Making the Distinction Between Serious Games and Gamification – Guest Post by Clark Quinn


Guest post by Clark Quinn (@quinnovator)

One of the hottest topics around right now is gamification, and as with any hot topic, just as there’re reasons to be excited, so too are there reasons to be wary.  I suggest there is an important distinction between serious games and gamification, and the former is the reason for excitement and the latter is the reason to be wary.

Quite simply, gamification is about motivation.  We know that people perform better when they’re motivated, and we’ve seen historically and more recently through video games that there are certain elements that affect motivation.  For clarity sake, let’s distinguish between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.  Intrinsic motivation is that motivation that comes from doing something you find engaging, interesting in and of itself. This is the ideal type of motivation, as it doesn’t require any extra work.  Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is when we add external motivators to get desired behaviors (largely because it’s not intrinsically interesting).  There are certainly times when external motivators make sense.

Simulations, Scenarios, and Serious Games

As long as we’re covering definitions, let me also clarify the differences between simulations, scenarios, and serious games.  People tend to use these indiscriminately, and it’s important to be clear.  Technically, a simulation is just a model of part of the world, representing important elements and relationships.  The simulation can be in any state and specific operations can take it to any other viable state. A motivated and self-efficacious learner can use that simulation to learn what they need to learn, but that’s not the way to bet.  So, for the purposes of learning, we tend to choose an initial state for the simulation to be in, and ask the learner to take it to a goal state that we’ve chosen such that the learner won’t be able to succeed without learning the relationships we want the learner to understand about this world.  (We typically wrap a story around this.)  That – start state, goal state, story – is what I term a scenario.  And we can tune a scenario into a serious game.  What I mean is that we can turn that scenario into a game by tuning: adjusting the elements in the game – the challenge, outcomes, story, etc – until the learner has a subjective experience of engagement.

The Difference Between Gamification and Serious Games

So what’s the difference between gamification and serious games?  Some people consider them to be the same, or that serious games are a subset of gamification. I prefer to keep a distinction between them. For me, it’s back to the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, serious games are the former, while gamification is the latter.  Gamification involves specifically taking ‘game mechanics’, those elements that are purported to make games compelling and wrapping them around behaviors we would like people to perform but they are unlikely to per status quo. We see things like scores, and leaderboards, stories wrapped around objectives, and even prizes.  And these have been shown to be effective. Of course, these should not be used indiscriminately; I heard an expert on gamification speak, and he made the point that they can be detrimental as well as desirable.  If not properly balanced, the behavior won’t be exhibited as desired. Just as tuning is required to turn a scenario into a game, so too gamification requires tuning to set the right value of the rewards, etc., to achieve the desired motivation.

In my opinion, your preference should be intrinsic.  If you can help people understand the intrinsic value of what you’re doing, not necessarily just for them, but also for the organization or society as a whole, you get a more persistent commitment and a more satisfying feeling of accomplishment.  However, there will be circumstances when gamification makes sense, and there are definitely reasons to consider gamification.  For example, think of tasks that are worthwhile, but avoidable (e.g. exercising; those wristbands are a form of gamification).  People can enjoy the competition and success that comes with successful gamification, and the organization can benefit from the outcomes.  For example, motivating to persist in the the amount of drill required to develop expertise in a task beyond initial success, or the times when rote knowledge absolutely, positively has to be in the head.  Gamification and serious games are not really distinct so much as points on a continuum.  I prefer the far end, but there are benefits to be seen across the spectrum.

For Learning, I Advocate Serious Games

For learning, however, I am very much an advocate of serious games. Why?  It’s not only because of the intrinsic motivation, but it’s one of the highest forms of learning.  The best learning is individually mentored live performance, but there are two problems with this. The first is that mistakes during live performance can be costly, so in instances when the cost of failure is high, we prefer sample practice first.  Second, individual mentoring doesn’t scale well.  To me, serious games are the next best thing. When designed well, they intrinsically embody the best learning practice: contextualizing the same decisions you want learners to be able to make in meaningful settings, with repeated practice, adapting the level of difficulty and providing real feedback from the consequences.

Designing Games and Meaningful Practice

Designing games and designing meaningful practice aren’t all that different, with a caveat.  To implement a full serious game, you not only have to define meaningful objectives, choose a context, identify how learners go wrong and make those compelling alternatives, but you also have to build the model of the world.  The good news is that you only need to do so in those areas where you really need deep practice.  Otherwise, there are approximations that deliver much of the benefit with no more overhead than you already use. Branching scenarios allow complicated consequences to play out without requiring an explicit model (the model is implicit in the links).  Where only limited replay is required to help learners ‘get’ the learning, branching scenarios (or a suite of them) can achieve the necessary goals.  And mini-scenarios are really just better written multiple-choice questions embodying only one decision.  I’m hard pressed to think of any situation where you wouldn’t to at least have a mini-scenario instead of any other type of multiple-choice question, since the ability to use the information is what is (or should be) key.

There’s a lot more that goes into creating a meaningful learning experience (graphics, writing, etc.), but the focus on creating meaningful experiences is a step we need to go both for our learners and for the learning outcomes.  Again, games are the best form of learning practice that you can accomplish.  Unless you’re hoping people will pay you for the learning experience you create, you don’t have to go as far in your polish as would a commercial game designer, but you should work to make it a plausible scenario and tune the experience until there’s a subjective experience of engagement. The effort is a valuable investment in optimizing the learning outcomes.

A number of years ago now, my research led me to the realization that the elements that lead to effective learning practice and the elements that lead to engaging experience are the same elements.  Learning can, and should, be hard fun.  You should want to know how to design games, as it’s really a natural investigation of what makes good learning.  And that, ultimately, is what we should be focusing on.