Gamification vs. Game-Based Learning. What are they, how are they different, and which approach does THYNK use?

“Let’s see who can finish the book the fastest! Those who finish in first, second, and third place will win a prize. You will be able to see the winners on the board at the front of the room!”

The above is an example of an instructor gamifying a pre-existing task or assignment (such as finishing a book) in order to spark engagement and motivation among students. Gamification is the process of utilizing game elements, such as points, badges, leaderboards, and rewards, into non-game contexts (e.g., reading a book, completing a math problem, or finishing a corporate training) to motivate and engage participants. While gamification does not involve designing a full game, it borrows elements from games, such as competition and collaboration, to enhance the overall experience and learning. It considers what we know about psychological motivation and extrinsic rewards to promote certain behaviors. With that said, not all elements of gamification are treated equally. For example, competition has been shown to be an effective gamification technique while collaborative gamification has not been shown to promote learning (Ho et al., 2021).

But what about games that are designed to target an ability or a set of skills? These games incorporate an approach called game-based learning which takes advantage of the engaging nature of video games to facilitate learning. Video games are a powerful medium of learning because children most naturally learn through play. Unlike gamification which takes advantage of the power of extrinsic rewards on motivation (e.g., “look at this shiny sticker I get for completing this task!”), game-based learning relies on a concept called intrinsic learning. With this approach, the player is intrinsically motivated to excel and master new skills without external pressure or the need for external rewards. People play games because they intrinsically want to and because it is fun. There are a myriad of reasons why game-based learning is effective: 1) Game and Learning Mechanics, 2) Immersion, 3) Narrative and Characters, 4) Difficulty Tiering, and 5) Process-Oriented Badges. Below, I explain each of these concepts and how Skylar’s Run draws on each in order to create an engaging and effective learning environment. 

Skylar’s Run, an offering by THYNK Inc, is an example of a platform that utilizes a game-based learning approach. Skylar’s Run is a video game (combined with an integrated EEG headset) that is specifically designed to promote attention and 13 key cognitive skills that are needed for success inside and outside of the classroom. Learn more about these 13 cognitive skills here. 

Game and Learning Mechanics: Effective game-based learning platforms carefully map actions that the player carries out in the game (i.e., game mechanics) to each learning skill the game is targeting (i.e., learning mechanics). This allows the player to focus on relevant stimuli and minimizes distraction towards irrelevant stimuli (Mayer, 2019). In Skylar’s Run, each action in the game is mapped directly onto one of the 13 cognitive skills. For example, the game mechanic of making Skylar run maps directly onto the focused and sustained attention learning mechanics. Focusing on only zapping smogbots that match the color and shape found in the target scanner and inhibiting yourself from zapping smogbots that do not match the target scanner maps onto behavioral inhibition and selective attention learning mechanics. Unlike gamification techniques that may include giving a star to a player when they complete a level, each game mechanic serves a purpose. 

Immersion: One of the reasons that video games can be so engaging is because they simulate scenarios that are similar to those in the real-world thus providing an immersive experience. In Skylar’s Run, the player is taken through various environments that simulate the desert, city, and jungle. There is also a lab environment where the player can transfer their skills that they learned in the runner to a new environment. Check back on our website for an upcoming blog on how Skylar’s Run allows for near and far transfer of skills. 

Narrative and Characters: Many game-based learning approaches incorporate a storyline, narrative, characters, or plotlines to engage learners and make the experience more compelling. In fact, research on emotional design has shown how narrative, sound effects, color, and shapes can increase emotions which then serve to promote motivation and learning. Skylar’s Run draws on these approaches by designing a captivating story about a kid named Skylar who is tasked with saving the Shaliens on the remote planet of Geoshale. Skylar has to save the Shaliens by “clearing the fog”. The only way they can do this is by increasing their attention levels. The more they pay attention, the more the fog clears away. The presence of certain characters in Skylar’s Run also serves to directly promote the cognitive skill of inner voice. Characters named Wyll and Belen both serve as mentors in Skylar’s Run. Wyll and Belen are very present in the beginning missions as the player works on cultivating their own inner voice. As the player progresses through the missions and as their inner voice develops, Wyll and Belen's presence gradually decreases. The idea is that by the end of the training, the player does not need a mentor to guide them through challenges and can instead use their own inner voice to achieve success. 

Difficulty Tiering: In game-based learning platforms, learning is often structured in levels or stages, motivating learners to advance and achieve mastery. These games challenge the player just above their ability level in real time which promotes interest and continued playing of the game while decreasing the likelihood of the frustration that occurs in more traditional learning environments. Using dynamic modeling, Skylar’s Run adjusts the difficulty based on the child’s ability to focus, making it a personalized level of challenge.  It is the real time feedback that allows the game to meet the child where they are at. It challenges the player just enough so that they are motivated to keep playing.

Achievements: In-game achievements such as badges and ranks can also serve to promote engagement and may exist in both gamified and game-based learning environments. Badges can be awarded to a player when they achieve a milestone or goal. They are usually accompanied by captivating artwork and a creative name. With that said, not all badges are treated equally. Badges can be either summative or process oriented. A badge that is summative informs the player about a completed achievement at the end of the mission, level, or game. For example, if you collect 100 crystals in a level, you may earn “crystal catcher” at the end of a mission. Since summative badges are not awarded until the end of an activity, the player cannot use this feedback to change future behavior. On the other hand, process oriented badges guide and alter learning. They can serve to provide feedback in real time for the player so that they can utilize that information to change their behavior. Skylar’s Run incorporates both summative and process-oriented badges. An example of a process-oriented badge in Skylar’s Run is our “Unselfish” badge. This badge is awarded during a mission when a player opts to ignore a crystal on the path and instead chooses to zap a bot. While crystals are fun and sparkly, the player learns over time that the bots and not the crystals are what gives Skylar the power he needs to pass the mission. By gaining an “Unselfish” badge, the player learns about the significance of zapping a bot and ignoring a crystal and therefore is more likely to continue this behavior throughout the rest of the missions. 

Gamification and game-based learning approaches can be effective for learning if they are designed appropriately. If they are not utilized effectively, they only serve as a distraction causing increases in cognitive load. Skylar’s Run utilizes a game-based learning environment to first train the fundamentals of attention and then train higher order cognitive skills. 


Plass, J. L., & Homer, B. D. (2020). Designing digital badges for educational games: The impact of badge type on student motivation and learning. In Learning and performance assessment: Concepts, methodologies, tools, and applications (pp. 1349-1369). IGI Global.

Mayer, R. E. (2019). Computer games in education. Annual review of psychology, 70, 531-549.