If you’ve been looking into adding game elements to your training, you’ve probably stumbled across these two terms: gamification and game-based learning (GBL). While it may seem like simple semantics, confusing these approaches can have costly results. So what’s the difference?

Game-Based Learning

Game-based learning is training that uses game elements to teach a specific skill or achieve a specific learning outcome. It takes your core content and objectives and makes it fun.


Gamification is the application of game mechanics in a non-game context to promote desired behavior and drive learning outcomes. Think points, badges, leaderboards and incentives.

The main difference between the two is the integration of game mechanics with training content. GBL fully integrates the two, so the game is the training. On the other hand, gamification uses game elements as a reward for completing existing training modules.

Applying Game-Based Learning (GBL)

In a game-based learning environment, users learn new concepts and practice skills in a risk-free setting. Their progress in the game is directly related to their understanding of the subject being taught. Some common applications include: customer service training, policy review, company training, team building, and staff awareness training.

GBL has a significant impact on retention and recall rates with employees. Users are more engaged with the subject matter, because it makes learning fun. And when engagement rates increase, so does retention. One study found that GBL training increased retention more than 300 percent in immediate post-testing.

GBL is also well suited to teaching complex concepts. Since the training is both fun and challenging, employees stay engaged for longer. This allows for more complicated concepts to be taught. Employees can also practice applying new skills and knowledge without real-world implications. They receive feedback to let them know how they’re doing, which helps refine new skills before they try them out in the real-world.

But GBL also has a noteworthy drawback. Because it requires creating new training modules, GBL can be expensive and time consuming to create. This can be a significant barrier for some companies.

Applying Gamification

Gamification integrates engagement software with existing content to motivate employees. It can be as simple as adding levels or progress bars to existing content. But it can also be more complex, like giving points for correct answers and placing employees on leaderboards. Some common applications include: on-boarding, product innovation, elimination of employee errors, collaboration, and employee wellness programs.

The main use of gamification is to foster engagement. Gamification elements draw on human needs to collect, compete and succeed. They help wake employees up, and get them engaged with simple training content. Gamification also motivates employees to complete more courses in order to beat their high scores, move up on the leaderboard, or earn rewards.

Furthermore, since you don’t have to create new content, gamification is fast and inexpensive to onboard into your existing training platform.

However, gamification isn’t an appropriate strategy for all types of training. It’s best suited for content that can be memorized or doesn’t require major behavioral shifts for employees. Since the training content itself isn’t gamified, it’s not super engaging. Training content must be simple and easy to understand. If it takes too long for employees to complete, their engagement levels drop, and the effectiveness of the gamification element wanes.

The Bottom Line

The decision between game-based learning and gamification needs to be based on the goals and needs of your organization. Implementing either strategy without careful consideration can make employees feel unmotivated, and even lead to high turnover.

Do it right however, and you can expect increased engagement and happier employees. And really, that’s a benefit for everyone.