20/09/2016 09:27 BST | Updated 20/09/2017 06:12 BST

Can You Gamify Health?

Have you ever made a resolution to acquire a healthier lifestyle by changing your behaviour? Whether you wanted to be less stressed, cut out junk food, or stop smoking, you probably defined some simple rules and rewards to influence your behaviour and hopefully achieve that goal. When you applied those rules, you were in fact practicing "gamification", the process of applying game mechanics to a real-life situation in order to generate a desired outcome. Unfortunately, you didn't have the resources to turn those ideas into an exciting app.

Nonetheless, gamification is destined for a bright future in many areas. Thanks to the emergence of 3D video and virtual reality applications that engage participants and to the ubiquity of smartphones and tablets, it is possible to get large numbers of people to play these games. And while it is more complex to demonstrate the added value of certain digital tools, by their quantitative nature, games lend themselves to the evaluation of their effectiveness.

So, physicians and other healthcare providers are beginning to ask how they can use gamification tools to help their patients engage in a healthy lifestyle, take their medications as directed, and even to feel less pain thanks to the distraction that a great game can create. In turn, pharmaceutical companies see gamification as a way to make patient education more effective and more measurable and to increase the patient's greater respect of their course of treatment.

At a recent international medical conference in Paris, organised with the support of Ferring Pharmaceuticals, participating physicians met with gamification experts from Europe, the United States, and Israel. Professor Eli Hershkovitz of Ben-Gurion University, Beer-Sheva, Israel explained the neurosciences behind gamification, "The more rewarding the environment, the better our memory and the more easily we learn. Hence an individual placed in a gamified scenario can achieve more than through self-learning."

Professor Maged Kamel Boulos, Chair of Digital Health at the University of the Highlands and Islands in Scotland, is an expert on the development and evaluation of serious games for health. "It's quite exciting to be involved in gamification at this time. We are beginning to amass a diversified set of examples of effective games. Monster Manor is one recent example. This game for children with type 1 diabetes involves them winning virtual coins (to be used for in-game progress) whenever they measure their blood glucose. Children performed more measurements with the game than without and continued to play the game over time. And at the other end of the age spectrum, there are interesting studies showing how for people with dementia a 'cybercycling' exergame (exercise game) results in better cognitive function than traditional exercise alone."


Meeting Professor Maged K. Boulos in Paris to talk about health gamification

As a digital health expert, I have observed that unfortunately not many apps designed by people in the health sector have scaled up. Yet after the recent success of Pokémon GO in getting people out of the home and walking for lengthy periods, we have proof that an engaging gamified mobile app could change exercise behaviour on a massive scale. If you get the aesthetics and the experience right, people who are not usually very active will use it to go out walking. And prior to Pokémon GO, during the #ALSIceBucketChallenge, people around the world happily agreed to throw a bucket of ice over their own head and then donate to a charity; demonstrating that so many people are motivated to act if they believe that their action will help improve the lives of others.


Joining in with the #ALSIceBucketChallenge back in 2014

So, for those of you who have behaviours you'd like to change, don't forget to make time for play!