How gamification strategies can make a difference in Healthcare
You may not even be aware of it, but gamification is probably part of your daily life. Do you have a fitness tracker giving you shiny virtual medals if you go running? Have you ever filled in your profile on a website and got “80% complete, please tell us more to earn a Pro badge”? These are prime examples of gamification, the use of reward mechanisms typically found in online games. Game designers spend a lot of time thinking about how to keep things interesting, and they have gotten fiendishly good at creating all these little hooks and triggers that make us want to splash out on extra lives or boosters.
So what is it that makes good games so addictive?
As it turns out, the ego boost we get from advancing a level or mastering a difficult challenge has a very tangible biochemical side to it: Dopamine release. That’s the same stuff flooding our brains when we have chocolate, sex or ice cream. As one psychological study puts it, rather dramatically: “The same neural pathways in the brain that reinforce dependence on substances can strengthen compulsive technology behaviors that are just as addictive and potentially destructive.” Ouch.
First, we should probably remind ourselves that just about any pleasure also has the potential to become addictive — food, shopping, television, you name it. Let’s instead look at the more positive applications of sensory-driven dopamine release, sometimes also referred to as “fun.”
We’re all familiar with the carrot-and-stick expression, in other words, the concept of rewarding someone for a particular behavior (let’s forget about the stick here). Why do we do this? In parenting for example, hopefully, we have the child’s best interest at heart. Since a child may not understand the long-term benefits of certain types of behavior, we provide a short-term incentive to make the lesson stick.
Even as adults, though, our decision-making processes can sometimes be a bit on the irrational side. We are fully aware of the long-term consequences of smoking for example, and yet it is a difficult habit to break. Losing weight is another one of those notorious challenges. In fact, almost any kind of personal change is an uphill struggle, because our head is telling us about a benefit at some point in the distant future, while our gut is signaling us immediate discomfort.
This is true even when the stakes are high:
Managing diabetes for example.
People with diabetes are required to frequently monitor their blood sugar level and keep a painstakingly accurate log of insulin levels, meals, medication, physical activity… For most diabetics, this is a very stressful disruption of their daily lives — in fact, it can even lead to something commonly known as “diabetes burnout.”
The WHO predicts that by 2030, diabetes will be the 7th leading cause of death. Pretty scary. So maybe it’s time to take an unconventional approach and bring together “docs and devs.” True, there are several apps for diabetes management already, but hardly any of them make compelling use of gamification. Perhaps one reason is that those in the healthcare sector may know everything about diabetes, but little about gaming. And the most successful gaming studios have so far shown little interest in liaising with the medical profession.
But with lifestyle diseases being the number one killer in more and more countries around the world, surely the business case becomes increasingly attractive. Just imagine the makers of Candy Crush bringing their considerable expertise to bear on this issue. If they could make a healthcare app even remotely as entertaining as one of their games, we might end up with a Quit-Smoking-App that is more addictive than smoking itself — and without the nasty side effects!