Gamification has become a buzz word lately and is being applied to everything from applications to meetings. In many cases it is being done as an afterthought and sort of game-washing.

What are the key differences between something having real game dynamics and simply being a superficial gamification layer? Where is the line between a serious game and an application with points?

  • \$\begingroup\$ Like most buzzwords, "gamification" doesn't have an exact definition anymore (if it ever did.) \$\endgroup\$
    – jhocking
    Apr 27, 2015 at 15:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ Define "serious" and "game". \$\endgroup\$
    – Anko
    Dec 13, 2015 at 18:40

5 Answers 5


I see this as a false dichotomy, a mere semantic issue. The only real difference between "game," "simulation" and "application" is the mindset of the person using it. The only reason "gamification" even entered the vocabulary is because of one TED talk and marketing (a fuzzy science to many) people do love their sound bites and justifying budgets.

Stock markets are serious business, yet people "play" the stocks.

Gambling is a game, yet people (try) to make a serious living at it.

Being a salesman is a serious job, yet they often work for "points" or "rewards" like a game.

Managers simulate planning scenarios to optimize budgets, they're minmaxing just like a gamer.

Entire national armies participate in war "games" for training.

The examples go on and on =)

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ The difference between all those examples and games are that the results of any actions only have consequences as far as the player wants them to. Playing stocks in real life and losing everything has real-life consequences. The same thing as a game would be boring as the consequences (even earning billions) are limited to the game mindset. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 28, 2011 at 21:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ Eve players, in a mercantile simulation that just happens to be set in space, might disagree about earning billions being boring. A number of "auction house barons" in my world of warcraft guild would also dispute the concept of finances as being boring. This is a great question because you can slice it any number of ways, or choose to not slice it at all. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 28, 2011 at 23:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ iI see what you're saying, but It's not the earning the money that is fun, it's the spending it to serve the main gameplay. You can make lots of relations between games and real life but if a game was just a real life simulation it wouldn't be fun. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 29, 2011 at 9:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ "if a game was just a real life simulation it wouldn't be fun" There are a lot of simulations that try to be as close to the real thing as possible and have to be some kind of fun, or else they wouldn't be as successful. Just think MS Flight Simulator et al. The only reason we don't have a full life simulator (think holodeck) is because we don't have the technology yet. As long as it tickles someone's brain in the right place, it's a game. \$\endgroup\$
    – Hackworth
    Nov 8, 2011 at 0:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ I don't know if that's your real name or a reference to the Diamond Age, but in this discussion that is very apt. \$\endgroup\$
    – jhocking
    Nov 8, 2011 at 2:04

Ideally, serious games are just normal games with a 'serious' topic like pollution, recycling, etc.

Serious games do quite well when the topic is to teach people how to drive a boat, how to fly a plane, etc. Note that these type of games work particularly well when the simulation is realistic (crashing and sinking for example) because the user needs to think that the simulation is realistic for them to believe they can, and actually, benefit from it.

The biggest problem in serious games at the moment is for more 'cognitive' tasks where the it is more difficult to tell whether the user has learned anything or not. Coupled with the fact that the clients don't fundamentally understand what a game is, and in what ways people can learn from it, we get these 'gamified' textbooks.

A client can start off wanting a serious game, but will also want everything he's used to; pie charts, QA's and generally things that don't go well with games at all. This is probably due to the fact that the money that is put into a serious game is considered an investment, and people will want figures to justify that investment.

This is where we end-up with this bastardized serious game that is neither one thing or another and is pretty no more useful than a text-book.

I believe that the solution is for developers to find new and innovative game mechanics that will enable them to properly test the users' knowledge and give the client this information without having to actually ask a single question.

  • 5
    \$\begingroup\$ I take it you've never seen or played EVE, the world's most explosive spreadsheet simulator =) \$\endgroup\$ Oct 28, 2011 at 21:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ Pivot tables ftw. On a side note, life is a game. As @PatrickHughes has pointed out several times, it is all in the eye of the individual. So in the end, this discussion really is pointless, as everything can and is a game. I make a game out of going to the store. (4yr old + 2yr old) I also make a game out of cleaning the house. Whether I am trying to see how fast I can clean up, or just doing perfect rows with the vacuum cleaner. A single dad learns that literally anything can and is a game. \$\endgroup\$
    – JClaspill
    Nov 8, 2011 at 22:27

What are the key differences between something having real game dynamics and simply being a superficial gamification layer?

Current gamification is focused on extrinsic rewards that drive people to do otherwise unpleasant and inherently unrewarding tasks. It's like giving your dog a treat when he sits on command. Doing this never makes the task of sitting fun, but it makes it bearable enough because you know a reward is coming.

Game development is about crafting a fun and rewarding experience for the player by offering them understandable systems, and the means by which to manipulate that system towards a desired end. Fundamental to game mechanics is the concept of developing mastery over time. Then intrinsic joy of gaming comes in large degree from the reveling in the development of that mastery. You can't just bolt game mechanics onto software after the fact, they have to be integrated and designed into the user's experience.

Where is the line between a serious game and an application with points?

Serious games are typically constructed like traditional games, with a combination of understandable systems and the means to manipulate them towards a goal. However, this software is often designed with a mindset towards delivering the player an experience which can offer some type of off-line learning. So mechanics and systems that might be streamlined away from reality in a gaming context where fun is the primary goal, may be kept in place because the software's goal extends beyond second-to-second enjoyment.


I'd suggest it comes down to 'player' motivation.

If an application uses a point system to encourage extended and more skillful interaction with the system, then it is a game.

If it just attributes points to actions/outcomes, without any sense of motivating the user/player to do better, then it is not a game.


Your question asks:

What are the key differences between something having real game dynamics and simply being a superficial gamification layer?

When designed and implemented correctly, Gamification does include real game dynamics:

  • There is a strong focus on rewards, but those rewards must fall within a balanced system.
  • There must be engagement.
  • There must be motivation (both intrinsic and extrinsic) there has to be levels to complete and accolades/rewards delivered upon completion.
  • It should be fun, so "play" is a focal point.
  • Risk factors must be vetted.
  • Play challenges must be developed, and remain balanced.

The problem with gamification is that it isn't taken seriously from the outset. It is usually seen as marketing afterthought. It is often developed by marking persons with little knowledge of game dynamics and more focus on "social shares" and "badges given".

The bandwagon of "Gamification" is produced by many, but refined/balanced bby a few. The many that fail often give the few good examples of it a bad name.

You also asked:

Where is the line between a serious game and an application with points?

You would need to define "serious game" in order to answer this effectively, however, I will go by an assumption you mean a AAA title from Ubisoft, Nintendo, Bioware or the like.

A serious game has level designers, programmers, story developers, character arcs, modelers, script writers, designers etc. They are focused on the dynamics of the game-play and making sure not only is the "look and feel" of the game is done well, but the inner workings of the game play dynamics are sound. A powerful weapon needs to be balanced so that it isn't a "god weapon" and a powerful enemy must be beta tested so that it isn't invincible.

Though gamification does not usually have the level of complexity in it's "design layer" there is a lot of insight and forethought put into a well designed system to maintain a fair and balanced game-play system.

The line that is drawn is in the level of complexity and planning that is invested into the gamification system.


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