5 differences between education games and the gamification of education

Close up of elementary school boy holding a pencil and looking up at teacher

Gamification is generally defined as the use of game design elements in non-game contexts. Knewton has released an infographic touting the benefits of gamification. However, the evidence provided was overwhelmingly about the use of games, NOT gamification. Interestingly, a lot of their argument comes from the MIT Education Arcade. This is a great group who makes… games! The entire history in the timeline is a history of games (until a conveniently placed element at the bottom left).  The section quoting the MIT paper is about games. Games and gamification are not the same thing. Here are five differences:



1.    Points. Games are not about points. Gamification is often about points, rewards, and leveling up. Many proponents of games in education cite their ability to engage players (as the infographic alludes to in the section citing amount of game play in the population). Research on this often centers on the state of “flow” in which players are fully immersed in an activity. There is consistent research suggesting that intrinsic motivation and choice (self-determination) are related achieving a flow state. Externally imposed extrinsic rewards are not. So, what makes something intrinsically interesting? Here is a quote from Professor Jordan Shapiro summing up thoughts about this:

“Game-based learning is not gamification. It is about what I see when I see my own kids play video games. And guess what, they don’t pay attention to the score, they don’t pay attention to the rewards, they don’t pay attention to the points. They don’t even care about leveling up. The only thing they care about leveling up is it offers new challenges. It gets fun again…”

2.    Level of challenge. Gamification is seldom concerned with this (and it is not called out on the infographic). One of Csikszentmihalyi’s findings is that getting into a state of completely focused motivation is all about working through a series of challenges at just the right level, getting to the point of challenge without frustration. This is clearly in line with what learning researchers have long known and called the “zone of proximal development.” Game designers are experts at presenting challenges at just the right time to meet a particular skill level.

3.    Narrative and Characters. While there is debate in the game community about the extent to which games have narrative and whether narrative or characters are more important, most games have a story arc and/or characters and most attempts at gamification have weak or nonexistent stories and characters. Some gamification attempts do include avatars, and it does appear that these can be tied to student identity. However, if the avatar is not situated in a story, it becomes another reward option (where you can buy things for the avatar as a result of actions). In a well-designed game the narrative the story helps drive engagement through increased curiosity, empathy, and familiarity.

4.    Behavioral change versus conceptual change. As behaviorists will tell you, positive reinforcement will lead to an increase in the behavior you are aiming at, but, as cognitive psychologists will argue, that is not evidence of changes attitudes, skills, or knowledge. We are often looking for changes in behavior in learning games, not more of the same behavior. Good educational games should be designed around a theory of learning that identifies the knowledge, skills, and attributes the game targets. A learning game is designed to support students, providing scaffolding and opportunity to construct meaning in the service of developing new understanding. Although gamification may have levels, it seems they are often tied to an amount of behavior rather than a type of behavior.

5.    Simulation versus reality. Many games (like SimCityEDU that I have worked on as part of GlassLab) are simulations of reality. While some argue that this is a bad thing, in fact it offers multiple benefits. Students beginning to learn content do not have the same models of the world that experts do. In order for them to process new information, they need to relate it to known knowledge. Simulations allow us to create a world that meets students where they are and allows them to create their problem space. Gamification applies game principles to the real world, in which students are not provided with accessible understandings of phenomena. Simulation also allows for the possibility of failure without severe consequences. In gamification, failure can mean the loss of a more highly-valued reward in real life.

A game is a system, and as we know from playing SimCityEDU(!), changing one element of a system results in (often unforeseen) changes to many other parts of the system. There is little to no evidence that taking game elements out of a game will yield the same results as those elements yielded when combined into the whole of a game. As the infographic suggests, there is a growing body of evidence that games can be successful learning and assessment tools. Gamification is another story.


About the Author
Kristen DiCerbo, Ph.D.

Kristen DiCerbo, Ph.D.

Kristen DiCerbo, PhD, was a principal research scientist for the Center for Learning Science & Technology within Pearson’s Research & Innovation Network. Dr. DiCerbo’s research program centered on digital technologies in learning and assessment, particularly on the use of data generated from interactions to inform instructional decisions. She has conducted qualitative and quantitative investigations of games and simulations, particularly focusing on the identification and accumulation of evidence. She previously worked as an educational researcher at Cisco and as a school psychologist. She holds doctorate and master’s degrees in Educational Psychology from Arizona State University.