Sunday, April 20, 2014

Gamification versus Game-based learning (GBL)

GBL vs Gamification?  I have been building learning games and building games into learning for decades. Both are game-based learning (GBL).  Both, situate the game as a way to experience and learning key skills – usually action-oriented skills, process flow, or decision-making skills.  On the other hand, gamification is actually about the application of game mechanics to a business purpose and is most frequently used in marketing.  Think market loyalty; often has some great white papers on the use of gamification in marketing.   

Can the corporate learning function use gamification in marketing learning?  Certainly!  However, we now find ourselves in a recursive loop where it get hard to tell what’s GBL and what’s gamification.  Try the following examples; they may clarify (or not).  At least this is how I explain it to myself and my clients.

A new employee in corporate orientation is sent on a “treasure hunt” to gather signatures, take pictures, or bring back artifacts from various departments in the organization.  Is this game-based learning or gamification.  Are they learning anything?  Maybe.  They might be learning where to find information, departments, and resources.  To that degree this treasure hunt is a learning game.  I would contend, however, that the real point of the activity is new employee (customer) loyalty and that find information, departments and resources is more about building employee satisfaction than actual skill-building. (Which doesn’t mean that finding stuff is not a skill – just that skill-building is as disguise in this instance for customer/employee satisfaction,)  However, it works and it is a valuable technique.

This same new employee receives an email from the LMS (a coach or other entity) congratulating them on becoming a new member of the organization and reaching the rank of Apprentice Explorer (or any other rank name you want to substitutes).  Our employee receives a badge icon as Apprentice Explorer along with the request that they enroll in and complete the following three e-learning classes to complete the rank of Explorer 1.  (Implied assumption: another badge will come with the new rank.) The courses cover legal requirements, how to use software, working effectively at XYZ  corp, etc.   This is pure gamification of the learning function.  Game mechanics of awards (badges) and leveling up encourage our new employee to complete essential tasks and provides feedback on whether these tasks have been completed.  Again, those tasks include key skills, but the skills are entirely secondary to the purpose of the leveling up based on task accomplishment (a market loyalty technique for return engagements).    

A few months later our new employee attends a workshop on quality assurance and their role in their organization’s interpretation of quality improvement.  The workshop includes a 1-hour game using a board game format to walk learners through the quality process and discover key aspects of that process (what happens when documentation is incomplete, reviews, change initiatives, etc.).   This is pure game-based learning.  The purpose here is build familiarity with the process steps, decisions, and artifacts of quality assurance and to build a common set of expectations for what all employees do as part of corporate quality improvement.  The goal is learning -- building knowledge and skills.  If the learning is fun enough to also build customer (employee) satisfaction, that’s a nice benefit. 

A year or so later, our employee moves up to a somewhat higher level position in the company.  In doing so, they are now expected to participate in a 1-week long goal-based scenario or war game.  For example, our employee moves into a regional sales executive role that requires a 1-week simulation of the sales process.  Herenew sales execs have to build a cold-call list, make a certain number of cold calls,  build a warm-call list (previous clients who are not using a newly released product – a white space sales opportunity), call the warm-client, give a web-based product demo, demonstrate closing the sale, use the CRM software, and write a quarterly report of sales results. This simulation might be done entirely with actors as clients or staff acting as clients.   The goal here is learning and demonstrating skills.  Everyone involved is interested in whether this employee can do key skills and make key decisions.  No one really cares whether the employee has a good time or has fun… or not.  This form of game-based learning is very serious and very intense with high stakes and serious “do you keep the job” implications.  Fun and loyalty are entirely outside the purpose.  However, anyone designing one of these war game/simulations also knows that they need to build in fun, positive feedback, encouragement, and opportunities for learners to feel good about themselves and the company.  They will build in social events, mini-competitions, prizes, team building, and progress markers to help learners power through the very intense and focused learning required by these events.   In the end, the learner comes out feeling very upbeat and positive about the company (employee loyalty) and them themselves and their skill set.  However, the purpose of simulation game was skill learning; employee loyalty was incidental (put in place to keep the employee from dropping out of the intense and often fearsomely competitive learning experience.)  

With these four examples, we can see how gamification and game-based learning blur.  Not sure which you're seeing.  Consider using the primary purpose of the activity as your guide to whether it’s gamification (game mechanics applied to business functions) or game-based learning (games to build skills). Is the purpose building satisfaction and return engagements?  If so, it's probably gamification, even if it is being done in the classroom.  Is the purpose learning and demonstrating skills and knowledge?  If so, it's probably game-based-learning. 

Note:  Some games (e.g., the ubiquitous Jeopardy) are about recall.  The question becomes whether these are valid learning games.  If recall is the skill required, then, yes, these games are game-based learning.  Otherwise, they are gamification of the classroom in order to build learner excitement through fun (a game mechanic) and  to consolidate knowledge before moving on (leveling up – another game mechanic.)  In other words, their purpose is to keep the learning come back into the classroom for the next dose of "learning".   The technique works and can be a valuable, low-cost addition to the learning classroom.  A learning objective that states "name the 9 learning events" is about recall and a game like Jeopardy could be a valid learning game.  However, an objective that states "explain the 9 learning events" might use a Jeopardy-like game to recall the events and build enthusiasm via this classroom gamification technique. 

Comments invited.  Please share your opinions.    


  1. Nicely stated. To me, the thing that separates learning games from gamification is how you use the elements in the game. If you use the elements to increase your understanding of something, then it's a learning game. Also, a learning game has you build on the knowledge you gained in one level and apply it to a more challenging level. In other words, you are always increasing your skills.

    However, if all you're doing is either answering questions or doing tasks in order to obtain points or badges or awards of some sort, that's gamification of a task.

    I agree with you that Jeopardy is not a learning game. In fact, it penalizes you for not having the answer. In contrast, a learning game is an act of discovery.

    So, I guess I see the difference as one of consequences. Learning games enable you to see the result of your choices. Gamification only scores your choices.

  2. Very true, Art, consequences (and increasing skill improvement is a consequence) are very important aspect of whether it's learning or loyalty.


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