Career Guide

Gamification vs game-based learning

How are they different and why?

Buzzword are rife and new ones keep on showing up with increasing rapidity.

This is expected – with the continuous convergence of thoughts in a highly connected world, old things are being reinvented and words are refitted with new prefixes and suffixes.

Two such words are gamification and game-based learning.

While game-based learning is not a new thing, gamification only came into the limelight between 2001–2004.

What’s in a name?

Both words are in tangles – at least in the minds of the people who use them.

So, what’s the fuss about the meaning and definition?

To make it simple, let’s put it this way: these two words are siblings from the same father, but from two different marriages.

Therefore, while they both have the same father and are to the outside world a family, the siblings themselves think that they are two different families.

The root word here is game. This means both words have something to do with game.

The addictive nature of games

When we look at games, they are naturally addictive activities, regardless of age.

From a simple puzzle in a newspaper to flipping of printed cards around a table, or rolling a ball into a designated post, games have captivating power.

They have the potential to distract someone for relatively long periods of time.

Games have been woven into society’s fabric in almost every civilisation, culture and event – even among the remotest tribe in the world.

It has been used as a medium for socialisation, developing the will to achieve, a status symbol, relaxation, improving life skills, training the mental and cognitive faculty, and physical stamina.

Something of such immense potential and diverse possibility definitely could play a bigger role in our progress, and therefore, the practice of using games for learning was born.

Game-based learning

What started with just a game of point accumulation for providing correct answers, evolved into role plays, card games, board games and online games. Here, the concept of game-based learning took shape.

Game-based learning is the use of actual games to deliver a lesson. The experience of playing the game itself is used to deliver the lessons. The elements within the game act as a metaphor for learning.

Case in point: the game of mancala (congkak). The actions in the game involve choosing which slot to start with.

However, the choice is governed by whether you want to ‘attack’ the opponent’s stones, prevent a potential ‘attack’ or spread the stones to create more opportunities and minimise risk.

These decisions and considerations in the game can be likened to a lesson on strategy and calculated actions.

Thus, the game experience metaphorically describes a lesson. The experience allows a much richer immersion that makes the lesson both meaningful and memorable.

The game itself functions as a platform for the learning to be built on.

In a game-based learning scenario, the central piece is to deliver the learning by relating to the elements of the game and experiences that the players went through.

The metaphoric link provides infinite possibilities as a tool for learning.


So then, what is gamification?

Since games are so engaging, there must be some kind of science to it.

And if we are able to decode that science, then like all other sciences, we will be able to manipulate, amalgamate, and synthesise it.

This means taking the science out of games and using it in other environments to motivate people to do something and get them to do it continuously.

That is the basis to the very definition of gamification: Using game-related principles and elements in a non-gaming environment to enhance participation, user motivation to take an action, continuous engagement, and even loyalty.

Games allow you to see the effect of your decision immediately. It makes people want to try something. The two elements here are instant feedback and curiosity.

What if we could take those two elements and use them for a non-game situation? That is exactly what Volkswagen did with their Piano Stairs, as part of their Fun Factory branding campaign.

All gamification starts with establishing the goal: What do we want to achieve?

In the case of the Piano Stairs, their goal was to motivate people to use stairs instead of the escalator.

They installed electronic boards on the stairs that produced piano key sounds when stepped on. Each stair is programmed with the sound of the next key, mimicking a piano.

The experiment witnessed a surge of people preferring to take the stairs by 66%. People were having fun walking up and down the stairs and some even stopped to ‘play’ a tune.

Hence using the element of feedback and curiosity, the initiative drew more people to use the stairs than the escalator.

Games are also identified as sources of motivation for people to play.

Some of these motivators are:

- Points – motivates people to accumulate

- Badges – recognition of achievements

- Leader boards – personal achievement in comparison to others

- Levels – opens new adventures once the present level has been completed

- Stories – narratives or drama that make people curious

- Goals – final objective

- Social interaction – turning strangers to friends

- Challenges – rouse the feeling to win

A good example where a few of these motivators are being used is in our traffic mobile apps.

These apps award points for reporting traffic conditions. There’s a leader board to compare personal score versus the rest.

Badges are accumulated when certain points are achieved.

Social interactions occur when we say ‘thank you’ to a stranger for reporting a condition. Finally, a virtual camaraderie is formed when everyone helps one another.

Gamification is also used in fitness bands that provide feedback on the number of calories that have been burned for the day.

Learning websites like and award badges and points for students who complete the modules.

Social media websites use percentages to gauge the completeness level of your profile.

In a nutshell

Gamification is all about adding game elements to things that are not usually seen as a game. The presence of these game-like conditions improves people’s engagement and motivates them to take action.

Going by those definitions, when it comes to ideas to enhance learning, both game-based learning and gamification do overlap.

That is why the earlier analogy of the children of the same father from two different marriages best describes this.

To put this argument to rest and provide room for both families to grow, it would be better that we see gamification as a way of adding game elements to learning processes, classroom practices and learners’ involvement to explore further.

Game-based learning can be seen as an approach of using games to make learning content more meaningful and create better conversations for deeper understanding.

Explore more ideas on using game-based learning at the first Malaysian Simulation & Gaming Conference, MASAGA 2018. For more information log on to

- Jegatheeswaran Manoharan is a Team Effectiveness Specialist and Simulation Designer who thinks that the world of learning should reconsider the ancient wisdom of using games to learn to create a better society. To share your thoughts with us, email us at

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