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Game-Based Learning: Is GBL Gamification? (Hint: No.)

Game-based learning (GBL) is the conceptual application of gaming principles to the learning process. While it sounds like gamification, there’s a slight difference.

Gamification uses gaming principles to turn a learning process into a game, while GBL uses gaming principles as part of the learning process.


Both approaches motivate, drive student engagement, and make learning easier, interactive, and more fun.

Let’s walk through the differences in detail and determine which is better for your learning needs.

Let’s get to it.

What is Game-Based Learning?

As we defined earlier, game-based learning is applying gaming principles to a learning activity. In game-based education, the subject matter is presented to learners in the form of games. The aim here is to achieve a better understanding of the subject matter in question.

GBL elements include badges, leaderboards, incentives, points, and feedback loops to engage learners with the subject matter.

For example, if you are trying to help learners understand a subject matter through game-based learning, you could use games with weekly or daily tasks related to the lesson. Those who complete their tasks get badges as proof of completion, and there can be a leaderboard to rank individual performance in the different tasks.

A game-based learning experience is fun and engaging for both teachers and students.

Not to Be Confused with Gamification

There is often the temptation to confuse gamification with game-based learning. However, while they are similar, they are not the same.

Gamification refers to applying the principles of gaming to non-gaming situations. In gamification, educators use the rules and reward systems of games without playing the games.

Suppose you want to implement gamification into corporate training. You could use leaderboards that rank learners' performance based on activities that are not game-related.

As a tutor, you could give your students an assignment and grade them based on points they would get playing games. These points can then reflect on the leaderboard you have set up.

So, What’s the Big Difference

The significant distinction between these two concepts is subtle but does exist.

Gamification is about turning your entire learning process into a game. Here, you apply all gameplay mechanics and gamification elements to the subject matter to engage and motivate learners. The following are examples of game elements you might often use:

  • Leaderboards
  • Quests
  • Badges
  • Points

With digital game-based learning, you take the game mechanics mentioned above and use them during the learning process. To do this successfully, you design learning activities in such a way to incrementally teach concepts, with the end goal of learning a specific skill.

Gamification techniques often work best for easy concepts where all the educator needs is to get a student engaged. On the other hand, GBL works for both easy and complex ideas due to its focus on a particular goal or skill.

Benefits of Game-Based Learning

Benefits of Game-Based Learning

There are tons of benefits to applying game-based learning in both classroom and workplace situations, especially as your learners have varied learning styles.

1. Competition motivates learners

The game-based learning experience fosters healthy competition. It serves as motivation for learners to perform better. Learners look forward to their rewards from doing well in the games and earning points that rank them higher than their peers on the leaderboard. This increases their motivation to learn and engage with the subject matter.

2. Learners are more engaged

GBL is a great way to foster learner engagement. The presence of feedback, competition, and other gaming elements keeps them engaged and makes learning feel less like a chore or boring.

3. Instant gratification

The shorter feedback loops of GBL guarantees learners get instant gratification for performing better. With the promise of immediate rewards, students tend to be more involved in the learning process.

4. Instantaneous reinforcement and feedback

Video games are designed on the principle of instantaneous feedback and reinforcement-one reason why players get sucked in quickly. Applying this to the learning process enables students to learn better as they start slowly and build confidence as they progress up skill levels.

5. Improves learning retention

It’s common knowledge that people are more likely to retain what they learn when the training materials are practical and relatable. Game-based learning combines practicality and relatability, creating a learning experience that improves students’ retention of the subject matter.

6. Utilizes common technology

Utilizes common technology

Game-based learning often uses familiar tools such as smartphones and tablets to facilitate eLearning. This way, students don’t need to learn any new technology or adjust to a new learning environment to reap the benefits of game-based learning.

And mobile learning is amassing a large fan club for learners who like their eLearning content immediately assessable.

(Pro Tip: Check out our guide to mobile app gamification!)

7. Encourages learners to use their imagination

GBL boosts creativity as learners have to use their imagination and critical thinking in problem-solving. Every game is often a puzzle that needs to be solved or fixed. And learning with that in mind means students learn to use their imagination to find creative ways around the learning puzzle in front of them.

8. Realistic simulations, learners won’t forget

Game-based learning involves the simulation of real-world situations. This improves the retention ability of students as they instantly see how they can apply what they learned to real-life situations and problems.

9. Simplifies complicated concepts

Game-based learning helps educators simplify complex ideas and concepts into easily digestible formats.  Learners find it easier to understand certain concepts when educators present the concepts in the form of easy-to-play games.

10. Learning by doing

The core principle of game-based learning is active learning. Instead of listening to theoretical applications of the concepts, students get their hands dirty as they navigate various skill levels on their way towards a specific goal.

11. Increase sales

One practical application of game-based learning in the workplace is running sales simulations to improve the sales team's close rate. By simulating real-life selling scenarios, employees quickly grasp the skills they need to improve their ability to close sales: the result, confident salespeople who can increase product revenue.

12. Facilitates collaboration

Game-based learning enables collaborative learning in a team environment. Learners can brainstorm and use their problem-solving skills in the game versions of real-world issues. This collaboration often extends beyond the games and reflects in real-world situations.

13. Safe place to fail

As mentioned earlier, GBL makes use of games that resemble real-world situations. This creates room to try out new things, experiment, and learn from mistakes without having a major impact on real-world situations.

Some Tips for Implementing Game-Based Training

Some Tips for Implementing Game-Based Training

Looking to implement game-based training at your organization? Here are some tips to guarantee success:

Your game designers need to make sure the content creation for the gaming simulations is directly related to the specific areas that need improvement.

For example, if your learning objective is to up the skill level of the marketing department, the game-based learning process must be designed using marketing educational content.

2. Use gamification elements and an interesting narrative to engage learners

Secondly, capture and retain the attention of your learners through exciting narratives. Stories have always been a popular mode of student learning, and they also work in GBL. Create a single narrative that keeps learners locked in all through the learning process.

For example, an engaging narrative could be creating a story around helping a down-on-their-luck fashion designer while improving the business management skills of fashion designers.

As students learn, they get involved in the protagonist's story while gamification elements such as badges, leaderboards, and points keep them engaged.

3. Use real-world simulations

Use real-world simulations related to the specific areas of learning so learners can use their problem-solving skills and get immediate and personalized feedback on how well they can apply these skills.

An example could be a game where learners redesign a living space as an interior design lesson. As they play, instant feedback helps them see their progress.

4. Make it personal

Instead of using generic gaming templates, design the game-learning experience to be unique and personal to each learner. This way, they would be interested in learning and engage with the training content.

5. It’s not about winning or losing

With GBL, learning is the primary objective, as opposed to winning or losing in gamification. The win-or-lose mentality defeats the primary purpose of game-based learning-creating a safe space for learners to try and fail without significant consequences.

So, focus on encouraging learners to approach the learning process with a mindset of trying out different tactics and learning strategies if they could not get it right the first time.

6. There is no “I” in “team”

The collaborative element of GBL means it works best when approached as a team, as it makes it easier for people to learn from each other.

The exchange of ideas and collective brainstorming show up in improved individual learning outcomes. Additionally, team learning adds a competitive layer to the learning process.

Changing Education One Game at a Time

Changing Education One Game at a Time

In a world that increasingly demands our active participation, game-based learning promises benefits that traditional learning approaches struggle to deliver.

Its ability to get students immersed in the learning process also means educators have more engaged and involved learners.

Whether you decide to go the way of gamification or implement game-based learning in your learning process, it’s clear that the result is an improved learning outcome and engaged learners.

One thing-make sure to and determine which option best fulfills them.

Dozie Anyaegbunam is a B2B content writer and strategist. A Cannes Lions certified storyteller, Dozie has crafted compelling content for brands such as Mirasee, SmartBlogger, Growth Mentor, and more. He's also Dodo and Ronan's dad, a proud flâneur, and a Felix Baumgartner wannabe. Don't miss his podcast, The Newcomers, where he interviews immigrants about the struggles and lessons that come with starting life in a new country.