Social Games and Gamification: What’s the Difference?

This is a guest post by Keith Smith, CEO and Co-Founder of BigDoor

Often the terms “social games” and “gamification” are used interchangeably, but in actuality they’re very different animals. While it’s true that gamification borrows its game mechanics from social gaming, there are many real-world situations where it makes more sense to apply gamification instead of building an entire game. First, let’s take a look at a definition of each concept:

Social games are built on a social media platform like Facebook or Google+. Casual in nature, they can be picked up or dropped at a moment’s notice and are designed to engage the player’s social network of friends. Games like CityVille, Hidden Chronicles, and Words with Friends are popular examples.

Gamification is the process of using game mechanics in a non-game context. This can be anything from health and fitness, to employee motivation, to simply engaging customers that use your website or app. Two popular examples of gamification include Foursquare and

How they’re alike

Before I talk about the differences between social games and gamification, let’s discuss their similarities.

Players win achievements

You don’t need to play CityVille for very long to see it’s centered around achievements. As you play, you’re constantly earning points, virtual currency, and leveling up. And don’t forget the long-term achievements like becoming the mayor of your town or building a bakery and a post office.

Like CityVille, gamification offers rewards for desired behavior. This can be anything from winning a virtual trophy for achieving a financial or health goal to earning points and virtual currency for viewing and sharing content on a website.

Players keep coming back

Social games have certain mechanisms to keep players coming back again and again. With Words with Friends, your friends can challenge you to a new game. In CityVille, you need to keep returning to make sure your crops don’t wither and to collect money from your businesses.

Gamification is also good at maintaining user loyalty because it uses the same game mechanics to draw users back again and again. For example, if you’re using a gamified app like Fleetly, you’ll want to continually return to the app to track your fitness stats and see your progress on the leaderboards.

Players share and recruit

One of the reasons social gaming is so successful is that recruitment is built directly into the game. As you play, you’re constantly asked to share your achievements or to ask friends for help.

Gamification taps into the player’s social network as well. With Dropbox, if you invite a friend to the service and they sign up, you’re both rewarded with additional storage space.


How they’re different

So you can see how social gaming and gamification are similar, but gamification adds value beyond entertainment and can be used to make a difference in the real world. Here are a few examples:

Achieve personal goals

Gamification can be used to motivate and drive important life changes and healthy habits in those who use it. Once example is HealthMonth (and now Budge), a site dedicated to helping you set and meet your healthy lifestyle goals. It uses game mechanics like points and badges to motivate you and the support of your social network to keep you on track.

Nike+ helps you achieve your fitness goals by using game mechanics like cheering and tagging. During your run, you will hear a cheer every time a Facebook friend clicks the Like button on your run post. You can even tag a friend and send trash talk directly to their home screen until they complete their run and tag someone else (probably you).

Build brand awareness and engagement

While marketing and advertising are still important ways to get the word out about your business, gamification can also be used to engage customers with your brand or website. Recently, at the DellWorld conference Dell used the concept of Journeys to guide participants around the conference and to learn about new technologies. They then used the data collected from the Journeys to follow up with customers and offer them access to experts in their area of interest.

Another example is Savannah Morning News, an online newspaper that takes readers on guided quests around the site to expose them to new content and reward them for sharing with their social network.

Protect the environment

One emerging trend is using gamification to monitor your energy use and compare it to your friends and neighbors. With apps like SimpleEnergy you can compete with your friends to see who can save the most energy while earning points and badges. This essentially turns energy conservation into a fun and easy way to pass the time.

There are even gamification programs built into cars like the Chevy Volt that help you save gas and battery power with a simple game that motivates you drive more efficiently.

Motivate employees

While still a relatively new way to use gamification, a few companies like NextJump are implementing health gamification systems to encourage employees to stay happy and healthy. Employees compete with one another in attendance-based activities, eventually earning health points that can be applied to their corporateperks account.

Other gamification systems engage workers in their daily tasks. This might be call center software that encourages employees to keep calls short and collect customer data, or it could be a check out program like the Target cashier game that measures checkout speed and awards points and levels.


So you can see that social games and gamification are similar in many ways and different in others. While social games are a lot of fun to play and pass the time, they’re just that. Entertainment. With gamification, there are so many real-world tasks that can be made a lot more fun. And what I’ve mentioned here is only the tip of the iceberg, there are a host of real-world uses for gamification that have yet to be discovered.