5 mistaken differences between education games and the gamification of education

Approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes

And 12 ways in which these ideas are problematic.

Gamification is generally defined as the use of game design elements in non-game contexts.

Fair enough. But this is pretty much where the article goes off the rails. (She’s not alone).

Source: 5 differences between education games and the gamification of education

I’m sorry. The rest of this post is pretty much a rant, so if you don’t want that, skip to one of my other posts that is more fun.

“Gamification” is a hot item right now, and far FAR too many people don’t really understand what it is, and what it ISN’T. If you want a non-judgmental chart that distinguishes between game and gamification, try this.

This article is one that makes things worse.


What this article actually distinguishes between is GOOD VS BAD, and that applies to BOTH Educational Games AND Gamification.

The seriously misleading part in this article is that the Educational Games column has ALL the GOOD and the Gamification of Education column has ALL the BAD.

Truth is, I have seen plenty of examples of BOTH “kinds” of education that fit the description of what’s in column B. I have seen far fewer examples of EITHER kind of education that fit into column A, but I have seen some.

We REALLY REALLY REALLY need to get a way from the idea that one kind of thing can be described using all negative things and another using all positive things. This really looks like a simple example of someone who has shifted the negative description of games for learning onto gamification, without any obvious understanding of what EITHER one is OR of what makes a game good.


Keep in mind that lectures can be fantastic, and they can be abysmal. The same is true of every single educational technology. While I would vehemently argue that the medium is NOT simply the vehicle for the delivery of instruction, I would also argue just as vehemently that it is the skill with which you combine your instructional design AND that of your chosen medium that makes the difference.

I’m not saying this is the case for the author of this article (I have never met her), this kind of presumptuous claim most often comes from someone who does NOT understand the medium they are talking about.

And, by the way, PLAYING games is NOT enough to to qualify someone to talk about game design, in the same way that watching a movie does not qualify you to become a film maker. It’s essential that you DO play games, but it is not nearly enough.

Here are five differences between Games and gamification:

1. Educational Games: Points, achievements, and rewards are one element of the system.
Gamification of Education: Focuses on points, achievements, and rewards.

Problem ONE: How are you defining achievements? I’m assuming in the “gamified” way: i.e. simple badges. Because, you know, achievement-based learning is a thing – and a pretty good thing.

Problem TWO: The quote from Jordan Shipiro is from 2014. Now, that may not seem like very long ago, but in the development of gamification for learning, it is, and that makes what he says stale. We HAVE moved on. At least SOME of us have.

“Game-based learning is not gamification. It is about what I see when I see my own kids play video games. And guess what, they don’t pay attention to the score, they don’t pay attention to the rewards, they don’t pay attention to the points. They don’t even care about leveling up. The only thing they care about leveling up is it offers new challenges. It gets fun again…”

You know what? Many games aren’t like this, and they’re STILL fun. Besides, if “flow” is your yardstick for measuring the success of an educational game, I’m afraid you are in for a huge disappointment. While it does happen occasionally, a state of flow is not as common in games as people would have you believe, AND, for some, like some of my favorite puzzle games, the score, the rewards, and the points ARE PART OF WHAT MAKES THE GAME FUN. It’s not only that, sure, but it absolutely PART of it.

2. Educational Games: Strive to present the right level of challenge to the player.
Gamification of Education: Targeting level of challenge rarely considered.

Problem THREE: This pair simply distinguishes between learner centered and teacher centered instruction, and really has nothing to do with games or gamification. Good instruction, regardless of the medium used, could be described as “striving to present the right level of challenge to the learner”, and BAD instruction could be described as not doing that. This is one the Reigeluth’s eight core ideas of his Post-industrial Paradigm of Instruction. I actually published a whole series of articles connecting Reigeluth’s ideas to my gamified course design.

While I would agree with this:

Game designers are experts at presenting challenges at just the right time to meet a particular skill level.

I would hasten to add that most educators are NOT game designers. In fact, a great many teachers (and this goes double for higher ed) aren’t even very good instructional designers. One of the huge differences between entertainment games and educational games is that people play entertainment games voluntarily. It’d be wonderful if we could ignore that pesky little fact, but we can’t. Popular games are popular with the kind of people that like that kind of game AND for whom the particular levels of challenge offered by the game are just right. Those that find the game too hard will not play it. Similarly, those who find the game too easy will also not play it. We don’t have that luxury in the classroom. When we present a game or gamified lesson to our class, we are (usually) presenting it to our WHOLE class. Our students don’t really have a choice. The bright kids will often find it boring, and the struggling kids will often find it too hard. What the kids will likely tell their teacher though, is: “It beats doing another worksheet”. I’d hardly call that success.

3. Educational Games: Narrative and characters common.
Gamification of Education: May include player avatar and/or weak story.

Problem FOUR: C’mon! This is clearly written in such a way as to lead the reader to the conclusion that games are better than gamification. Otherwise, why add the negative descriptor “weak” to one and NO descriptor at all to the other. Perhaps the addition of “awesome” in column one was too obvious? Got news for you; it’s still pretty obvious.

…most games have a story arc and/or characters and most attempts at gamification have weak or nonexistent stories and characters.

Problem FIVE: Really? Are we talking about educational games here, or entertainment games? Because, if you are talking about educational games, there are plenty of examples of lame narratives and weak and nonexistent characters. I can also imagine some amazing story lines and characters for some kinds of gamified lessons. History, Literature, Archaeology, and Anthropology are all subject areas that could easily lend themselves to some really fun and compelling (and dare I say, flow-inducing) narratives.

Also, don’t confuse a simple premise for a game with a narrative. They are not the same.

4. Educational Games: Focus on conceptual change.
Gamification of Education: Focus on behavioral change.

Problem SIX: Both kinds of education can focus on both kinds of learning, and I would say that the majority of educational games STILL focus on facts and drill.

Good educational games should be designed around a theory of learning that identifies the knowledge, skills, and attributes the game targets.

Problem SEVEN: Um, that is true of ALL learning, whether it is a game, a lecture, an assignment, gamification, or anything else you can think of. This does NOT distinguish games from gamification. Rather, like the others, it distinguishes between good and bad education.


A learning game is designed to support students, providing scaffolding and opportunity to construct meaning in the service of developing new understanding.

Problem EIGHT: Nope.

Some educational games do this, to be sure, but this excludes a whole bunch of games, such as drill games. Now, many drill games are pretty bad – little more than interactive worksheets, really – but there are also some really GOOD drill games. I’m not sure what kind of “new understanding” The Typing of the Dead provides, but if someone else does, feel free to tell me!

p.s. I really LIKE that game. It is a fantastic example of a drill that works. It does not, however help people “construct meaning in the service of developing new understanding” … not even about zombies.

Although gamification may have levels, it seems they are often tied to an amount of behavior rather than a type of behavior.

Problem NINE: To this, all I can say is,
My gamified course design has really very little to do with amount of behavior.
Well, except for that intended to address David Merrill’s chief complaint:

“Appropriate practice is the single most neglected aspect of effective instruction.” (Merrill, 2001, p.464)

So, practice IS important, and there really is nothing wrong with rewarding students in some way for engaging in that practice. However, that can’t be ALL you do.

Problem TEN: As for games NOT rewarding players for their amount of behavior, clearly, the author has never heard of grinding in games, or something like American Truck Simulator.

5. Educational Games: Simulated environment provides player scaffolding.
Gamification of Education: Applied to real environment without scaffolding.

Problem ELEVEN: Now, this really is kind of insulting. It implies that *I* won’t provide scaffolding, since after all, I am the one who designed my gamified course. I’ve come across more than my share of educational games that lacked scaffolding altogether. Providing the appropriate amount of scaffolding is important in ANY kind of instruction.

Gamification applies game principles to the real world, in which students are not provided with accessible understandings of phenomena.

Problem TWELVE: Well, who’s fault is that? It’s the fault of the designer, not the fact that they used gamification.

In the end though, there is ONE thing I can agree with the author on – MOST gamified education designs are really not that good. However, that is ALSO true of most educational games (still), AND a whole lot of other education. For an explanation of that phenomenon, see Sturgeon’s Law.

Source: 5 differences between education games and the gamification of education

Merrill, M. D. (2001). First Principles of Instruction. Journal of Structural Learning & Intelligent Systems, 14(4), 459-466.

Reiguluth. C.M. (2012). Instructional theory and technology for the new paradigm of education. Reusta de Educatcion a Distancia, 32, 1-18.

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