Fine.  This is it.  I’m doing it.  I’m going to dedicate it to digital paper.  This blog post is going to focus on Games and Gamification.  This is particularly difficult for me, because there is so much misunderstanding about the difference between the two.

So lets get a few things straight first.  I come from a background in Modeling and Simulation (no, I’m not too short for that, thanks though mom).   That means, from my perspective every game is at its core, a simulation.  Every single game.  Tetris?  A simulation of box stacking.  Call of Duty?  A war simulation.  Sonic the Hedgehog?  A simulation of a land far far away where hedgehogs behave that way.  Real or imagined, they are all simulations.  They become games when game characteristics are added to them.  For example, take a simulation of the box stacking, as in Tetris.  Add in score, the ability to control the boxes by rotating and dropping them, color coding, previews of the next box coming, leaderboards, the ability to get rid of rows of boxes, and increasing speed and you get a game.  For Call of Duty, add in a rich story line, the ability to control a character, goals and “quests”, the ability to compete with others, great metrics and increasing complexity and you get a game.  These are the fundamentals that create a game.  They aren’t always the same.  They aren’t all fun.  But they have these two things in common, a simulation + game characteristics = game.

Then we have gamification.  Gamification is not a game.  It does not take something and make a game of it.  It is a motivational construct.  It motivates a behavior.  Judy Unrein reminded me that learning is not a behavior.  She couldn’t remember who to attribute that little gem to, but I think its an excellent point.  Therefore, gamification is adding a few very specific game characteristics such as points, badges, achievements, even story to a REAL WORLD task.  This is the key element.  Real World Task + selected characteristics (points, badges, achievements, leaderboards) = gamification.  Games are not “gamified” content.  If it’s a game, its not gamification.  Games do have the characteristics that gamification has.  But, they are not the same thing.

Examples of gamification include getting gold stars for doing your chores, getting badges like boy scouts for learning new skills, and hitting the high score on your sales charts at work.  These are not games.  They are gamification.  They are things that you are doing in the real world, but you are being rewarded for doing them.  Maybe you wouldn’t do these things if you didn’t get a reward.  Maybe you have to do them anyway.  Doesn’t matter.

So why the big hang up for me?  Because people are calling gamification implementations games.  And, quite honestly, they don’t work the same way, and they don’t have the same outcomes.  Basically, I don’t want games to get a bad rap because gamification fails.  The Gartner group reported in 2010 (I think) that in the next 5 years, organizations would spend 50 BILLION dollars on gamification implementations.  They reported in 2012-2013 (I think) that something like 80% of those implementations would fail.  I don’t want the good name of games, and the good work that games are doing to be lumped in with gamification constructs can’t do.

Ok, maybe that’s not it.  Buts its apples and oranges.  And the two should not be lumped together.  Additionally, the industry dictates its own categorizations.  The eLearning industry should not create its own terminology that doesn’t cross over.  We wouldn’t like it if another industry started calling eLearning something like webweblooloo would we?  Well, that’s how they feel about us calling anything games by the name gamification.  Let’s not make them call us webweblooloo professionals ok?

So, what are games good for?  Games are good for so many things!  But, of course, not everything.  When I work with an organization who is considering games, one of the first questions I ask is do you think your employees could benefit from practicing this skill?  If the answer is yes, then most likely you could benefit from a game.  A well-crafted carefully considered game that is.  Games are great for providing experiential learning, practice opportunities, reinforcement, problem solving, leadership training, and even teaching!

Gamification on the other hand is good for different kinds of things.  Gamification is great for brand loyalty, marketing, stickiness, and motivating a behavior.  Gamification is not good for training or learning.  I will say that again in case you glossed over it.  Gamification is NOT good for Training OR Learning.  Why?  Because learning and training are not behaviors.  Simple right?  Think about it this way.  You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink right?  Same with gamification and learning.  You can motivate someone to interact with your content, but you can’t make them learn it.  The content itself is what results in the learning.  Not the reason you’re taking it.  Additionally, when you motivate using a rewards based system you are eliciting a motivational construct called extrinsic motivation.

So, what does this mean?  There are two kinds of motivation within cognitive psychology, Extrinsic and Intrinsic.  Extrinsic motivation has a focus on winning because you want the prize (even if its just a badge or recognition).  Intrinsic motivation has a focus on winning because you are the best at the task.  This means that when you are motivated by anything other than the desire to learn, you may not learn it.  Now this is tough when we are providing any kind of learning organizationally.  How much algebra did you really want to learn in school?  You were motivated to learn it because you wanted to get to the next grade, or you were avoiding the punishment of failing.  Basically all of our education came from an extrinsic motivation.  But, ask yourself, how much algebra did you learn?  I mean, really learn?  Just enough to pass the test?  Or did you learn enough to consider yourself good at it?  For me, it was the latter?  I was motivated to get a passing grade in the course, not to really understand algebra.  Mandatory training like information assurance and sexual harassment are much the same.  Sure, we want people to understand them, but, that’s not up to us entirely.  It’s up to how we create the climate to reward deeper understanding.

Crystal clear right?  Don’t worry, I still struggle with it.  Karl Kapp said it best when he said that we shouldn’t get into the business of counting the number of game characteristics that you have to add before something becomes a game vs. gamification.  I agree with his approach completely because to me there is practically no overlap.  I would love to hear your  thoughts on this, but in the meantime, let’s put together a few challenges to see if you can figure out if something is a game or if its gamification!!

Monopoly at McDonald’s

Games Czar says this is gamification.  This one is a particularly interesting one because monopoly is a game right?  Yes.  Yes it is.  Monopoly at McDonald’s however is not fully a game.  It’s a marketing strategy that rewards your purchase of items in large sizes in order to get pieces.  Now, what do you need those pieces for?  To win prizes.


Games Czar says this is a game.  Now, what is this game simulating?  What game characteristics have been added to this simulation?  Think very hard.  In the meantime, I will too.  I’ll have to get back to you on this one.

Horse.  Yes, as in basketball.

Games Czar says this is also gamification.  It is again the gamification of a game.  You are trying to make baskets in order to win, you are not playing basketball, which is a game.

Ticket to Ride

Games Czar says game.  You’re simulating building railroads, you’ve added in competition, challenge, randomness, characters, time, and score.


Games Czar says game.  You’re simulating being a band, you’ve added in competition, challenge, score, customization, quests, characters.

As you can see, nothing is cut and dry.  And sometimes gamification is added to an actual game.  And the real world situation in that case is playing the game.  Wild stuff right?


  1. Btw… Judy Katz fed me that nugget about learning not being a behavior. Smart friend are good to have!