When looking at this question, I was asking myself: Where are conceptual differences? Except that Gamification is a Game added to a serious topic, while a serious game approaches it from the opposite perspective?

Edit: As an example, would you call the famous Piano stairs Gamification or serious game, or both?

  • I'd like to see some references in the answers to this question. Commented Aug 14, 2011 at 18:57
  • References: Good idea. Actually, is "Gamification" used in scientific papers?
    – giraff
    Commented Aug 14, 2011 at 19:08
  • 1
    @Patrick Updated my answer with some references that underline my thinking.
    – Rahul
    Commented Aug 14, 2011 at 19:15
  • Why is this relevant to User Experience? Commented Aug 15, 2011 at 14:19
  • 2
    Both are approaches to design a specific user experience.
    – giraff
    Commented Aug 15, 2011 at 15:20

3 Answers 3


These are extremely similar ideas, with broad, fuzzy definitions, which make it tricky to answer with certainty.

Serious Games (coined in 2002 by Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars): is a game designed for a primary purpose other than pure entertainment.

Gamification (origin uncertain, became popular in 2010): applying game design thinking to non-game applications to make them more fun and engaging. (ref 2)

Both terms have been used for a whole variety of things, and, broadly speaking, are really just different terms for leveraging game techniques in non-traditional ways.

In practice, the two terms tend to be used in different contexts, in slightly different ways, for slightly different purposes.But these differences are not strictly adhered to.

A key difference in the definitions is that a Serious Game “is a game” and Gamification is applying “game design thinking”. This supports my understanding that serious games are usually complete games, whereas a gamification example is less likely to look like a game, and may just have a few game-like elements (think on eBay or Stack Exchange or the admin side of Wikipedia).

Serious Games arose from an academic organization with policy goals, and they tended to emphasize positive social outcomes; whereas gamification has tended to be used in business and marketing as a tool for improving profits.


There shouldn't be a difference, but there is one because of how gamification is currently used. In other answers I've written that gamification is a buzzword; I won't go into that too much here but the fact that it can be classified as a buzzword explains the difference.

Many people don't approach gamification from a game design point of view; they approach it with the idea that if they add "game mechanics" to their application, they'll increase some kind of metric (like stickiness or user loyalty, or whatever). So right now, for many people, gamification is just a layer you add to make your app more fun. It's superficial.

Serious games, on the other hand, are generally approached as games from day one. When you set out to make a "serious game", you're likely going to be solving a problem with an entirely different mindset. From that point on you can investigate a game design that helps you achieve that, and game mechanics are a natural consideration.


  • PlayGen: Gamification Can Bring A 'Gaming Layer' To Everything We Do, by Phill Cameron of Gamasutra, opens with "gamification has become a buzz word defined, in most, by only the vaguest of terms; a catch-all term that can mean nearly anything, that of applying game mechanics and principles to real life, to the end of... what, exactly?" and then goes on to talk with PlayGen, a serious games company, about the concept.
  • In The Enclosure Problem, prominent game designer Tadhg Kelly states that "ultimately gamification of the type envisioned by proponents like Seth Preibatsch and Gabe Zichermann can’t work". His point centers around the idea that real life is "infinite" whereas games are "finite" and he concludes "Unless gamification designers can figure out ways to bring enclosure back into their designs such that they effectively become actual games rather than an additive layer on top of reality, it’s a problem that’s not going away."
  • Sebastian Deterding's presentation Pawned. Gamification and Its Discontents outlines how services are throwing rewards, achievements, badges etc into their service under the banner of gamification and expecting something. He mentions "as Will Wright once put it, gamification proponents consider game elements to be a kind of monosodium glutamate or crunchy flakes you can just add to any interface, application or service to give it a kick".

Note how each of these references mentions that gamification is about "adding a layer" to existing services. Which is my point.

  • Nice summary. When people talk of 'gamification', they're usually buying into a (questionable) philosophy of "If I bolt on points / some other game feature to my app / site, I will increase this metric / that metric". When people talk of 'serious games', they're usually thinking of a whole problem workflow built around game-like structures. Commented Aug 14, 2011 at 12:57
  • So "serious game" is a more serious approach to the same issue :-) (In contrast to lighthearted "let's just do that")
    – giraff
    Commented Aug 14, 2011 at 13:33
  • 1
    The term 'serious' is a bit of a red herring. Like Rahul says, it's a game first and foremost. It's software designed as a game. Gamification is taking elements of game design an adding them to non-game software.
    – DA01
    Commented Aug 14, 2011 at 15:23
  • So stackoverflow is a serious game, because its reward system was by design?
    – giraff
    Commented Aug 14, 2011 at 16:03
  • 1
    @giraff No, SO is a Q&A site with extrinsic rewards intended to help ascertain quality. The intention wasn't to make it a game, but to give people reasons to write good questions and answers and replace the status quo with a superior quality Q&A network.
    – Rahul
    Commented Aug 14, 2011 at 16:15

They are different concepts. A serious game is a first and foremost a game, in a particular genre, with a serious subject and 'serious' goals (such as teaching workers a certain job procedure). Gamification on the other hand describes a process.

For the piano stairs example, I'd say that gamification is a better fit than serious gaming. What they did there is turn a boring object into something fun, with a feedback mechanism that rewards people when they choose the stairs. But it doesn't teach people how to use the stairs, or educate them about health benefits, and it doesn't help them learn to play the piano either (which are all possible objectives for a serious game).

  • Piano: But it does advertise for VW (well, indirectly), and it does educate (as its goal is to "change behaviour").
    – giraff
    Commented Aug 14, 2011 at 18:13
  • I don't get what you mean by "Gamification describes a process". Could you elaborate on that?
    – giraff
    Commented Aug 14, 2011 at 18:14
  • So gamification is the process of creating a serious game? Commented Aug 14, 2011 at 18:47
  • If you start from something else (could be only a concept or idea, or an existing artefact), and then add game elements to turn it into a game, that's gamification. So yes, you could use gamification to create a serious game (but also for non-serious games).
    – Marielle
    Commented Aug 14, 2011 at 18:58
  • 1
    I agree, just adding some game elements at a superficial level doesn't make a game (and in my opinion shouldn't be called gamification either). If game design methods are used that go beyond the surface, you can end up with a real game experience.
    – Marielle
    Commented Aug 14, 2011 at 19:40

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