Comparing Gamification, Serious Games and Simulations

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Comparing Gamification, Serious Games and Simulations.


**** Original Image replaced. It belonged to Designing Digitally, and although I had linked it to their site, I did not have official permission to use it. They phoned me and yelled at me. They threatened me. I have my own images that I want protected, and would have been happy to take them down, had they asked nicely. They didn’t. They were VERY hot under the collar. After they yelled at me, they hung up on me. Now, I’m no business expert, but I’m pretty sure that’s no way to do business.


My last post complained about being shut down on several LinkedIn groups because I disagreed with the poster. This is one of the articles that apparently needed to be protected by flagging my post.

This group defines gamification, serious games, and simulation like this:

The term gamification refers to the process of adding game-like concepts and abilities to various applications in order to make them more enjoyable for the user.

A serious game incorporates the same types of gamification elements into a traditional video game that’s designed specifically for learning, marketing or a number of other educational purposes.

A simulation, on the other hand, will mimic a real-life challenge that a student may eventually have to face within the workplace.

Here’s my problem with these definitions:

These definitions are not accurate. If I were a new-comer trying to understand the distinction between gamification, serious games and simulations, I’m afraid these definitions would be confusing. They’re also somewhat misleading.

Gamification is the use of game design elements in a non-game context.

It does not have to be for enjoyment. I realize that much of the gamification that is done in the corporate sector is done to increase revenue in one way or another, but educational goals can be quite different. Gamification in education is not about marketing, whereas gamification in business almost always is.

“A serious game incorporates the same types of gamification elements into a traditional video game that’s designed specifically for learning, marketing or a number of other educational purposes.” I find this very confusing. Since gamification is the use of GAME elements, how can a serious GAME be defined as a GAME that uses GAME elements? This a tautology. The generally accepted definition (since 2003) is: Serious games are games design for purposes other than or in addition to pure entertainment. (first coined by Ben Sawyer, the founder of the serious games initiative).

Finally, (digital) simulations are computer programmed implementations of an abstract model. Sivasailam Thiagarajan, (1998) the noted performance training designer said that a simulation is “a representation of the features and behaviors of one system through the use of another” (p.35). A lot of people mistakenly think that simulations necessarily involve a real life situation, but all that is required is that it be an acceptable implementation of a consistent model. The model can be purely imaginary.

Many non-technical people see simulations and games as being distinct, but in fact, all games are simulations, although not all simulations are games. Games are a subset of the class of software known as simulations. What distinguishes games is the addition of an internal (rather than external) goal.

If you are interested in learning more about games and simulations, I recommend my book: A Guide to Computer Simulations and Games. The full table of contents, full-color images, and the glossary are available on our website:

There’s also an interesting volume that just came out (available free) that is worth a read: (Note: I do not have anything to do with this publication. I am not an author nor am I affiliated with I just like the essays.)

Finally, unlike the authors of the original post, I welcome discussion (as long as it’s not rude).


Thiagarajan, S. (1998). The Myths and Realities of Simulations in Performance Technology. Educational Technology, 35-41.

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Comparing Gamification, Serious Games and Simulations — 7 Comments

  1. Hi Katrin,

    Thanks for your post. As a industry expert at Gamification and Serious Games, and as a professor at a University in Cincinnati. I am appalled at your bashing of Designing Digitally, Inc. as we have proved to the industry by winning multiple awards in the Gamification realm and have built serious games for may fortune 500 companies. We are very clear with our writing so if you have any question, or want to bash what we write please feel free to discuss with me first.

    Also you’re violation copyright law by having one of our copyrighted images on your blog with our permission. Please remove this immediately.

    Andrew Hughes
    Designing Digitally, Inc.

    • I actually tried to discuss it on LinkedIn (see my post on the value of discussion), but rather than discuss it, someone – perhaps you? – had me shut down.

      Had you asked nicely, I would have been more than happy to remove the image, and even post something about how graciously you handled it. I have my own images that I want protected so I do understand. Unfortunately, you didn’t ask nicely. Instead you began the conversation with a very hostile tone, that only got worse. You threatened me. You were VERY hot under the collar. After you yelled at me, you hung up on me. Now, I’m no business expert, but I’m pretty sure that’s no way to do business.

    • I did a bit of checking….. it turns out I was NOT violating copyright. According to US law, hot-linking does not violate copyright. Looks like you accused me wrongly.

      I could legally put it back, but I won’t. It was indeed hot linked to your own site, and putting it back would give my readers a direct link to your site, which I no longer want to do.

      If, at any point in the future you wish to engage me in a civilized discussion about anything I have said, I invite you to do so.

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  3. Thank you for turning comments back on. I thought it was a little hypocritical invite discussion and have comments turned off.

    I just wanted to comment (as I did in e-mail to you) that your definition of “simulation” was too narrow, as it included only computer simulations. Many educational simulations do not use computers (Mock Trial, Model UN, …).

    I realize that you are aware of the distinction, but I thought it worthwhile, while you were complaining about other people’s definitions, to be a little more precise with your own. I see that you have added “digital” before simulations to the post now, which does improve the sentence.

    • Thanks for the feedback.

      The comments were turned off a while ago as a result of a flurry of spam. I had forgotten. I agree it would be rather rude to invite comments and then not allow them. That was not my intent.

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