Defining Differences: Game-based Learning v. Gamification

The following post has been taken from the original ELT Sandbox blog and was written 3 and a half years ago. Naturally, my thinking on these two topics has moved on since then. Nevertheless, I am reposting the article in its original form – see the comments section for an update. I dare say this is a topic I will return to in future posts as well.

Terminology can be a double-edged blade… One the one hand, it is useful for explaining, categorising and labelling concepts and ideas. On the other hand (especially in education at times!), it can lead to over-simplification, misunderstandings and misrepresentation.

And so it is with gaming in education. Some people assume game-based learning is little more than playing games in lesson time (a classic case of foreshadowing the word ‘game’ over the more important word ‘learning’) and others presume it is the same as or similar to another ‘buzzword’ in education circles: gamification.

But it is, of course, not that simple. They are not, in my view at least, the same nor can they be used interchangeably. Both may be based on exploiting educational aspects of games (or gaming aspects of education) but their application in class and effect on lesson content are very much different, and so this post will focus on describing those differences.

Game-based learning – bringing games and gaming into the classroom

In short, this does exactly what it says on the tin – GBL is about actually using games or the topic of gaming as the basis for a lesson, whether that be to introduce a topic, initiate a discussion, focus on a language point or provide contextualised language practice.

That is not to say, however, that it is simply a case of loading a game and playing. There is a lot more to it than that with the emphasis very much on the ‘learning’ part rather than the ‘game’. The game simply provides some impetus and motivation for that learning to take place.

GBL can take a few different forms, which I will briefly overview:

  • Using gaming as a topic – games can provide a great topic for getting your students talking, whether it is a simple discussion about their favourite games and the avatars they play with, a review of the best games of the last year or a debate about a gaming related topic. If you have students who seem not very keen on gaming, you can still have a fruitful discussion about the pros and cons of gaming as a form of entertainment or the value of games in education and language learning. In fact, such discussion can provide a great way to test the water and see if GBL is something that you students may be interested in.
  • Guided play – this is when the teacher brings a game into class and plays it (perhaps through an IWB or projector screen if available) while inviting input from students. This could take the form of describing or narrating what they see in the game,  offering advice on how to pass a difficult stage, consulting walkthrough guides to help the teacher or speculating about what might happen next – all topics that demand a high level of language comprehension and/or production on the learners’ part. Introducing the use of games in class like this also provides a handy bridge between discussing games and getting the class to play them, all the while ensuring the focus is on learning objectives.
  • Co-operative play – this involves getting students to complete tasks while or after playing through a game or part of a game. This is best done in ‘co-op mode’ meaning the students play in small groups, thus promoting discussion as they negotiate the tasks. Obviously, this requires some gaming hardware and access to the game itself and so is best done in a computer lab or with the students using mobile devices such as their own smartphones or tablets. Students can be given tasks to do while playing such as comprehension of in-game dialogue or text, or discussion of what to do next at pivotal points in the game, or how to play if it is a new game to them. This should be followed up with post-game activities to review the students’ game-playing and again keep the lesson focused on gaming objectives.

As you can see, GBL is not merely about playing – even when games are used in class, if done right, it involves plenty of discussion, critical thinking and language use.

Gamification – applying aspects of gaming to non-gaming contexts

So, what then is ‘gamification’ and what makes it different from GBL? Well, if you are a language teacher, why not try what we always ask our students to do and break the word down?

We obviously start with ‘game’ to which we add ‘-ify’ meaning ‘to make something like…’ before using the noun suffix ‘-cation’ to signify the process. Therefore, ‘gamification’ refers to the process of making something like a game in order to make it more engaging and enjoyable.

This is not solely referring to learning of course (and therein lies our first big difference) – gamification can be used in many different scenarios within and beyond education. For example, have you ever ‘checked in’ at a location on Foursquare and earned a badge? This is an example of gamifying social media. Or have you ever received a status, a title, or a medal for regularly using an online shopping site? This is an example of gamifyied consumerism.

And, of course, gamification has been applied to education as well. How? Well here are a few examples:

  • Giving rewards and setting targets – Gamification offers a way to give greater incentive to students for attempting challenging tasks. They can be offered a badge, a status, or a ‘level up’ in return for their effort while working on a task, which the teacher can keep a record of on a chart, leaderboard or in each students’ notebook. Also, instead of just setting a time limit/deadline and giving a pat on the back to those who finish on time, the teacher can attach rewards to certain targets with a ‘higher level’ reward for those who finish earlier and/or produce better work. The same can be applied to individual and class learning goals with rewards given when those targets are met.
  • Setting levels of difficulty – Games often have a choice of easy mode, normal and hard (and sometimes many more modes in between!) This can be used to offer differentiation in class – students who are confident with a task or who have done something similar before can tackle the harder difficulty level while others can start with an easier level before ‘replaying’ with a harder one. This helps the students feel a sense of progress and works as a confidence builder.
  • Giving learners a chance to ‘restart’- Following on from the above idea, learners feel less pressure of potential failure in gamified scenarios. Just as in a game, if it all goes wrong, they can start over using a new ‘life’. This offers the chance to try a different approach and try to get better results, something which can lead to the development of learning strategies and self-awareness. Of course, limiting the number of ‘lives’ may be necessary to avoid students taking too long!
  • ‘Unlocking’ content – Many games have hidden/secret items or levels that are not available to the player until they have reached a certain point in the game. Applying this to the classroom, the teacher can withhold certain tasks or input materials until the student has completed certain tasks satisfactorily, again adding to the sense of progress in learning. Also, if a student does something exceptional and/or well beyond what was expected of them, they can unlock ‘bonus’ items such as videos or the right to have some free time while the other students catch up.

So, as you can see, gamification doesn’t directly involve the use of games at all. Rather, it takes aspects of games such as difficulty levels, lives, and hidden achievements (and many more!) and applies them to a classroom, or any other non-gaming, scenario. GBL, on the other hand, actually brings those games into the learning environment and looks to exploit their content to meet learning goals.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both concepts though and that’s something I intend to explore in future posts.

This post originally appeared at in March, 2014

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5 thoughts on “Defining Differences: Game-based Learning v. Gamification

  1. Looking back at this post now, it is game-based learning where my thinking has changed the most. While I still do use gaming as a topic, I stick more to asking students about their favourite games or what they have been playing recently. I no longer bother with classic ELT-style activities like describing avatars or writing reviews of games – that seems almost like a trick to get them putting pen to paper!

    I also do less of the guided play now. It just simply isn’t necessary. My students generally know the games already or, if it is something new to them, it ismuch more beneficial to let them play and figure the game out before having a post-play discussion about it. This holds their interest much better than watching me at the controls.

    Co-operative play is still something I value, though it would be with less focus on comprehension style activities and more on those discussions at pivotal points, exchanging ideas with other students and keeping notes as they play to use in post-play writing activities such as story-writing or compiling a guide to the game.

    As for gamification, I have not experimented with it much since the time of the original post. I have, however, attended some talks on the topic and met some enthusiasts. I guess it is something that can work but requires a huge amount of effort to be more than simply a glorified sticker chart. In the same way, GBL takes thought and planning to be more than simply a poorly-disguised worksheet… Much more thinking and experimenting to be done!


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