Serious Games vs Gamification

In many organisations e-learning from a learners perspective can be a painful experience. Typically you’ll set aside 30 minutes, take a deep breath and sit through what is essentially a voiced-over PowerPoint in Flash format. If you are lucky it may include some small clips of lacklustre video or some stock animations.

Many organisations are poor at the use and design of PowerPoint presentations for business communications or classroom training, and even if they are pedagogically valid they often fail to efficiently engage learners.

As such, when it comes to reformatting such presentations into e-learning, the results are often left wanting, and the situation isn’t improved by removing a live presenter and expecting a voice recording to be as effective. Well designed e-learning that engages users is a rarity, and it’s no surprise that the learning industry is starting to join the Gamification bandwagon in search of an alternative way forward.

As a relatively new and emerging field, it is difficult to find formal consensus over Gamification terms and their strict definitions. For the purposes of this article and my work, I’ve been using three different terms in relation to what we are currently developing in e-learning…..

  • Games or Serious Games - Puzzles and simulations or scenarios used to review and test knowledge within a course
  • Gaming Environments - A simulated reality aimed at engaging learners
  • Gamification - Adding game mechanics to non-game applications, such as badges, leaderboards, levels and achievements


Within traditional e-learning the procedure is normally to page through screens of text, graphics and voice-overs in order to get to the multi-

choice, or SCORM-based, questionnaire at the en If developers want to move away from the SCORM end-of-module-tests, what can be done instead to test knowledge transfer? Increasingly, they are employing the use of Games, and creating puzzles to test the concepts or factual knowledge learned during training. This way the learner is applying knowledge in a more creative, and hopefully, more enjoyable way.d. The whole operation and structure designed  to ensure a ‘Pass’ so the learner can be compliant and get on with their day job. There is little that is motivating or engaging in that all too familiar picture.

Similarly, if developers wanted to test the overall understanding of a training course, then real world scenarios bring together all of the information content and a encourage the learner to apply it. For example if learners have completed a sales course then a simulation of a sales scenario would be both engaging as well as putting people in a scenario closer to their job role.

Gaming environments

In this article I am differentiating between games and gaming environments. Games like puzzles can be included within traditional linear e-learning course, Gaming Environments are simulated realities where the learner is faced with missions, tasks and objectives where learning is the by product rather than the main experience. Games like Minecraft and SimEDU are examples of this. Puzzles may be a component but there are other motivations at play. Informal Learning is a model where people find the information they need at the time they need it, outside the bounds of a traditional course. Search and ye shall find!

This type of learning has been shown to lead to better retention as that knowledge is immediately applied to their daily work. It also improves engagement as an immediate result and benefit of learning is seen. (Iacovides, Ioanna 2011). Digital games: exploring the relationship between motivation, engagement and informal learning. The Psychology of Education Review, 35(1), pp. 21–24.)

Creating a Gaming Environment where learners have to research information to complete a puzzle or mission in order to proceed with the game, or to achieve an in-game reward, encourages participant’s attention. (reff) It also means that the information doesn’t need to be in a specifically designed course; the learning resources could be an article, book or video, which has the benefit of lowering the costs of development where these assets already exist.


Gamification is the use of gameplay mechanics within traditionally non-game situations. This is a popular structure for online gaming and social media games, one of the most prominent being Farmville, where gameplay and rewards are applied to the context of farming an area of land.

As a tool Gamification has been successfully applied to many other applications and services to improve user retention and engagement. Examples of this include Nike + iPod, Fitocracy, Khan Academy, DevHub (Takahashi 2010), Foursquare

Rewards are a crucial aspect of gameplay, and can take the form of in-game assets, (such as a special purple cow in farmville, or a new weapon within in a combat game) a badge, or a leader-board or progress bar. These game mechanics are used as a means of both rewarding and encouraging participation: The more you participate the more virtual rewards you get. Crucially, they can also offer the player the ability to continue participating in the game at an enhanced level. For example, a reward may provide them with extra game levels, enhanced firepower, or new and more prestigious livestock.

As such, game mechanics can function simultaneously to reward previous participation, and to actively facilitate future and ongoing participation and engagement with the game and its contents.

Playing the Game

Simulations and puzzles when part of a gaming environment become intrinsic to the game and maintain the flow of the experience for learners (Habgood & Ainsworth). If we can add a social and competitive element through Gamification then it can enhance the experience and increasing the appeal to a bigger audience, as social games have wider appeal than other game types (Gamification by Design, Zichermann & Cunningham). Each of these three techniques individually can enhance an education project but if we can combine them into a more complete strategy then we can add their benefits together. However there seems to be a prevailing opinion that we need to add a fourth ingredient…Fun! If it’s not fun then today’s learners are too experienced in game mechanics and will see through the “chocolate covered broccoli” (Bruckman 1999) approach learning. There are not too many successful educational game titles and the ones that do educate such as Civilisation and Sim City are not pedagogical games, they were not designed to be educational. If education is the focus of the game play it seems for some reason it takes the fun out of the experience!