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What’s the difference between Gamification and Serious Games?
by Andrzej Marczewski on 03/11/13 05:45:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Anyone who has read my blogs will know that I am a little against the constant arguments about what gamification is and what it isn’t, so this may seem a little hypocritical. Here I am defining it after all. Well, things change and whilst I still think that excluding ideas because they do not fit into your perfect definition of gamification is daft, I also believe that as gamfication matures, so should the language we use. You see the trouble is, it is confusing to people who are not involved. whilst we should all know the differences , civilians may not! So here goes.

Different Terms
NOTE: I feel it is important at this stage to say this. I am talking about the design intention here. I understand that Serious Games and even Gamification can be fun. However, this is not the intended design goal, they are designed for a purpose rather than as pure entertainment. 

Gameful Design

This is the use of game thinking in user experience. It is game like approach to aesthetics and usability, rather than the addition of game elements. Some may also call it playful design. A nice example of this is the fail whale from Twitter. Rather than a boring old error when twitter is over capacity, they have the Fail Whale. This simple change in thinking has spawned it’s own life, with people recreating the image with different characters and even created t-shirts with it on! There are better examples, where game thinking has made user interfaces easier to use, but this is nice and simple.  Add your own in the comments!

Fail Whale


Well, we all know what this is. My personal definition is;

The application of gaming metaphors in non game contexts to influence behavior, improve motivation and enhance engagement

It is what you get when you take elements and ideas from games and apply them to things that are not games. So adding progress bars to a site to show how much of your profile you have filled in (e.g., adding points, badges, leaderboards, peer pressure and more to things that normally would not have them (e.g. Nike+, Idea NationZombies The addition of missions and quests, of social interactions and more. It is about the psychology of games and people, the use of Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose and Relatedness to engage and motivate people. All things that games have in abundance! The big thing that separates gamification from the next category of serious games – gameplay. You are not creating a game with gamification.

Serious Games / Simulations

A serious game is a game with purpose, it was not created to be solely entertainment. It has all the elements of a real game, will look and feel like a real game, but has some defined purpose, outcome or message the creators wish to get across to you. A good example of a serious game is Pass it On from AXA insurance.

Pass it On from AXA

As you can see, it looks like a game and it certainly plays like one, It is a 3D world with social gaming elements, missions and quests and even an iPhone app! However, the reason for creating it was to give people a better understanding of why Life insurance is so important!

You can also include many educational games in this category. As long as they have all the elements you would expect to see in a real game (ie gameplay!).

Simulations are slightly different, but with the simple classification I am using, still fit into the same category. Rather than being a game with some kind of message or serious purpose, they are designed to simulate something in the real world. An enterprise example would be PlantVille from Seimens. This “game” is designed to simulate the inner workings of a manufacturing plant.


The reason I say that simulations are a bit different is because the do not always need to have gameplay. However, for our purposes and for the sorts of solutions we are most likely to want to provide people – I would say gameplay is essential!


All of the above, but played just for entertainment.

A game from my youth!

Bonus points for people who are old enough to remember this game!!

There you have it, my quick break down of different parts of what we often talk about as gamification. Maybe we should expand out and call what we do Game Thinking rather than gamification? My last word on this. If you limit yourself to only considering gamification as it is defined here – I think you are doing it wrong. All of what I have described here can and should be used in the right ways to benefit people.

My last last words, here is another diagram that may help some with clarifying. It is Type of Game Thinking mapped against design purpose and gameplay.

types of game thinking and primary design goal

Again, it is important to note that this chart deals with the intented reasons for design. Just because it is a serious game, does not mean it can not be fun - but the reason it was created was for a purpose other than pure entertainment. With Gameful Design, fun describes the fact that the thinking behind the design is to make something a more enjoyable experience, even in small ways. They are not essential to the design, just make it more pleasing to the user. 

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Francesco Sorrentino
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The game is "Head Over Heels", but with same isometric view I loved "Knight Lore" and "Gunfright" in my old & dear home computer... MSX VG8020... ;)

Andrzej Marczewski
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Haha. I loved head over heals. Used to have it on my dads amstrad pcw 8512 in green and black. One point to you :-)

Darren Tomlyn
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(I'd love to post a link to my blog, but I'm still working on the re-write, which underpins everything I have to explain, unfortunately.)

There are a number of reasons why we're having problems understanding what games are, both in isolation, AND especially in relation to everything else, including similar activities and behaviour, including art and puzzles, etc..

Both of these are causing problems with what we call 'gamification', because what it's labelling has nothing to do with games, (though games may include such a thing - because the relationship is the other way round!)

And so we're missing the link between the two, which is affecting what you've posted above:


The basic, fundamental mistake people have come to make, is to confuse games with competition itself, and therefore have trouble understanding how competition exists completely separately from games. (Games are merely a competitive activity, and are far from unique in that respect.)

Trying to understand games without understanding competition, and their overall relationship, is a very big part of the problem we currently have, and is also why the similar activity we call A competition, causes so much confusion for what people think GAMES are, (since they don't recognise and understand the difference).

(Another problem is that people confuse games with play (being non-productive), even though play means the act of behaving and taking part in such an activity instead, when used in combination. And so games are seen as being non-productive, even though they have ALWAYS existed for productive reasons - (been played (taken part in) for work). The definition of game has nothing whatsoever to do with (being) work or play in such a manner.)

And so 'gamification' has nothing whatsoever to do with games, either, and should be called 'competification' instead:

Competification: using competition to promote other behaviour.

Note: merely offering a reward for doing something, is NOT consistent with the presence of 'competitifcation/gamification', or nearly all of human behaviour would count as involving such a thing - (a lot of work exists because of the reward being offered. It's productive, done for what it produces, not the behaviour itself, which is why it is work and not play. A(n often monetary) reward is merely an additional element being produced for its outcome, on behalf of those that are working, often in place of what the behaviour produces itself, (since it is often done on behalf of someone else.))

In other words - the moment you're doing something because of what it produces, and not because of what it is you actually do, the outcome, rather than the process, it becomes work, and not play. (It doesn't have to involve money to be work.)

One of the other reasons people think games are play and not work, is because games are about the process itself, and not the outcome. But that doesn't mean the outcome of such a process cannot be productive - (such as training) - only its the process that defines it as a game, regardless of how and why it takes place.

And 'gamification' is a problem, because its a focus on the outcome, and not the process itself, which is the opposite of what games are about. And such a focus is also affecting our understanding of competition, too, (and is why everything is being lumped together), as and by what is being competed for, even though competition can be perpetual - (merely a state of competing). To compete, is merely to TRY and gain a particular outcome/goal at the expense of, or in spite of (which many people fail to understand) someone or something else.

'Gamification' is about giving someone a goal to compete for, by behaving in a particular manner that you want - and as such, is merely about competition and not games. That such a thing can be used and found in games, has nothing to do with the definition of game itself, merely how it is applied.

Andrzej Marczewski
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Part of Gamification and the way it has been applied by many is exactly what you describe. Pointsification (as Ian Bogost would define it). There are those of us out there that are trying to erase this view of how people define Gamification. The word is partly the issue (I just wrote about that
gg-and-words/), but mostly it is the people who spent the last couple of years talking about it as if points and badges would generate engagement by magic.

Without heading into the depths of it here, the rest of us are tying to make people see that it can be and should about so much more. Finding what truly motivates people and then trying to work with that. Points and the like may help with onboarding, but there needs to be more of intrinsic value. The 4 favourites to talk about are autonomy, purpose, mastery and relatedness.

The point is, Gamification is a terrible word, it has a poor reputation especially amongst the gaming fraternity (hence I was nervous even posting about it on gamasutra). However, applied correctly and used with the right mind set, it is much more than points, competition and manipulation.

Darren Tomlyn
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Oh, I know that 'gamification' is used in such a manner, but inconsistently, which is why it's such a problem, (especially when work already describes such a thing, which, if you're trying to make something involve play, should be a very big red flag!).

'Competification', however, is much more important to understand, and IMO, deserving of a specific label to describe and represent it, to give people more guidance and recognition when such a thing is being used and is present, whether for useful or nefarious reasons, (i.e. propaganda).

Trying to make it any more fundamental then EITHER of these - is NOT POSSIBLE, because work (and play) already describes such fundamental behaviour in the first place.

The problem, is that without being specific, the term 'gamification' is WORSE than useless - it's confusing, inconsistent, and purposely describes a cause and as by it's effect(s).

The direct root of this problem, however, is the lack of awareness, understanding and recognition of competition itself - (which, yes, even Ian Bogost suffers from) - especially in relation to work, play and game.


EDIT: I've been thinking about this some more, and the basic reason for all this is actually pretty obvious (to me), (I just didn't take my thoughts to their logical conclusion before). (It's taking me a while for my thoughts to catch up with the specifics of this, since what I've been working on is far more general and fundamental than this, (as fundamental as it gets, TBH), albeit its ultimate cause).

It's obvious to me, now, that the most basic cause of all this, (in addition to not understanding and recognising competition/the state of competing), is the lack of understanding and recognition of the definitions and relationship of work and play, especially in relation to game(s).

The main reason this is causing problems, is that people think that games are play, (non-productive), because they see play as being something done that's enjoyable, instead. And so they think that just because something is enjoyable, even though they make it productive, it's still play, even though it's now become work, instead.

And so they don't think there is any problem with focusing on the product, (rewards/goals etc.), of such a process and behaviour, over the actual process itself, which leads to the basic perception of 'gamification' - otherwise known as taking an activity and making it productive - i.e. turning it into work.

So the root problem of this, is trying to understand where the line lies between something being play or work - which, unfortunately, is entirely subjective.

Games can be played for work, (on behalf of those taking part), and then perceived as play (for entertainment), by an observer.

Unfortunately, the act of focusing on rewards/goals over the behaviour needed to gain them, has further ramifications for the existence of two other things, often for nefarious reasons, which is a MASSIVE problem for the design and creation of games, and therefore the games industry at this time:

Competitions, and gambling.

Now, gambling - betting money on any particular outcome - is linked with the word game when used as a verb, (as behaviour/a thing that happens), but this no longer has ANY link or relationship at all with the use of the word game as an activity (or a thing(s) to enable such an activity). Since everyone (should) know what gambling is, it should be easy to know whether or not you've created an activity involving such a thing - (and calling ANYTHING involving gambling a 'game' is now merely propaganda, and is a massive problem in its own right!).

Competitions, however, are also a massive problem too, and often just as nefarious as gambling itself, if not MORE so, since they are often not covered by gambling laws, (or any specific law for that matter), even though they can also involve using real money, especially in relation to computer games.

The main reason competitions are such a problem, is because they are NOT fully recognised and understood, especially in relation to games. This is also why they can cause just as much hardship as gambling, because people don't always recognise and understand what is happening and why.

Competitions are about people competing (trying to gain a particular outcome/goal/reward) to be told whether or not they have won or lost, (usually through a random draw or a judge's opinion). As you can imagine, nearly all gambling involves betting on a competition on behalf of the gambler.

So how does this affect games, without involving gambling?

By people being told they can't compete without spending real money.

Any activity that involves such behaviour is NOT a game, but a competition, and, in my book, probably requires some specific laws to govern, considering the problems such activities are causing at this time - (especially in relation to how much information is given about such requirements etc..).

But competitions don't have to involve real money in such a manner, in order to exist. Any activity in which a person has to compete for a specific reward (involving a random draw/loot drop etc.), is ALSO a competition, an not a game.

Again, the relationship between the process and it's product isn't being fully recognised and understood, and this is very much the relationship and difference between games and competitions. By focusing on the product, rather than the process, by turning such activities into work and competitions, which is exactly what 'gamification' is trying to label, (but is not specific enough as either work or competitions), we're DESTROYING the very thing we should be trying to create:


Ara Shirinian
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But people often do not play video games just for entertainment/fun.

Andrzej Marczewski
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Would you be able to provide an example for me? it is also worth pointing out that I am speaking of the purpose of the game, not the motivation of the individual). Though it could be said that games like call of duty are made just to make money, not to entertain the player :)

Ara Shirinian
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Any game where performance, skill, overcoming challenges and stretching the limits of ability is a substantial component. Chess, Street Fighter, Trials, Demon's Souls, etc. Even COD. The depth designed into games like these isn't adequately represented by words like fun.

Andrzej Marczewski
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I see. But you accept that these activities are undertaken voluntarily for the purposes of enjoyment or entertainment, semantics aside, no one is forcing them to play the game you mentioned.

Peter Shea
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Ara - I think I agree that the word fun doesn't explain the phenomena we seem to be discussing. What is a better word do you think? Is it "engaging"? And if that is the word what happens to the model that Andrzej has laid out? It becomes problematic because simulation may be engaging so the distinction between serious game and "game" goes away. I also have a problem with the word "purpose" as used in the model. It is ambiguous - my purpose might be to have "fun". Does Andrzei mean "purpose other than fun"? What is a word that might be use to replace the word "fun" in these cases?

Andrzej Marczewski
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For this I define purpose as something other than entertainment. So in the example I give of Pass it On, the primary design focus is to educate people on the importance of Life Insurance. Now the way that it has been done may be fun, engaging or whatever, but that was not the reason for making it. Something like Call of Duty is made to entertain, to be fun, it has no deliberate greater meaning than that .

I am not defining the experience the user has, merely the intended reason or goal of making the system in the first place.

I agree, fun is subjective and very, very hard to define. But for this chart it is the simplest way to get the concept across.

However, if you can give me a more appropriate word for each, I am open to suggestions. When I was testing this with people, most understood the meaning without any explaination, which is why I stuck with them.

Darren Tomlyn
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@Peter and Ara

If you read my (long) replies above, you might begin to recognise the problem - that what we need to be talking about is the definitions and relationship of work and play, not serious and fun. Unfortunately, we're not understanding either (work or play) in a fully consistent manner, especially in relation to each other and games, which gamification is a direct symptom of, (in addition to the problems with competition).

The basic matter then becomes one of subjective perceptions and recognition of where the line lies between work and play.

Both work AND play can be fun and/or enjoyable - (since it's not what they represent, which isn't being recognised and understood!)

Andrzej Marczewski
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In simple terms (and I appologise if I have missed this in your replies), how do you define play? I understand games as (very basically) having confilct of some type with defined rules, where as pure play has no confilct and no defined rules. Confilct here is not fighting as much as it is an obstacle of some kind that you must overcome.

I agree, that at times people seem to view Work as the exact opposite of play, anti play if you will.

Andrzej Marczewski
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In simple terms (and I appologise if I have missed this in your replies), how do you define play? I understand games as (very basically) having confilct of some type with defined rules, where as pure play has no confilct and no defined rules. Confilct here is not fighting as much as it is an obstacle of some kind that you must overcome.

I agree, that at times people seem to view Work as the exact opposite of play, anti play if you will.

Darren Tomlyn
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Work and play are generally (but not only) used to represent:

Work (verb) a thing that happens that is productive.
Play (verb) a thing that happens that is non-productive.

These are then further applied, (as states), that causes them to be used as nouns.

ALL human behaviour can be described as one or the other, depending on a person's perception (and subjective opinion) of such behaviour.

Note: work and play can also describe the act of using something, (e.g. working with clay, playing a musical instrument), or taking part in an activity, (e.g. playing a game/music), separately from the uses above. (Confusion between the two is especially problematic for people's recognition and understanding of games, since they can be played (taken part in) for work (productive reasons.))

But what do we mean by productive and non-productive?

If any behaviour produces something, be it anything from something being designed or created, or even a reward of some kind, then it is productive and therefore work. Although what is being produced is generally the main reason for such behaviour to take place, it doesn't have to be, which also causes problems for people's understanding and recognition of work in relation to play.

If any behaviour doesn't produce anything, however, then we have a problem. Why should we do anything/behave in such a manner if it's not productive? The answer is, of course, because we enjoy it. If the only reason for doing something is because it's enjoyable, then it's play, (non-productive), but that doesn't mean work can't be enjoyable, too, only it's not the only reason for it to exist.

The problem we have currently, is that play is merely seen as doing something that is enjoyable, which is causing many problems for games, because that isn't always the reason for them to be played, and doesn't stop them from being work, either.

So, the reason for the existence of gamification, is that people want to design games for play, (being non-productive), but end up making them work, (being productive in some manner, (using rewards/points/achievements etc.)), because they don't understand the difference.

Yes, the line between the two can be a matter of subjective perception and opinion, but even recognising that there is a line would be a good start.

Peter Shea
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I think there are a few issues to address. The idea of play and fun are clearly not always related to each other. I think the metaphors used to describe epistemic games for example don't refer to fun, but more to overcoming challenges and and also establishing an identity and a status. Its not always fun to play a game designed for entertainment and there are elements that can, of course, be quite difficult/frustrating and which lead to very negative emotion (screaming at the interface etc - how do we define that as "fun"?). So, while I agree that a shorthand use of the word fun can be used and understood at one level, the larger goal might be to understand games, even those designed for entertainment, as vehicles for something more substantial than "fun". I think one issue I see with gamification is the superficial approach that many are taking in trying to "tack on" the fun bits in a cynical or uninformed way. The misconception that games are about fun might be fueling some of that ill conceived approach. I really do appreciate your thinking though and the idea of a representational model is very useful.

Andrzej Marczewski
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Thanks and totally agree on the gamification comment. One of the things I try to do with my blog is point to the more intrinsic things we can be using that games get so right. Tacking points and leaderboards on to a crappy system just makes it crappy and patronising!!

Fun is a horrible word to try and define, I agree. Voluntarily undertaken activity that has no greater purpose than to bring joy, entertainment, relaxation or other non productive result could be a little on the long side for the chart :)

Peter Shea
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Yes - agreed - we can't fit that all in a chart! I wonder though if its more than those other things too. Joy, entertainment, fun all imply a sense of immediate gratification. That might be a part of the game experience, but the longer term goals are also important. Game players seek ends such as a sense of accomplishment I'd think. Maybe a sense of growth and increasing competence over time as well. Game players seek affiliation with like-minded people and a sense of community (ala Gamasutra perhaps). Increasing levels of expertise may bring admiration, recognition, respect from peers. Even the playing of entertainment games entails a wider experience than the immediate. All of this is very much like the goals in other fields of human endeavor - we seek similar experiences in professional life and maybe in other avocations. One of the trouble with gamification seems to me to be the superficiality, the mistaken impression that games are all about immediate gratification and/or fun. The x axis on your grid might get more complex in ways that illuminate more about what games are and might it seems a worthwhile activity to analyze the issues with your representation, only maybe go further out with it? Thanks for the conversation on the topic....

Andrzej Marczewski
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It is an idea. A few other things to post here before I explore this one further. However, you have described every faceat of intrinsic motivation !

Tiago Henriques
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The way i see things, i think gameful design should be marked with "just for fun" aswell, don't you think?

Andrzej Marczewski
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It can be fun, totally. But it is there to represent just using game thinking to make something more engaging - it's sole purpose is not always to Just be fun - not like a pure game. It is the application of game like thinking without the inclusion of things like game elements.

In the same way, serious games can be fun, but that is not the design goal.

The thing is, some use gameful design to describe gamification now - so that is always going to be a tough one to get across here - this is just my attempt to break down the definitions a little for people!