Sunday, 27 July 2014

Gamification of health

We all know playing games can be fun, and we all know staying healthy is important. (I write this, ironically, as I bite into a doughnut!). Doesn’t it make absolute sense to use the most effective parts of gamification to encourage people to live healthy lives – to eat more healthily, to take exercise, to keep their weight at a healthy level, to reduce anxiety, to ‘play’ their way out of depressive thoughts, to overcome a phobia, to beat those OCD habits, etc. But is that a reality?

“Gaming to Engage the Healthcare Consumer”, published by ICF International defines gamification as “the application of game elements and digital game design techniques to everyday problems such as business dilemmas and social challenges”. They cite the Gartner report, “Gamification: Engagement Strategies for Business and IT”, that by 2015, 50 percent of organizations will be using gamification of some kind, and, in 2016, businesses will spend $2.6 billion on gamification.

The ICF report suggests that the trend towards value-based care, the increasing role of the patient as consumer, and the millennial generation as desirable health insurance customers are driving healthcare organizations to look at gamification. And this is all made possible by the huge number of smartphones and tablets that potential gamers own.

However, the Gartner report’s headline figure was that 80 percent of current gamified applications will fail to meet business objectives primarily due to poor design. They go on to say that: “While game mechanics such as points and badges are the hallmarks of gamification, the real challenge is to design player-centric applications that focus on the motivations and rewards that truly engage players more fully. Game mechanics like points, badges, and leader boards are simply the tools that implement the underlying engagement models.” Keeping players engaged, what they call “stickiness” in the trade, is a big challenge for any company gamifying health.

So, what healthy games are available? According to “From Fitbit to Fitocracy: The Rise of Health Care Gamification” at, UnitedHealth Group has OptumizeMe, an app that lets users engage in fitness-related contests with their friends. They’re also testing Join For Me, an app encouraging obese teenagers at risk of developing diabetes to play video games that require dancing or other physical activities. MeYou Health has a rewards program for people who complete one health-related task per day.

GymPact uses GPS to track its users to the gym. Members meeting their workout goals win cash, which comes from people paying penalties for failing to exercise as promised. Fitbit has wireless tracking devices that sync to smartphones and computers, allowing users to track their fitness activities. Fitocracy is a social network, where people track their workouts, challenge friends to exercise contests, and earn recognition for meeting goals. SuperBetter Labs is beta testing an online social game designed to help people coping with illnesses, injuries, or depression.

Tom Chivers’ blog at lists Runkeeper, Nike Run, and Fitocracy as apps that reward you for taking exercise, with extra points for the numbers of steps taken. There’s DietBet and Skinnyo for weight-loss and calorie counting. Sleep Cycle encourages you to get more and better sleep. He suggests that there are apps to make a game of physiotherapy, apps for people with autism, for people with dyslexia, even for pain management for burns. The NHS in the UK has a BMI calculator app.

And that’s pretty much where we are now. Everyone thinks gamification is a great idea to make mundane activities more fun. But, and this is a big ‘but’, just saying something is gamified doesn’t mean that people will come back and use it again and again. We’ve all got apps on our phones and tablets that seemed like a good idea to download when we downloaded them, and they haven’t been used much since that time. A good games app has to engage people. In addition, people have to get some value out of it, such as better health. It would be nice to think that after using the app people have learned something or modified their behaviour in a positive way. Finding programmers who can make this happen is also a challenge.

If only Angry Birds helped you lose weight, cut down on your alcohol consumption, and take more exercise! But if someone finds a way to achieve that, they are on to a winner that we’ll all benefit from.

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