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Serious Games vs. Gamification

In this article, game designer Sande Chen illuminates the differences between serious games, edutainment, and gamification.

Sande Chen, Blogger

June 7, 2017

3 Min Read

[This article originally appeared on Game Design Aspect of the Month under the topics of Game-Based Learning and Gamification.]


Recently, I read an e-learning industry expert's opinion on "games disguised as a teaching method" and why the tried-and-true colorful comical characters of edutainment might work better for Pre-K. Studies on distraction and attention do point out that young children have difficulty focusing, but I wonder, does edutainment distract children more than it educates? And while there are no doubt popular sites serving up chocolate-covered broccoli, I think it's important to note that there is a distinction between game-based learning and edutainment-type games or even gamification.  Not all educational games are drill and practice, i.e. "games disguised as a teaching method."

An example of a leaderboard

In 2013, at the Serious Play Conference, I explained the differences in the presentation, "What's in a Name? Serious Games vs. Gamification." Serious games, and all its variations on a name, such as social impact games, games for good, persuasive games, learning games, etc, is not a term interchangeable with gamification. There is confusion and understandably so, because both appear to be methodologies that incorporate gameplay mechanics to increase user motivation, to solidify learning objectives, and to encourage overall engagement.

However, while serious game makers use game technology, processes, and design to solve problems or explain issues in traditionally non-entertainment markets, gamification experts are interested in the motivating power of game elements, like leaderboards, badges, and a points system, usually as a way to promote engagement with a product or service.  These game elements would be tacked on without regard to an overall game. There may be no game at all. For instance, on a gamified site, a user might receive 30 points or a badge for posting a note on the site's forums as a way of onboarding. On a learning site, a child may have to do 10 math problems for a badge or prize.

Edutainment is merely dressing up what would be a problem set, usually with an animated cartoon character. Math Blaster even has math problems inside the game, which the student would have to solve in order to save the galaxy. It doesn't explain the math problems or explain why there are math problems in space or how math problems save the galaxy. In short, the gameplay itself is not about math, but window dressing to make a math problem more palatable.  This is very different from a resource management game like Dragonbox BIG Numbers, which tries to explain the process of subtraction through gameplay.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

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About the Author(s)

Sande Chen


A co-founder of Writers Cabal, Sande Chen works as a game writer and designer. In 2008, she was nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award in Outstanding Achievement in Videogame Writing. While still at film school at USC, she was nominated for a Grammy in music video direction. She can be reached at: [email protected]

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