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The Difference between Games and Gamification

May 11, 2023

As the name suggests, Gamification is the process of building and adding game elements and mechanics into apps and platforms for learning, training, or self-improvement. It’s been an increasing trend over the last 20 years, and gamification techniques can be found in apps as varied as dating, diet, and staff onboarding.

However, Gamification does not create games as such. There are important distinctions between the two concepts, and these differences should be kept in mind when designing an app that uses Gamification to increase engagement.

To clarify the differences, we’ll define our terms more precisely, then look at some important differences between the two concepts.

What are Games?

This may seem an odd question to ask. After all, we’ve all played games since earlier childhood. Surely, we all know a game when we see one.

This isn’t as straightforward a question as it may seem. It even baffled the famous German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein in his 1953 work Philosophical Investigations. This is because when we try to list the properties of a game, it’s almost impossible to separate games from other related concepts.

The best we can say is that there is a “family resemblance” between different kinds of games, which is how we recognize pursuits that fit this category. Just as two family members may not share all the same facial features yet may still resemble one another, games can be loosely defined in terms of what they share.

The problems only begin when you insist on a single, one-size-fits-all definition. For instance, let’s say we defined games as “enjoyable, rule-based pursuits where two or more people compete to obtain the highest score.”

First, we’d have to take “enjoyable” out because not all games are enjoyable (unfortunately)! Then we’d have to remove “two or more” since a single person can also complete solitaire and online quizzes. Even competing for the highest score isn’t essential (in the case of solitaire.)

We’re left with “rule-based pursuits,” a description that doesn’t separate games from legal proceedings, insurance claims, or driving tests, and none of those should be considered games!

What is an Online Game?

Philosophy aside, though it might be technically impossible to give a perfect definition of the game if we narrow it down to things you might do online, we can suggest the following, borrowed from the lengthy Merriam-Webster definition:

“An activity engaged in for diversion or amusement.”

Thus, an online game would be something we do primarily for entertainment. Although there are educational games, the learning aspect of those would be secondary to the entertainment value. A game’s primary purpose is enjoyment, not learning content, and if it succeeds in entertaining, then it’s a good game.

The Five Essential Components of Games

Online games mostly have the following qualities:

· A narrative, or story, which shapes the gaming experience and gameplay.

·       Point systems or rewards for the achievement of levels.

· A protagonist, or main character, into whose shoes we step.

· A series of increasingly difficult challenges leading to a climax.

· An endpoint that, when reached, means we have won.

Let’s take each of these concepts in turn and see what they contribute to the effectiveness of a game.

1: A Narrative

Whether it’s angry birds trying to destroy structures built by scheming pigs, or Lara Croft raiding a tomb, game developers create a storyline around which the game is built. The complexity of the narrative depends on the nature of the game. For some, it’s highly abstract (Candy Crush Saga, Tetris), whereas, for other games, the narrative game framework is essential (Grand Theft Auto, Zelda).

The narrative helps motivate players, keeps them engaged, and minimizes the sense of the game being arbitrary and pointless.

2: A Points System 

Players need indicators of progress. They need to be rewarded for their efforts and to have some sense of how well they are doing. This is where points, progress bars, or difficulty levels come in.

Whether it’s facing down the big boss at the end of a level or ascending to the top of a competitive leaderboard, points or levels deliver that dopamine rush of success.

3: A Protagonist 

Whether personified onscreen or assumed by the player in the abstract, in most games, you are “someone” taking on a mission or goal that your everyday self would not. This idea rewards our desire for escapism and reawakens the childhood pleasures of roleplay and make-believe.

Some games have highly developed processes for choosing avatars to “play as,” suggesting how much stock players put into inhabiting these characters.

4: Challenges 

There would be no point in designing a game where you complete only one short challenge, endlessly repeat the same action, or complete the hardest task first. Even Tetris gets more difficult as you progress, with more challenging shapes presented and less time to slot them into place.

Narrative conventions demand that the challenges get harder, and we progress through levels of learning and achievement to reach mastery. Not only does this satisfy the expectations of millennia of storytelling convention, but it also makes practical sense.

As we get used to the gameplay, our tasks become easier, which means the game’s complexity must ramp up to match our level of expertise and present a compelling challenge.

5: An Endpoint 

Every game must come to an end. Gamers talk about “completing” a game, and when, famously, a designer created a final mission that couldn’t be survived, it created a controversy. Still, even Halo Reach has an ending, even if it’s not a survivable one.

There are open-world and sandbox games like Minecraft, The Sims, or even Tetris, which don’t have any sort of narrative closure, but most traditional games do.

What is Gamification, then?

Now that we’ve got a better idea of what a game typically is, let’s define Gamification and then look at the important differences between gamification and playing games together.

A 2022 Forbes article clearly defines Gamification: “Sales gamification is the process of applying game mechanics to normal everyday sales tasks. The intention behind sales gamification is to alter sales reps’ behavior in a way that maximizes their productivity. For example, offering a steak dinner as a reward to the sales rep with the most referrals for the month.”

Let’s break that definition down into its constituent parts:

Game-design elements: this would include things like quizzes, leaderboards, badges, and rewards, which produce that addictive kick we seek when playing a game.

Game Principles: the notion of winning or losing, competition between players, and the completion of tasks; these are all principles taken from gameplay that can also apply to educational content or training settings online, as well as the many apps we all use for self-improvement.

Non-game contexts: these can range from onboarding training to platforms that promote competition between sales reps or even to getting enough sleep at night or learning a language.

Participation, engagement, motivation, and loyalty: unfortunately for educators and employers, mandatory training can be dull and/or repetitive. Gamification is used to make it more fun and engaging. The same principles can be applied to competitive leaderboards, consumer loyalty schemes, or onerous diets.

Gamification, therefore, doesn’t aim to turn everything into a game. Instead, it reinforces a learning objective, or desired pattern of behavior, through entertaining and compelling gameplay. Players of gamified learning might have a phenomenally entertaining time, but Gamification isn’t doing its job if the game-based learning outcomes don’t stick.

Gaming vs. Gamification – the Differences 

Now that we are clear in our definitions let’s compare the two concepts and see where the important points of difference and distinction lie.

We’ll do this by looking at the main components from our definition of games and seeing how Gamification uses those game elements (or downplays them).

NarrativeImportant to varying extents, but usually present in one form or another. At the very least, there’s a unique “story world” which has its own internal logic and consistency.Narrative is vital in some uses of gamification, such as e-learning. The game elements must be incorporated within the overall storytelling flow. The narrative is less key in the creation of competitive leaderboards, although “heroes” develop and are celebrated (high scorers).
Points SystemAlmost all games have some sort of points system or the achievement of levels of difficulty. These mark progress and allow players to rank themselves against others, or against their own prior performance.In gamification, points are usually awarded, either literally, or in terms of badges, a pass mark, badge, or another marker of achievement. Sometimes it’s simply progressing to the next stage that marks achievement. Points and badges also equate to metrics, to those essential KPIs we need to report back to senior management.
ProtagonistMost games have a literal protagonist, or an implied one (the player). This idea dovetails into the notion of a progressing narrative and gives the player an avatar to root for and experiment with.In gamification, the protagonist is almost always the user. They tend not to be explicitly represented onscreen, apart from via competitive leaderboards and shared kudos, where it’s important to acknowledge individual “heroism”.
Rising ChallengesAll good games are structured around a set of increasingly difficult challenges, building towards an eventual climax.This is less apparent and vital in gamification, although it can be mirrored by offering reward systems for increasingly impressive achievements (i.e., sales goals, and conversions). Some online courses have beginner, intermediate, and expert levels, which approximate this game element.
EndpointMost (but not all) games have a clearly defined endpoint, which can only be reached after hard work, multiple game sessions, and a lot of dedication.In e-learning, there’s often an endpoint, indicated by the awarding of a final certificate. However, many “self-improvement” apps or competitive workplace learning games don’t really have an endpoint, since the aim is continuous improvement.

Game-Based Learning: A Third Way

Diverse group of children building robots in engineering class and using VR technology

The picture we’ve painted is further confused by the concept of game-based learning. This notion of teaching sits between serious games and gamification and blends the two more fully to make learners achieve distinct, limited aims. It tends to work very well with children and young people.

For instance, let’s say you wanted to teach CPR techniques to school kids. While you can hold a practical class to demonstrate the techniques, you could also use game-based learning to have students reinforce the key points out of class.

You might build an app requiring the user to locate and rescue people dropping in the street. These unfortunate individuals might be of different ages, from adults to infants, requiring subtly different techniques in breathing and chest compressions. Points would be awarded for correctly administering the techniques and returning the fallen to consciousness.

The game would help impress the harder-to-remember elements of CPR, such as clearing the airway, the number of fingers to use, the timing of compressions, and the number of rescue breaths.

This may be an example of a far-fetched use of game-based learning. The UK’s Resuscitation Council has created a similar learning game, although it’s a little more complex and aimed at adults.

Game-based learning can be used alongside gamification, where there’s a very specific task that requires memorizing key facts or figures. It works especially well for children because it helps the marshal focus on the task by making it fun and engaging.

Gamification in the Workplace and Your Life

Gamification is increasingly everywhere in the world of apps. This is because it’s the best way to encourage engagement, promote competition, and reward achievement.

Gamification works just as well in lifestyle apps as in the workplace. Humans are social animals, but we’re also highly competitive. This has allowed us to evolve and thrive magnificently, after all. We enjoy the diversion games provide and can leverage their compelling power to achieve important, life-changing ends.

Career as Game-Playing

One recent article in Harvard Business Review even framed the whole of a career as a type of game. This may be going a little far, but it’s certainly true that we all use competitive skills and strategies to succeed.

At Spinify, we’ve created various gamification tools to help your employees develop and grow through friendly rivalry, self-improvement, immediate feedback, and the recognition of excellence.
Why not browse our platform, or check out an online demo today?

Put those insights into practice.

Set your team up for success by improving their performance through gamification.

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