The difference between
Game-based learning and Gamification

13 november 2022


Gamification and Game-based Learning really are two separate things.

We notice frequently that there’s a certain level of misunderstanding about the terms ‘gamification’ and ‘game-based learning’. Terms that are often used interchangeably, even though they really mean two different things. In our business, that means we often have to explain the difference - with pleasure, of course. Reason enough for me to dedicate a brief article to the topic: what are the differences, and also just as importantly: why does it matter? A brief explanation.


Let’s start with what these terms both have in common. The word ‘game’ is embedded in both. And not without reason - with gamification as well as with game-based learning (GBL) your experience is made more fun and interesting. With the end goal of making and keeping you engaged with the subject matter. Both use game mechanics that ensure we’re constantly challenged, receiving feedback and being rewarded. All to ensure that we’re stimulated to keep taking action. And really, most people (subconsciously) find that process fun.

Right, so both terms are about adding more ‘fun’ and ‘engagement’. But then, how do these terms differ from one another? To clarify - and to stay within our area of expertise - I’ll be using online learning as an example (so e-learnings).

When talking about GAMIFICATION, game mechanics are used to motivate the learner to keep learning. You’re stimulated to start your course and you’re rewarded when you’ve successfully completed the course. But: the course as such can still be dull and boring. That means it isn’t about making the activity itself more fun (in this case, learning) but about the preface and consequences. And with it the experience of the learner. Back in grade school, I used to get a sticker when I got a good grade for a test. That didn’t make the test itself fun, but having the reward to look forward to did motivate me and gave me satisfaction. Some commonly used examples of mechanics are earning points, reaching levels, badges (like digital stickers!), collectibles, progress bars and leaderboards (which will be receiving their own blog, too). 

So GAME-BASED LEARNING is a bit different. As opposed to gamification, GBL makes the activity itself more fun, meaning the e-learning. The learner isn’t drudging through some immensely boring training course, but is instead learning while playing a game. And naturally, the game-mechanics in the training game ensure that the learner is challenged, motivated and rewarded for their efforts. But also through an interesting storyline, game characters, nice graphics, sound effects and animations that together ensure an even more fun learning experience. With all of that, GBL goes another step beyond gamification; the experience is much richer, more interactive and invites the learner to play the game - and therefore the training - more often, which means people will learn more in the end. And that’s what the courses are ultimately about.

Research has shown that the old e-learning formats don’t match the expectations of the younger generations. They often find e-learning to be boring, they’re lacking interactivity, storytelling and gamification elements. That’s not strange, because these Millennials and Gen-Z’s grew up with a smartphone in one hand - and a game controller in the other. With generation Alpha, even more so - gaming to them is the most popular way to spend their spare time. The attention span of these youths isn’t very long (that’s an understatement) so if you’re looking to get and keep their attention, make learning more fun. Both gamification and game-based learning can help you with that.