GBL vs. Gamification:
What’s the Difference?

by Aaron Baum, Associate, Legends of Learning

A handful of game-related terms get thrown around the edtech sphere. Two big ones are gamification and game-based learning, or GBL, just check out their hashtags on Twitter: #GBL and #Gamification.

What exactly is the difference between gamification and GBL? Many confuse the terms, but one is not the other.

It’s an innocent mistake, one that I have made, too.

Last Spring, just before my first day at Legends of Learning, a friend asked me what exactly we do. Ill-versed in edtech buzzwords, I did my best to explain, and he said, “Oh, so you do gamification. We talk about it all the time in education consulting.”

To my uninitiated mind, “gamification” was a pithy explanation, and I wondered why the term had never come up in previous conversations with the Legends team. It turns out, gamification isn’t what we do.

Gamification in Education: What it Looks Like

To show an example of gamified learning, let’s turn to our friends at Classcraft. I met these folks at ISTE 2017 in San Antonio, and they’re great — they even wrote a blog about us! Classcraft defines the principle of gamification as “applying game principles to non-game situations.”

Basically, Classcraft is an experience, and it works like this:

Teachers deploy their own learning materials that they’ve created—think worksheets, quizzes, and videos—as different destination points within a “Quest.” Students work through these materials to advance through the Quests at their own pace. As they complete their work, they travel across a map, from one end of an island to another.

A Classcraft quest, which employs gamification rather than GBL.

This is a fun way to visualize progress, and it uses the principles of an adventure game to capture students’ interest while they learn. That’s gamification.

The learning itself is done through traditional classroom assignments, not a game. That would be a different story.

Understanding GBL

Unlike the traditional classroom assignments that persist in a gamified classroom, GBL is exactly what it sounds like: using games to introduce, enforce, or enrich learning concepts.

The idea is that learning through gameplay can be more engaging than more traditional methods like lectures, textbooks, and worksheets. When students are more engaged, their brains are more capable of absorbing new information. This makes for better subject matter retention, leading to higher test scores, as demonstrated by research.

Games are often more engaging than traditional learning tools because, of course, they’re fun. But beyond this highly unscientific assertion, how does GBL achieve higher engagement from an educational theory standpoint? GBL guru Dr. James Paul Gee attributes it in part to the principle of “Performance Before Competence.”

In his essay “Good Video Games and Good Learning,” Dr. Gee explains that students playing a game “can perform before they are competent, supported by the design of the game, the ‘smart tools’ the game offers.” This differs from more traditional learning methods, which often require students to read a text and become competent before they can start trying to perform tasks related to the new knowledge. For many students, these methods are far less effective than the “learn by doing” approach that GBL allows.

Engagement is the ticket to effective learning. Keeping that in mind, let’s look at how gamification and GBL are similar, and why so many people tend to think they’re interchangeable.

A Key Similarity

GBL and gamification are guided by the same overarching principle: morphing a traditional classroom task into a more engaging, competitive activity.

Take for example the Interactions in Ecosystems learning objective on our site. It is home to ten mini-games, ranging in length from 5-25 minutes. Each game interweaves specific science concepts — in this case, how ecosystems work, as delineated by the NGSS — into the gameplay.

Deep Sea Adventure, a game-based learning (GBL) tool in the Interactions in Ecosystems learning objective.

In “Deep Sea Adventure,” you start out as a tiny shrimp, eating plankton and avoiding predators, ultimately growing into a fish, a jellyfish, a turtle, and a shark. In “EcoKingdoms: Interactions,” your role is park manager, making decisions to balance the flora, fauna, and finances that are crucial to the park’s operation.

Other GBL experiences feature competition amongst students. They compete with one another and motivate each other to perform at a higher level in the game. Some learning games even have leaderboards so students can compete against players all over the world.

Have you ever tried to get small children to help clean up their toys after making a mess? One effective strategy is to say “I bet I can clean up more toys than you… ready, go!” Nine times out of ten, the child will go whizzing around their bedroom trying to beat you in the new “clean-up game” you just created. That is gamification at work.

Competition is a motivator, and can make any task — whether cleaning the playroom or learning science — a lot more fun. So if GBL and gamification share this core similarity, why is the distinction so important?

A venn diagram comparing gamification and game-based learning (GBL).

Gamification alters significant structural aspects of the learning experience, breaking from the norms of lectures and worksheets. Teachers gamify their classrooms for a fresh new approach to a complex concept.

GBL is a component that can be flexibly plugged into a traditional classroom, interchanged for other tasks like worksheets, without altering the way the classroom runs overall.

Next time you talk tech in the teacher’s lounge, see if your colleagues know the difference. Let them know you’re not playing around!

Make Tech Easy
for Teachers to Use

When it comes to digital education content, technology and tools, ease of use reigns supreme. If we don’t make new media and tech easy for teachers, they won’t use them in the classroom.

Good digital education tools can be tremendously beneficial in the classroom. They help teachers engage students AND reinforce the educator’s lessons. We know this. But as such, that tool must do more than simply entertain students, and meet a basic loose affiliation with curriculum topics. They must be intuitive and natural to implement.

This is a classic user experience conundrum. User experience (UX) concerns itself with making a customer happy before, during, and after using a product. Unfortunately, education content, games and tech products have been criticized for not meeting the UX bar in the past. Ease of use is one of the main culprits.

Creating a successful education UX requires understanding teachers’ challenges with technology as much as it does building great curriculum media for students. Teachers don’t receive as much professional development as they would in an ideal world. Many struggle with using the latest technology on a personal basis, much less figuring out how to deploy it in the classroom.

Content creators and developers should understand what makes a new digital tool in the classroom useful. Does the media reinforce teacher lessons, or is it a distraction? Can a teacher use the product as part of their core curriculum, or does it seek to replace them in some way? Will a teacher be able to use student data for productive analytics, or do privacy risks interfere?

“Companies often overlook the fact that younger students do not have email addresses, and that teachers are more likely to use technology if it is easier to set up class rosters with user names and passwords,” said Richard White, Science Department Chair, Griffin Middle School. “I need to be able to import CSV files and have the software generate the user names while I assign a generic password.”

It makes sense to engineer content and tools to work for the teacher as much as they work for the student. A happy teacher makes for a successful use of the new education tool.

Providing Integration

Making new tech easy for teachers to implement within larger district learning management (LMS) and student information systems (SIS) is a primary consideration. “Products need to have seamless integration within existing district technology ecosystems,” said Scott Beiter, a science teacher at Rensselaer Junior Senior High School. “A district won’t buy all new hardware just to adopt one wonderful product.”

For example, integrating into Google for Education allows teachers across the country to use digital tools. Similarly, working within other widespread and adopted education standards, both curriculum and technological, helps teachers use your tool.

“Two words: Google integration!” added Rebecca Beiter, a teacher at Bethlehem Central School District.

A Little How-to Help Goes a Long Way

Sometimes making a new digital tool work in a classroom is as much as about guidance as the actual tool itself. Not every teacher will pick up on how to implement a tool, no matter how well designed it is.

Many companies release their tools with video tutorials, webinars, professional development, and user support forums to make their tech easy for teachers. Some actively seek feedback from teachers and incorporate that feedback in their product evolutions (have you joined the Legends of Learning community yet?).

Secondary content such as lesson plans and evaluation tools can make a big difference for a teacher’s experience. Not only does the digital tool work, but the supplementary content helps teachers at least consider how to implement in the classrooms.

Going the extra mile can make all the difference for a new education tool.

Additional Teacher Insights

We asked our Legends of Learning community members what they thought about the topic, too. Several offered additional insights:

“Making tech media accessible to students on a free basis is crucial,” said Caitlin Unterman, a teacher at Bedford County Public Schools. “Also, including easy to read instructions, easy to manipulate sites, and allowing for manipulation of content, is key!”

“As an educator, companies need to follow CIPA rules and make student sign up easy and without emails,” said Bobby Brian Lewis, Bibb County Schools. “They can also make tech that can read to students to meet the needs of special needs students such as close caption. Tech companies need to be aware of the needs of students with special needs.”

“Companies should look to their local community to help schools improve their internet connections,” said Nancy Hoppa, Ingenuity Program, Baltimore City Public Schools. “Many school communities are in older buildings and just getting connected in the first place presents a no go situation. One in which we need to almost always have a back up plan just in case. Another big problem we are facing is using technology for engineering/stem based projects. We need tools to construct the projects we are designing online and training. This generation does not have nearly as much experience working with hammer, nails and saws!”

There’s no single best way to make tech easy for teachers. Doing so is crucial to enable students to succeed in the digital age.

What do you think?

For Teachers
For Schools
For Districts