Games vs Game-based Learning vs Gamification

Approximate Reading Time: 3 minutes

So many people are confused about the differences between these terms. Unfortunately, this article just muddies the waters further.

Games vs Game-based Learning vs Gamification | The Upside Learning Blog.

It’s a great effort, but I’m afraid none of these are quite right. You may want to check out some of the resources on my site (or read my upcoming book)

From the article:

Here are some definitions that come closer (check this post for my version):


What you are describing under “game” is in fact only entertainment games. There are many other kinds of games, and rewards are not always secondary, nor are they necessarily hard or expensive to build (that would describe AAA games), NOR are story and scenes part of the game (that excludes most puzzle games). When it comes to winning or losing: there are plenty of entertainment games where winning and losing is not possible.

Game-Based Learning:

GBL does not require a game specifically designed for educational purposes – it is the use of games in a learning context. Sometimes just playing the game is intrinsically rewarding is true of any GOOD game. Educational and other serious games rarely have the kinds of budgets that AAA games do, so they are not necessarily expensive. Good design is always hard and that applies to learning as well as all kinds of learning that involve games or game elements. Creating good learning is hard. Adding a game or game elements makes it harder still.


I would say that having optional intrinsic rewards describes BAD gamification. Good gamification is hard to do (as is good design of ANY kind). I would agree that gamification is often added like a skin on top of the content, which is why so much of it is poorly done, and largely ineffective. You may want to check out my gamification resources.

Here are a couple of definitions from my upcoming book that may help to clear things up a bit:

Digital Game Based Learning (DGBL)
Learning of some knowledge, skills, attitudes that happens with the deliberate use of digital games. This could involve learning by playing games, but it can also involve learning through building games. DGBL is about learning with games.
Specifically, DGBL is the theory of how learning happens with the use of (primarily digital) games. Game based learning draws on a variety of other learning theories to explain how people learn with games.

Digital Game Pedagogy (DGP)
As pedagogy is about the study, and theory of teaching, digital game pedagogy is about the study and theory of teaching with games. It is a term not commonly used, but it is meant to highlight the distinction between learning from games and teaching with games. The two terms are closely related but are effectively opposite sides of the same coin – one from the perspective of the learner and the other from the perspective of the teacher.

A game:

  • Is interactive
  • Has rules
  • Has one or more goals
  • Has a quantifiable measure of progress(or success)
  • Has a recognizable ending

Gamification is the use of game design elements in non-game contexts. It is not necessarily about learning and can be used in any context. Examples include companies that offer points, reward systems, badges, and other incentive-based techniques, usually with the intent of increasing brand association and loyalty.

 Serious Game
A game that has been designed to have a purpose other than or in addition to entertainment. While some entertainment games are often used as educational games, such as Sid Meyer’s Civilization, it is the designed intent that classifies a game as serious. Games like Civilization is a game used for serious purposes.

NOTE: For a more detailed and clear table outlining the similarities and differences, see my post from February 3, 2018:

What’s the difference between serious games, educational games, and game-based learning?

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Games vs Game-based Learning vs Gamification — 8 Comments

  1. What a great post. I was indeed confused about the differences but this just made everything clear. Thank you for sharing and keep up the good work.

  2. Pingback: 5 mistaken differences between education games and the gamification of education | The Becker Blog

  3. Pingback: Games vs Game-based Learning vs Gamification : New Infographic, but still wrong. | The Becker Blog

  4. Pingback: Games vs Game-based Learning vs Gamification – My Version | The Becker Blog

  5. So you would say that many role-playing games are not games because they (by design) do not have a recognizable ending—there may be subgoals that are met, but the intent of the game is to go on as long as the players find it interesting (often for years).

    • That’s part of the problem with trying to come up with a ‘definitive’ definition of game: there will always be exceptions.

      For my part I absolutely consider RPG’s to be games – both the digital and analog versions. They do have intermediate goals, as do games like the SIMs and Animal Crossing.
      Maybe I should make that last ‘requirement’ optional. I think the first three are necessary though – the fourth should maybe read “has a recognizable measure of progress (or success)”.

      Thanks! I always enjoy your comments!

      • I think it is like computer theorists who worry about termination conditions. Some programs (like operating systems) are intended never to terminate. Similarly, for some games, ending is a failure of the game, rather than a normal condition.

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