Gamification vs. Serious Games–What’s the Difference?”

Interesting comment the other day, Dianne asked:

Just curious if you make a distinction between gamification and serious games. (I think getting overly wedded to terminology is a distraction from looking at the quality, or lack thereof, of particular games, but do see that the emphasis seems a bit different when people talk about the two “fields.”.)

There does seem to be some type of distinction between gamification and serious games. Gamification is “using game-based mechanics, aesthetics and game thinking to engage people, motivate action, promote learning, and solve problems.”

While “serious games” can be defined as a game “designed for the purpose of solving a problem. Although serious games can be entertaining, their main purpose is to train, investigate, or advertise. or Serious Game: “a mental contest, played with a computer in accordance with specific rules that uses entertainment to further government or corporate training, education, health, public policy, and strategic communication objectives.”” (Wikipedia)

So, if you get right down to it, the two are relatively the same both are trying to solve a problem with game thinking. Serious games use game techniques to address a “serious” subject. But while that answer seems to make sense, that doesn’t really “feel right.”

Gamification seems different than serious games even though both might be after the same goal…a game played for something other than pure fun. For example, creating a game to encourage people to buy a particular product or behave in a particular manner such as taking the steps verses and escalator (as shown below)

So, gamification is more than creating a serious game.

I think the expansion of gamification is that it applies game thinking outside of games. So a serious game might be created encouraging people to actually exercise but the gamficiation of a flight of stairs turns the stairs into a piano that makes music as its ascended. So Gamification is the act of taking a non-game item (like stairs) and turning it into a game.

While “Serious Games” are the use of a game environment to teach a “serious” subject.

Does that make sense to everyone?

Posted in: Design, Games

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  1. Moses Wolfenstein May 27, 2011

    I have to say Karl, I thought you’d already opened the can of worms pretty thoroughly with the initial post, but now you’ve definitely gone and taken the lid off of it. Rather than offering my perspective on all of the aspects of the gamification conversation that you’ve brought out in your reply, I’m simply going to note a couple of things starting with an observation that the term gamification is problematic, especially in the education arena.

    Despite the fact that it has been taken up by many forward thinking education professionals interested in game based learning, the term has its roots in marketing. In fact, with regard to loyalty programs (like frequent flyer programs) it’s become a way to remarket existing systems (that aren’t very game like to begin with) as somehow new and exciting.

    IMHO, if we want to make classrooms and learning more game like in a meaningful way, we’re going to have to diverge from what is currently being called gamification. This might involve recruiting the term towards different ends, but it can’t mean doing the same thing to learning that marketers are doing to various products. Rather, it means getting beyond scores, badges, and superimposed game-like narratives, and making learning experiences that position learners so that they can adopt a playful stance of inquiry.

    All of that is still different from making serious games for learning. That task involves making games that are as effective or more effective than other types of texts for developing different kinds of knowledge. Filament Games has some great examples of well developed educational games that can serve alongside other texts in developing content area knowledge. For the sake of full disclosure, they’re friends of mine, but I don’t work for them.

  2. karlkapp May 27, 2011

    First, thanks to Mark, Daniel and Moses for the great comments. Thought provoking which is what I desire on this topic. So here is another set of questions to provoke more thoughts on the subject.

    The musical stairs example doesn’t have an artificial goal or objective from the “players” perspective like a serious game, the people using the stairs want to get to the top (intrinsic motivation) and the music adds a little extrinsic motivation and engagement or interactivity (game mechanics) to the process. However, the designers of the music steps did have a very specific goal…get people to use the stairs. And is getting to the top of the stairs a completion criteria for the activity?

    People using reward points (an oft noted gamification technique) have an intrinsic goal (fly to a beach for vacation). The slight extrinsic motivation is that they might be able to fly for free or reduced price if they get enough points. The goal of the designers of the reward system is to get the people to fly more on their airline. The completion criteria is taking the flight for free.

    Employees playing a game teaching better sales negotiation skills have an intrinsic goal to become better sales people and the “game environment” is engaging extrinsic motivation with an artificial goal (defeat the anti-sales aliens, for example). The sales folks could learn sales skills without the “serious game”. But management really wants them to sell more by taking to heart the “gamified” learning content.

    Is adding game elements to traditional learning content the gamification of learning?

    So each activity has an intrinsic goal (reach top of steps, fly for free, learn to sell better), each has extrinsic elements (interactive activities) and each has a clear end point (top of stairs, a free flight, sales game ends) and each is designed specifically to illicit a serious outcome (taking stairs for health, sell more airline tickets, sell more product.)

    Is only the airline rewards example “gamification”?Why? Why Not?

    Is something only a “game” if the people engaged in the activity have a goal. If a designer involves people in a game without their awareness—like the step example–is that a game?

    Stated another way, if a designer has a clear goal for the desired outcome and the players aren’t aware of it, is it still a game…or is it only manipulation or as Moses indicates, persuasive design.

    Is adding game elements (points, time constraints, leader boards) to traditional instructional content (learning how to be a better sales person) the “gamification” of content?

    I don’t have answer as I am trying to sort between the different terms but am very curious as to the thoughts of others?

  3. Moses Wolfenstein May 27, 2011

    Daniel’s comments address most of the concerns I had while reading this article. I would like to further note that the piano stairs, while playful, are also not gamification. While one can certainly play on the stairs, no game mechanics have been added to the experience. A term that predates gamification and effectively describes the piano stairs is persuasive design. Notably, the piano stairs themselves also predate widespread use of the term gamification. It could be argued that gamification is a form of persuasive design, but if so it is a very specific form.

  4. Daniel Hettrick May 27, 2011

    First and foremost – kudos to the fine folks at VW who engineered the amazing project shown in the above video. (

    Respectfully, the author’s use of terminology is incorrect and frankly serves to add to the confusion surrounding the topic of gamification. Please note that a “game” is an interactive activity which has a clear objective, rules, and completion criteria. “Play” is the voluntary, temporary, and (usually) fun engagement in an activity. A “toy” is an object used in play. A serious game is a game whose primary objective is education or problem solving, whereas traditional games are focused primarily on entertainment. An analogy might be a documentary film depicting a famous war versus an entertainment film based on that same war. The former will be faithful to the historical account whereas the latter might take liberties in changing some aspects to make the viewing experience more compelling – sometimes called ‘artistic license’. Finally “gamification” is a term loosely applied to applying gamelike conventions in a non-game context to compel some desired behavior.

    The video above shows a gamification activity where stairs are turned into a toy to entice play, and hopefully compel the desired behavior of climbing the stairs. It is not a game, however, as there is no clear objective nor completion criteria. Musical stairs are, by themselves, not a serious game. The author is also incorrect in stating that “gamification is more than creating a serious game”. It is actually quite less.

  5. Mark May 26, 2011

    Absolutely. I think Gamification is the application of principles to any learning (in my case, I think in terms of learning events). I think there is confusion around Gamification, thinking it means, turn everything into “fun.” While engagement and motivation will increase, value does as well, which is not the case if we just make something fun. I’ll stop before I talk in circles 🙂

Karl Kapp
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