Health Technology, Gamification, and Game Mechanics – Win or Fail?

Health Technology, Gamification and Game Mechanics

Gamification and game mechanics have been introduced into the health care arena to help engage and motivate us. Taking advantage of basic human psychology, these techniques play on a person’s desire to win. Competition-based and socially focused initiatives can be easily combined with mobile apps as well as activity challenges and are being readily embraced by organizations and individuals alike.

Neatly packaged as fun and sparking a competitive spirit, programs that incorporate game mechanics often come equipped with communication tools to compete against other users and feature points, levels and leaderboards that allow for comparisons between different people and/or teams.

They tap into the human yearning to feel a sense of pride and achievement and offer an opportunity to receive approval and praise from others. In short, gamification takes advantage of our natural affinity to compete and aims to use this to inspire and direct people toward healthier behaviors.

But do the gaming strategies really work? And what is their long-term legacy?

Games for a Healthy Workforce

According to a survey report by Towers Watson, in 2013, sponsoring competition among employee groups topped the list of tactics used by companies to encourage participation in their wellness programs. This was followed by sponsoring affinity groups (running groups, support groups, healthy family activities) and promoting the use of mobile apps. It seems that organizations firmly believe co-opetition — a neologism referring to cooperative competition — will bring results and keep workers fit and healthy.

However, according to some studies in the field of behavioral science, attempts to gamify health and wellness do not always bring the desired results. The problem is that gamification only drives motivation in a superficial way, and its effect is fleeting after the “game” is over. Some argue that other psychological factors need to be considered if this approach is to bring long-term success.

For example, considering what the participants really value and allowing for flexibility in earning incentives should be incorporated into the program as well.

Gamification and Patient Self-management

Effective chronic disease management relies on patient awareness and self-care. Gamification applied with mobile health applications is now also being explored as a way to facilitate patients’ self-management. In type 1 and type 2 diabetes, digital games are being used as a part of health interventions. Gamifying behavior change can help different groups of people, especially children and adolescents, cope better with the disease and change their lifestyle to support healthy choices. The Heart Foundation has begun to using gamification in a bid to better engage their users with the hope of achieving behavioral changes that are generally difficult to promote.

Chasing Superiority Can Lead to Unhappiness

Many prominent psychologists point out that competing and comparing can disconnect people and lead to envy and excessive materialism, which will eventually make a person unhappy.

Tom Gilovich, a professor of psychology at Cornell University, explains that dominating others and trying to be better than them causes a feeling of separation, which is unlikely to help contribute to a sense of well-being.

The approach that will more likely end up successful is helping others without expecting anything in return, as illustrated by Adam Grant, Wharton’s youngest tenured professor, in his book “Give and Take.” Although people who constantly give can burn out, those that give strategically are more likely to thrive. The science of positive psychology and happiness points away from competition and co-opetition and towards building connections, helping each other and pursuing what aligns with your personal sense of purpose.

Furthermore, introducing badges, point systems, leaderboards, challenges, and quests is not going to automatically draw people into healthy behavior or make them stick to a program. It appears gamification has its place and can help motivate people in certain situations. However, commitment and careful thought are required to utilize their potential in a sustainable and health-promoting way when using game mechanics as strategy in behavior change design.

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