Gamification and game-based learning are two terms that are often confused. While these industry buzzwords may sound similar, and even share some characteristics, it is important to clarify the difference. Here is a primer.


Gamification is a technique that applies game-like elements to an organization’s learning strategy. While consuming content or contributing knowledge, users might earn points, secure badges, and measure up against a leaderboard. The gamification elements may stimulate competition among employees or between departments; however, that’s not the primary purpose or goal. Instead of being tied to a specific learning outcome, gamification is used to promote learning, increase employee engagement, and generate data about employees’ expertise. Analytics can help companies identify individuals who have consumed or mastered content, and then harness this data to inform interactions among peers and even customers.

Unlike formal training that takes place in a classroom setting, gamification is usually delivered to an electronic device such as a computer, tablet, or smartphone that users can access whenever and wherever they want. The content is often uncovered in two- to five-minute increments by users who proceed through it at their own pace. Unlike many traditional games, there is no concrete start or finish, and the material is not designed to be absorbed in one setting.

Gamification can be effective in a wide range of applications. It can be a helpful tool when onboarding new employees who must master practical information or incorporate more nuanced topics such as the core values of the company. It can also be used to drive content employees need to continue learning—such as evolving business practices and new-product information—and can identify areas for personal development and growth.

Game-based learning

With game-based learning, actual game principles are applied to content to impart specific workplace knowledge and reinforce educational objectives. Game-based learning usually incorporates narratives, goals, and feedback. The games, which often have definitive starts and finishes, are self-contained units that can be delivered online or in a classroom setting. They are best suited to teach principle-based soft skills such as resource allocation, decision making, or customer service. With game-based learning, employees have the opportunity to take part in an authentic experience that realistically demonstrates the benefits and consequences of their actions.

It is important to point out that game-based learning is different from digital simulation, where often-realistic gamecraft techniques are leveraged for training purposes. Examples of this might include modules that teach employees how to recognize and respond to a cyberattack or phishing scam, or to master sophisticated skills such as flying a jet fighter, performing surgery, or negotiating with a difficult client. The simulated, immersive experiences are valuable because they allow learners to fail in a risk-free environment.

Gamification and game-based learning can (and do) coexist harmoniously in the workplace. A November 2015 survey of LMS users and instructional designers by Capterra and TalentLMS found that gamification and learning games have widespread adoption, with 83 percent and 90 percent use, respectively. Although they are clearly different animals, each has value. Incorporate them both into your toolkit, if you are game.