Gamification vs Game-based Learning: what’s the difference?

You’ve probably heard these two terms many times before. Gamification and Game-Based Learning have become the most popular buzzwords in the EdTech community over the last few years. They might look extremely similar on the surface, but if you look a little bit closer, you will find out they are actually quite different.


The first term, which seems to be more popular, is Gamification. To put it simply, it’s the process of applying game-design elements and game principles into non-game contexts. There are a lot of different ways to do this, but the most common example is a reward system after accomplishing a desired goal. Even though getting stars or badges for doing the right thing might sound childish, it appeals to the most basic human instincts.

One of the best examples of gamification is the language-learning platform – Duolingo. Over 300 million registered users across the world spend hours and hours improving their language skills thanks to this app. Why do they do that? Because it feels like a challenge that is actually doable. You get small chunks of materials to complete, you achieve badges, and your progress level bar rises. It also rewards consistency – to keep your ‘streak’ you need to do your exercises every day which is crucial to foreign language learning. Duolingo also has a lot of other pros like accessibility, but it’s the gamification factor that makes it so successful.

Duolingo – perfect example of gamification


The main advantage of Gamification over Game-Based Learning is the fact that it can be implemented over the existing training or teaching methods. That makes it a much faster and cheaper option. Take a look at Duolingo again – the learning material and methods are actually not that innovative. What makes it special is the gamification layer added on the already existing materials. It doesn’t cost as much and it’s relatively easy and quick to implement.

What are the strong and weak sides of Gamification ?

As Gamification doesn’t really change the content and form of learning, it’s not the most engaging technique. It’s best suited with content that is relatively simple and short. If it’s too complex or takes too much time to complete, the engagement factor of gamification fades away.

Because of that, Gamification is most successfully implemented in projects built around short, memory-based material. It easily goes outside of the boundaries of formal education. Gamification is often used in a professional environment for issues like on-boarding, Health & Safety or error elimination.

Unfortunately, Gamification has already gained a bad reputation. this is the immediate consequence of the rapid rise of its popularity. As with every new, popular phenomenon, the initial good idea became ruined by  poor implementation.

Many educators felt pressure to add some kind of “Gamification” element to their teaching methods. In many cases, these forced attempts were limited only to points or badges systems, with no coherent system or rational idea behind it.

That’s the concept of “chocolate covered broccoli”. You might cover broccoli in chocolate but it’s still broccoli. In the same way you can add a layer of gamification to  boring or incoherent material, but at the end of the day – gamification won’t save it. Having said that, it’s incredibly important to not throw out the champagne with the cork. Gamification can be an amazing tool, if applied properly. It should be treated as  part of a bigger idea of creating successful and engaging educational content.

Game-Based Learning

Game-Based Learning (GBL), even though often confused with Gamification, is a completely different concept. You might even call it the complete opposite of Gamification. While Gamification implements some elements of gaming into the learning process, Game-Based Learning completely incorporates learning into a game scenario. It’s not just about getting badges and stars. It’s about a fully functioning game with a clearly defined learning outcome.

If you are looking for a good example of Game-Based Learning – take a look at a game created by Siemens: Plantville. Plantville is the first business online game aimed at company’s employees and clients. Through learning and competition, players can build and manage a factory. The goal is to gain as much experience as possible and get the best score. How do they do that? As a fictional factory plant manager, you are responsible for maintaining the operation of a virtual plant while trying to improve key areas of manufacturing.

siemens plantville
Siemens: Plantville, great example of GBL


The game covers a lot of issues like workers safety, managing schedules, reacting to changing external conditions and improving process efficiency. The same material that used to be taught at boring company meetings with very little engagement from employees, became an exciting thing to learn thanks to GBL.

What are GBL’s pros and cons?

Game-based learning gives the unique opportunity to learn even the most complex issues in a fun and safe environment. The safety part is incredibly important. GBL is often used in fields that are prone to very high risks. Take medical education as an example – thanks to the use of technology and game-based learning, future doctors learn even the most complex medical procedures in a completely safe environment.

Game-based learning is also more efficient when it comes to very complex issues that require a lot of engagement from users.

It’s worth noting that game-based learning has a few vulnerabilities. The first is rather obvious – it’s expensive and time consuming. Especially with smaller projects, it just makes no sense to build a seperate game for it. Another drawback of GBL is its niche position in education. While gamification techniques are getting more and more popular in schools, game-based learning is still extremely rare. It’s not only due to high costs.

Another reason is the increasing importance of standardized testing. How many times have you seen an interactive game-like test? Probably never. That’s why teachers are not likely to implement GBL into their curriculum as their highest priority is to prepare their students for  exams. The form of exam will always put pressure on teachers to use similar educational tools that match the exam. Different kinds of exams require different kinds of skills. So far our schools are not up to date with the skills needed in 2019.

Main differences

To sum things up, I prepared a small infographic to highlight the main differences between Gamification and Game-based Learning. There are obviously many other differences between these two tools, but these are the most important ones that will make it clear for you, which one might be better suited to your needs:

Gamification infographics


Both Gamification and Game-based learning are getting increasingly popular. They can truly improve the quality of education by making it fun and engaging. It’s time to use the tools that technology gives us to transform education. As both Gamification & GBL are getting more popular, many people get confused with the difference between them and which one would fit their project better.

Gamification is a process of adding elements of gaming to the traditional course. It works great for smaller, memory-based material that needs a boost in engagement. It can be implemented quickly over the existing material, with relatively low cost. On the other hand, Game-based learning offers enormous possibilities. It’s extremely engaging and can be used with very complex and multidimensional projects. It has drawbacks though – to develop a good quality game-based learning app, it takes a lot of time and resources. It’s not a great solution for smaller projects.

The choice between Gamification and Game-based learning is not always simple – different projects require different approaches. Hopefully this article has made it clear, and has helped you to understand which tool fits your project better.

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