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Learning & Development Blog

Why Gamification Doesn't Mean Serious Games

Clients often come to us to develop their learning solution saying they already know what they want. They want gamification.

We ask what they mean by gamification. They say they want the training to be a game. 

And why do they want it to be a game? Because they want it to be fun.

We hear this all the time - even from some colleagues. For training to engage learners, it must be entertaining.

There are a couple problems with this.

One is the misconception that training must be a fun game. We hear, “If I gamify compliance training, people will pay attention.” Or, “If I don’t gamify onboarding training, millennials won’t pay attention.”

Another problem is the assumption that gamification and serious games are the same thing.

As game-based learning has evolved, it has been called many different names, including gameful learning, gamification and serious games. The problem is, these terms mean different things to different people, which creates layers of misunderstanding.

It’s important to understand the difference between legitimate gamification and a serious game so you can be sure that the training or eLearning you’re creating best serves its learners and the learning objectives it’s working towards.

What’s the difference between gamification and serious games?

When we talk about game-based learning, we’re simply referring to games that have learning objectives. Players must learn a certain subject or skill, and then apply their new knowledge to win the game. Game-based learning types include board, card, and video games - even hide-and-seek.

Now let’s talk about gamification.

Gamification isn’t a type of learning. Nor is it a game. It is an instructional design approach.

An instructional designer might incorporate gamification strategies - that is, components of gameplay - in an eLearning module to make learners interact with the content. Whether or not this makes training more fun is debatable. What it does do is force learners to think before they click.

Serious games are simulations of real-world actions used by the learner every day in their workplace. The purpose of the interactivity in a serious game is skill practice and mastery, rather than entertainment.  Also referred to as immersive learning simulations, these games simulate real life situations and give learners an opportunity to practice what they learn through trial and error.  Serious games also involve competition, a motivational factor in education.


When does training misuse gamification as a tool?

When designers add gamified elements to a course’s interactivity that are not tied to learning objectives, it creates a false sense of what the learning objectives really are.

An example is building interactivity with a timer. The timer creates a sense of urgency intended to put pressure on - that is, motivate - the learner. But, unless the interactivity is tied to a learning objective with a time-sensitive element, this approach adds elements that are not relevant to the learner and distracts from what they are really trying to learn, instead of enforcing those objectives.

You might have taken courses presented in a “Who wants to be a millionaire?” or “Jeopardy” format.  A series of assessment items presented in the context of a game show. This is game-based learning, but the game element is not applied to a learning objective. You can surround just about any content with a game-like look and feel, but that doesn’t make it a serious game. It’s just the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down.

Sometimes what people call ‘gamification’ is just interactivity built around selecting options. One example we’ve seen is an eLearning module where a skier sits at the top of a mountain. The learner moves the skier to the left side of the mountain if the answer is true, and to the right side if it is false. The goal is to reach the bottom of the mountain.

That kind of interactivity is camouflage. It disguises the fact that the learner is taking a quiz. Why? To make the course sound like fun - because fun sells better than not fun.

But, for gamification to be helpful and purposeful, the gamified components should support the instruction or practice associated with learning objectives. Merely making the course assessment ‘feel’ like a game doesn’t enforce any lessons for the user. They are learning how to play a game, instead of learning the content within it.

When is a course a serious game?

Weaving gamification strategies through an eLearning module does not make it a serious game. A serious game has specific features that make it more complex. For example, a serious game could include most or all of the following:

  • Learning of a new skill or competency
  • A plot or storyline
  • Branching paths; i.e., dialogue trees and “choose your own adventure” structures
  • Believable positive and negative outcomes; i.e., feedback
  • Simulations of real tasks that the learner performs
  • A design that encourages a “sandbox” approach to the content, allowing the learner to explore the different outcomes of a situation they may encounter without fear of getting in trouble
  • Coaches (a mentor character/tool), NPCs (non-playable characters) and avatars (a character that directly represents the learner)
  •  Badges or points systems
  • Social aspects, chat boards, and tie-ins to real resources

The learning need drives the complexity of these games. Serious games are an appropriate solution for learners who need to acquire skills or competencies that can only be learned by hands-on experience or simulation. They provide a space for learners to practice “how-to” skills, like how to operate machinery, how to fly a plane, or how to perform a surgical procedure. Serious games are also effective for teaching strategic thinking, collaboration and team building, and for role-playing difficult conversations.

Serious Games Example

How should I use serious games appropriately?

When designing and developing a serious game, often, disproportionate time is spent focusing on the UI/UX development. As mentioned before, gamification is an instructional design approach. A successful serious game requires well-thought-out instructional design and excellent writing. The instructional designer drives the interactions with relatable and relevant content, and structures that content around the learning objectives first and foremost. Then it’s up to the developer and media specialists to make it function appropriately and look great.

Serious games should model the appropriate behavior the learner is expected to perform and provide multiple believable options or paths to choose from. Super-obvious bad answers aren’t helpful to anyone, but incorrect choices that are common to the situation can be great learning moments for any learner. For example, they may believably think, “I’m a nurse and I need to respect my patients privacy, but I can talk about some aspects of my job on my social media account because my settings are all set to private, and I’m not using the patients name,” only to find out someone else publicly shared a screen capture of the information and a family was able to place it to their relative because of the context.

Capturing the nuances of how learners actually interact in the workplace so they understand what behavior change is needed is vital.


By understanding the difference between these different aspects of interactive design you can make sure that the training your learners are participating in is relevant, realistic, and valuable to the actual tasks and responsibilities that they will encounter in their profession, workplace, or day-to-day lives.


Are serious games the answer to your training problem? Find out with our training needs assessment toolkit, available for download below.

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