné's Nine Events of Instruction. Using gaming techniques / elements to produce defined outcomes of acquired knowledge and skills would be game-based learning, Gagné's Event Four: Presenting the Content, and even immediate Presentation of Learning Guidance, Event Five. Incorporating gaming techniques / elements into course development as ways to elicit performance / practice in a safe environment to apply learned knowledge and skills in group or individual "games" involving competition, rewards, etc. would, I believe, satisfy Dr. Yang's definition of gamification. Such gaming exercises would come under Event Six (Elicit Performance / Practice) and, if structured properly, Event Seven: Provide Feedback.

  • Fri, 16 Jan 2015
    Post by Daniel Bell, PhD

    The Term Gamification is not mutually exclusive from Game-Based learning. Game-Based learning by definition must contain Gamification features as it is a game designed for the purpose of facilitating the satisfaction of a learning objective.