When you’re first introduced to serious gaming, there’s a huge array of terminology you need to learn very quickly. Serious games and gamification are two such terms which are often used interchangeably; but, are actually quite different.

As a thought leader in gamification and executive in a serious games company, it’s important for me to clear up these differences. In this article, I’ll cover: 

  • Simple definitions for serious games and gamification
  • Examples to help you understand their unique applications
  • A list of pros and cons that put the serious games vs. gamification debate to rest

What are Serious Games?

Serious games are games that were made to fulfil a purpose. This could be teaching a skill, motivating desired behaviours or conducting research. This sets them apart from commercial games which are made entirely for entertainment. Despite serious being in the name, serious gaming is equally as engaging and entertaining as commercial gaming.

What is Gamification?

Gamification is the use of game mechanics in non-game environments. Game mechanics are elements like levels, rewards or tutorials. There are many reasons to use gamification, such as; motivation and user engagement, incentives to meet goals, incentives for loyalty. 

Gamification is also an instructional design method. In simple terms, this means developers use their knowledge of how people learn to optimise a user’s learning experience. Their desired outcome is an efficient, appealing and cost-effective learning solution.

It’s likely you’ve experienced gamification before – whether in your LinkedIn profile or using a loyalty card at your local coffee shop. Gamification can be used in both digital and non-digital environments. It is increasingly popular for digital environments because the game mechanics translate so easily.

What are the key differences?

There are a range of key differences between serious gaming and gamification, but there are two which I feel are most important.

1. Gamification adds to an experience, serious gaming disrupts traditional experiences

Let’s use the example of taking a walk. When you physically go for a walk, you’re travelling real distances and exploring physical places. Gamification uses game mechanics to make this experience more fun. A great example of this was Pokémon Go. Gamification doesn’t change how or why you perform the task, it adds to the task.

To go for a walk in a serious game, you won’t necessarily travel any distance or be in the physical world. Serious gaming might also get you to take a walk for reasons other than fitness. For example, a walk on safari to teach you something. Serious games change the how and why of traditional tasks. In other words, they disrupt your expectations of the task.

2. Serious gaming provides a common goal for all players

Serious games have objectives to complete and players finish the game with a shared experience. Gamification, on the other hand, provides a flexible experience. To use the Pokémon Go example again – all players are catching Pokémon, but not all players are required to catch the same Pokémon. A serious game would use the same objectives to provide all players with the same outcomes.

Need to know more? I give a complete definition in my previous blog: Gamification: What Is It and How Do We Use It?.

Examples of Serious Games and Gamification

No definition is truly complete without a few examples. Here are three game scenarios that compare serious games and gamification.

In Education: Duolingo vs. Minecraft Education Edition

Duolingo is a popular language learning app and website. It applies game mechanics (rewards, leader boards, levels) to traditional language curriculums (reading, speaking and listening tasks). Adding these elements to a traditional structure is gamification.

Minecraft Education Edition provides immersive STEM learning. With comprehensive virtual worlds and common projects completed by all students, it is a serious game which changes the traditional learning methods. 

In Fitness: FitBit vs. Bounden

FitBit is a wearable fitness tracker. It uses gamification to make healthy habits more engaging. There is no immersive game experience which makes it an example of gamification.

Bounden is a mobile dancing game developed by the Dutch National Ballet. Two players hold one end each of a mobile device and follow a virtual sphere to practice ballet movements. Players can both increase their fitness and learn a new skill. As an immersive, uniform fitness experience - this is an example of a serious game.

In Resource Management: Origin Spike Hour vs. Working with Water

Origin Spike Hour incentivises energy customers to cut down on their power usage and save money on bills. Successful Spike Hours earn points which can be transferred into rewards. Spike hours do not change how or why you use energy, they simply motivate you to use less of it. This is an example of gamification.

Working with Water is a Chaos Theory web strategy game. It teaches students about water management through storylines, challenges and projects. It changes how players approach water management by making them responsible for a community’s water. It also changes why they are engaged in the first place with specific learning outcomes. This is an example of serious gaming.

Pros and cons: serious games vs. gamification

Despite their differences, both serious gaming and gamification are useful methods for engagement. Deciding which method is best for you is mostly about recognising your end goals. Here are a few pros and cons to both methods, which may help you decide.

Chaos Theory are serious about building engaging games

By now you should have a pretty strong understanding of the differences between serious gaming and gamification. The next step is unlocking their potential for you. Book a free 30-minute brainstorming session with me to get started. I’ll answer all your questions about the differences between serious games and gamification. I’ll also help you formulate a strategy to make them work for your needs.