The Sims 3 logo

The Sims 3 is one of the most popular simulation games on the market.

There’s been no shortage of articles on gaming and education this month, and today’s pick is a piece I found on MindShift about the difference between gaming and gamification. In it, Frank Catalano tackles the often ambiguous terminology which surrounds teaching games. Being able to use terminology to identify a game is important since, according to Catalano, “everything game-like is not a game.”

The artice highlights three different terms which can be used to describe teaching games. Gamification refers to making a game out of something which isn’t designed to be a game. For example, many companies will reward customers with badges or points when they purchase products. It’s the company’s way of saying thank you to their customers, and it provides a nice incentive to shop with them again.


Incentives like medals and badges keep players (and customers) coming back for more.

Simulation is the next major category, and this one is pretty straight-forward. Games like The Sims or SimCity recreate scenarios which players will manipulate in order to achieve a desired result. Depending on your play style, the fate of your Sims can be either good or bad, but in the process, you learn something about managing your Simoleons (or money, in the real world), juggling multiple careers, and cultivating diverse relationships with people in your neighborhood.

Granted, all of these lessons are buried far beneath the surface of The Sims, so you may not be aware you are learning anything at all. But there are educational simulations out there which are currently teaching students in a more practical sense about the environment, resource management, and professional development.

The Sims store

With groceries to buy and bills to pay, Sims need to spend their money wisely.

The last category is entitled (Simply) Games. These are educational titles which self-identify as games and are designed to teach. They usually rely on some sort of reward system, and there is an end goal of “winning” when you play. In my opinion, this category of games has the potential to be the most fruitful since it fully encompasses all of the mechanics which make gaming great. The downside, of course, is that these titles may become so “game-like” that students cease learning and regard them as nothing more than the stack of Wii discs sitting by their TV.

This brings me to my final thought, which is that the most enriching experiences I’ve had with video games haven’t come from games which were labeled “educational.” To me, games are at their best when they make you realize you are learning as an afterthought. Over the years, I’ve been quietly takes notes on how video games have had a positive impact on my life. They’ve helped me improve my hand-eye coordination, critical thinking, and problem solving skills.

When I was recently taking a course about website design, The Sims 3 was my go-to place for trying out what I had learned about C.R.A.P. (contrast, repetition, alignment, proximity). In my opinion, looking at a video game and independently finding its value– that is to say, identifying how it works for you, and not necessarily the market at large– is one of the best things you can do for yourself when you play.