Gamification is… what, exactly?

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Written by David Squire on 4 January 2018

Gamification is grabbing all the L&D headlines. Perhaps that’s because it seems to encapsulate all things to do with games and their application to learning, training and engagement. However, gamification is not game-based learning. They are two very different things and it’s worth putting the record straight.

I won’t go into a lengthy history lesson on where gamification as a term emerged from (headlines: advertising and marketing-focused loyalty and reward schemes, the rise of the quantified self, pioneering mobile apps like Foursquare), but the concept of gamification is as old as the hills – think avoiding the cracks in the pavement, or playing 'eye spy' to pass the time on a long journey.

Gamification centres on motivating people to complete everyday or mundane tasks, helping them to sustain interest and keep up with activities or goals that they find difficult to complete or lack the motivation to keep on track.

If you think of fitness, health and wellbeing apps, badges, stickers, rewards and virtual ‘whoops’ (not dissing this - growth mind-set theories demonstrate the impact of positive strokes), you’ll get the gamification picture.

The best approach is where a game and the game mechanics have learning value of themselves, where learning is intrinsic to the gameplay.

So, in L&D or training terms, gamification is a great way to reward, motivate and sustain interest in repeat tasks, daily procedures or long-term goals - from following a standard operating procedure to learning a language.

It can be applied to anything that might need a boost or extra motivator for people to complete and/or compete. It surrounds a learning intervention (a programme, course, campaign), but – here’s the important bit - it’s not a learning intervention itself.

That’s where game-based learning (GBL) comes in.

Now don’t get me wrong, GBL is much harder to encapsulate in a few hundred words. It’s like explaining to someone who’s never watched television, what’s on television. Television is so much more than Game of Thrones, right?

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GBL is, put simply, the process of learning through play - playing a game to learn rather than to be entertained. The best approach is where a game and the game mechanics have learning value of themselves, where learning is intrinsic to the gameplay, rather than where learning is extrinsic or bolted on after – in my opinion, bad GBL practice.

If we take a few genre or game format examples it might help to explain. If you think about role-playing (take on a persona and complete challenges), strategy (gather and utilise resources, testing out strategies to succeed) or simulation games (probe and re-probe simulated circumstances and conditions), you immediately see the similarity between the language of learning and of gaming.

As one of the founding fathers of GBL Professor James Paul Gee (2005) says ‘Good game design is good learning design’.

Finally a couple of pointers to the heart of game-based learning. First, you can’t compete with the latest console title or the pervasive game that everyone’s playing on Facebook. Don’t start there, don't go there.

Second, it’s not ‘fun’ or learning made easy. Good game-based learning should be ‘pleasantly frustrating’ (James Paul Gee again) or as Seymour Papert from MIT called it ‘hard fun’. Good games and good learning games challenge you and put you on the edge of your capabilities. They get you thinking, re-evaluating and playing again. 


About the author

David Squire is creative director of DESQ

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