But, though they may share goals, the terms describe different approaches:
The distinction between gamification and game-based learning might boil down to a chicken-and-egg argument: If the content exists, and game elements are added, you have gamified the content. If you are creating a new piece of training content and building it as a game, it is game-based learning.
Let’s examine game-based learning and the differences between it and gamification. A related article, “What Is Gamification?” offers a deeper treatment of gamification in learning.
Gamified learning and game-based learning share the goals of driving motivation, increasing learner engagement and promoting learning, but there are significant differences in the design and development of these types of learning content.
Learning technology expert Karl Kapp explained that “serious games use game techniques to address a ‘serious’ subject” and gamification “applies game thinking outside of a game” or takes non-game objects or content and turns them into a game.
Game-based learning builds a game challenge around mastering and applying specific instructional content. From the beginning of the instructional design process, a serious learning game is integrated with the learning content. It would not be possible to pull the content out and swap different learning content into the game “shell” or framework.
Oft-cited examples include McDonald’s Till Training game and the Domino’s Pizza Hero game. These re-create workplace scenarios, whether the McDonald’s cashier station or the pizza assembly space at Domino’s, in a game format. Players learn skills that they will use on the job, practicing to improve their speed, reduce errors and learn the specific processes they are expected to follow at work.
In these examples, the content and the game are inseparable. Elements of game play, such as racing against the clock, competing to beat other players’ time or earning points or badges may also be built into the game.
Serious games can tackle multilayered or complex challenges as well, aiming to deepen and measure mastery of learning content by asking learners to use the instructional content to solve problems and meet goals baked into the game. Serious games have been developed to educate players on health issues, deforestation, oil consumption, HIV prevention and much more. Within a corporate environment, specific content, whether on preventing harassment, understanding banking regulations or building leadership skills, can be built into a serious learning game.
Gamified learning layers game elements, like points or badges, or adds interactive tasks, like matching or a maze, on top of existing instructional content.
Gamifying learning aims to increase the amount of time learners spend with the training content, with the idea that learners who spend more time training will remember the material longer. Apps like Duolingo illustrate how gamification can help learners stick with training even for a long-term, complex learning project like learning a foreign language. And wearables like FitBits and smart watches gamify health and fitness, challenging people to walk more each day or get their heart rate into a target range for 3 minutes while exercising.
Games share basic characteristics and elements. In any game:
According to researchers Mautone, Spiker, and Karp, serious learning games build on these elements, adding:
Well-designed serious learning games require and enhance problem-solving skills, and they require the ability to use tools effectively. These games can help players develop executive skills, like planning and strategizing, learning and applying rules and the ability to visualize outcomes and understand the risks of decisions or actions.
In the past few years, game-based learning has become mainstream.
According to “The 2019-2024 Global Game-based Learning Market,” an analysis of the learning game market by learning technology research firm Metaari’s CEO, Sam Adkins, the serious games industry is booming. The report predicts that global revenue for game-based learning products and services will top $24 billion by 2024. “Of the seven advanced learning technology products tracked by Metaari, Game-based Learning has the highest growth rate,” the report said.
The growth is partly fueled by demand for mixed reality games and advances in artificial intelligence (AI) technologies, as well as by increasing acceptance of and demand for game-based learning in corporate learning and development (L&D).
In addition, the proliferation of pre-made 3D environments and models, pre-trained AI models and other components makes it easier and more cost-effective to create engaging, exciting learning games.
Game-based learning, when done well, is engaging and fun for learners. This is also true of creatively designed and implemented gamified learning.
Serious learning games provide learners the opportunity to think through and solve realistic problems, practice scenarios and pursue goals in a safe environment. The game environment offers opportunities to make mistakes, learn from feedback and improve skills or decision-making ability. Skills honed in games can then be transferred to the real-life world of work. Game-based learning offers a solution to training managers seeking to make corporate learning materials more effective and interactive, boost engagement and see better results.
Download our new white paper, Gamifying Microlearning, Without the Games, to learn more about using gamification to motivate learners.
Simple games layered on top of content
Scenario-based games that use the content
Fan excessive competition among employees or teams by offering large prizes for top performers and/or shaming those with lower scores
Challenge employees to beat their own past performance, or design a leaderboard that shows each employee only the four scorers above and below them
Points, rewards, badges
Award points or levels for completing sections of training or playing for a set number of minutes
Award levels, badges or points for recalling or applying content correctly, demonstrating mastery
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