Gamification, Serious Games, and Simulations: The Differences

Designing Digitally


eLearning Training

All types of game-based learning, simulation, and gamification are commonly put under the umbrella of “gamification.” Actually, to do so isn’t accurate as they have their own distinct qualities and components. 

A more accurate term, coined by Jane McGonigal, may be “gameful design,” which is using the satisfying properties of games, “things like agency, emotion, and immediate feedback-to help people do what they really want to do: feel better, reach their goals, connect with others, and live with meaning.” The concept of gameful design is relevant because it acknowledges that there are differences between gamification, serious games, and simulations. 


A generally accepted definition for gamification is that it takes elements and ideas from games and applies them to something that isn’t a game. Some of the hallmarks of gamification are leaderboards, points, badges, progress bars, missions, and quests. An important distinction to make is that no actual gameplay or creation is involved. 

The motivational components of gamification are:

  • Autonomy. Learners like to feel that they have choices. They are more likely to be engaged when they feel that they have ownership over their own learning.
  • Mastery. Mastery can be described as becoming skilled in a certain area. It should be incremental. The challenge should increase as the skill level increases. 
  • Purpose. It is important to the learning process that a learner is presented with relevant content. It gives meaning. 
  • Relatedness. This is the social aspect of gamification. Learners benefit from the interactions with coworkers and co-learners. When people feel they are part of a community, they are much more likely to stay engaged. 

Serious games

As opposed to gamification, serious games are, indeed games. What sets them apart from other games is that they have a specific and defined learning objective. It will look and feel like a real game, but the goal is learning a certain concept or concepts. There may be story elements, social gaming elements, missions, and quests. 


While simulations are sometimes lumped together with serious games, they have differences too. A simulation is an activity designed to mimic a real-world scenario. The simulation will give the users a chance to interact with a situation that they could potentially be faced with in the course of their actual jobs. It’s important to note that a simulation may not involve gameplay at all. 

Deciding what’s best

Each of these three activities has educational value. The best approach is to incorporate each of them into the overall training program. Taking a varied approach ensures that the widest range of learning styles is reached. 

Here are some examples:

  • A simulation may be a good method to train employees in customer service. They can interact with virtual clients and learn the best ways to react to different scenarios without having to risk a poor interaction with an actual customer.
  • Gamification may work for employees who travel often. They can accumulate badges or rewards for miles traveled in the course of their work.
  • A game can work for almost any concept that needs to be taught.

Gamification, serious games, and simulations are all different but all are a benefit to the learners and the company. 

Designing Digitally Inc., can assist your company by customizing elearning that specifically meets the needs of your business.  Elearning that is customized leads to greater engagement and employee retention, higher levels of productivity, and increased profitability for your business.