Gamification vs Game-Based Learning: Which is Right for You? [Part 1]


Considering stepping up your training game?

You’ve undoubtedly run across these two terms: gamification and game-based training

Time wasters, your boss calls them. Miracle fixes, claim “industry experts.” Confused, you say.

All jokes aside, the truth is there is no shortage of articles written about gamification and game-based training. Most pontificate about benefits and stop short of telling you anything useful.

Don’t get me wrong, we’re definitely guilty of this too.

It’s hard not to get excited about the benefits of game-based training. Who doesn’t want employees to willingly participate in training that’s fun, and gets great results?

Oops, there I go pontificating again.

But somewhere along the line, you’re probably going to start to wonder:

Okay, this all sounds great. But which approach is right for me?

The truth is neither gamification nor game-based learning is a one-size-fits-all solution. You have to identify the best approach based on your training objectives.

In other words (and you’ve probably seen this statement before) you need to tailor your approach for your specific training needs.

It’s a little wisdom nugget repeated at the end of pretty well every article I read on gamification and game-based learning. But what’s missing in most articles is the information you need to actually make those “tailoring” decisions.

And that’s what I want to go over in this 2 part series.

What’s the best approach for your training goals? When shouldn’t you use gamification or game-based learning? And what do you need to consider to implement each approach effectively?

Let’s start with gamification.


Gamification is commonly defined as “the application of game elements in non-game contexts.”

And while that technically is what gamification is, I’ve never been a huge fan of this definition. Here’s why:

There are situations where gamification works really well. It can drive engagement and provide feedback to employees.

But there are also situations where it’s not suitable.

And it’s crucial to understand the difference.

When To Use Gamification

1. When Your Goal is to Increase Engagement with Your Current Content

If you're happy with your current training content, and just want more people to take your courses, gamification is probably right for you.

Gamification elements draw on our basic instincts to collect, compete, and succeed. They motivate employees to engage with existing training content by appealing to their desire to beat high scores, move up on the leaderboard, or earn rewards.

Adding gamification elements to existing content is a simple, and cost effective way to boost participation and engagement rates.

However, different gamification elements motivate employees in different ways. You need to choose the best tactics for your content, audience, and goals.  

2. If You Want to Encourage Specific Behaviour

Gamification makes it easy to encourage specific behaviour. You can give out rewards like badges, points, or prizes to motivate employees to engage a certain way.

For example, you could create a “completed every module” badge to encourage employees to take additional courses.

This helps to not only reinforce positive actions, but also to provide instant feedback on those actions. Employees know right away whether they’re doing well -- which is important, especially for millennial employees.

Just keep in mind that gamification works best for simple behavioural changes.

For example, you can use gamification elements to get employees to take a few more training courses or remember to ask customers for an email address. You won’t be able to use those elements to get employees to implement a new policy change.

If you’re not sure, ask yourself if the expected behaviour will be counter-intuitive, tedious, or annoying for employees to implement. Will they require an explanation of why the change is necessary?

If your answer to either question is yes, you will need to use more than a few gamification elements to motivate employees to change their behaviour.

3. You Need a Solution Fast

Gamification is easy to implement because you’re not creating new content. You’re just adding game elements to your LMS to drive participation.

Since you don’t typically need a lot of development time, gamification can be a great option if you need a solution right away.

4. You Have a Small Budget

Gamification is fairly inexpensive because, again, you’re not building new courses. You’re simply adding elements to existing content.

If you want to make a big impact but have a smaller budget, gamification can be a good option.

When NOT to Use Gamification

1. If You Need to Teach Complex Concepts

When you use gamification, the content itself isn’t gamified. As a result, the actual learning material isn’t super engaging.

So for your training program to be effective, the content needs to be simple and easy to understand.

If the concepts are complex or the course takes too long to complete, the level of engagement -- and the efficacy of the gamification element -- drops.

2. If Your Training Content is Long

Gamification works best when you’re training content is already short, or could easily be broken up into bite-sized bits.

Simply adding progress indicators or levels into long content won’t make employees engage more actively. If it takes too long to reach that reward — that sense of accomplishment — people will lose interest.

This is especially important if you are delivering your course via a mobile device. People won’t read long PDF courses on their phones — the screens are too small and it takes too long. But they will read short little blurbs — especially when those blurbs are bookended by gamification elements.

The Bottom Line

Gamification is a great option when you have a small budget, or short timeline and only need to improve engagement with existing content.

But if you need to train employees on long, complicated topics, you should consider a different approach — like game-based training (which we'll cover in the next part of this series).

Read the next post in this 2 part series: Gamification vs Game Based Training: Which is Right for You? [Part 2]