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Healthy gaming

Could gaming be the next opportunity to engage people in health issues?

Healthy gamingEver played a game on the internet, your phone, your TV or a games console? Chances are you have and chances are you still do. Gaming is an increasing part of our everyday lives, more often than not for pleasure as well as for the natural brain stimulation around reordering shapes, letters and numbers. However, more so now than ever, gaming could have an influential role to play in the life cycle of engagement with people around health issues. But gaming is only for kids isn't it? Far from it.

Casual gaming has opened doors
The majority of adults in the US now play games (mainly web-based) and, in the UK, a third of all adults call themselves "gamers". Women are also now close to making up half of adult game players, with the over 50s gaining momentum – driven by the emergence of casual gaming.

Statistics like these totally change the landscape and relevance of gaming, but how is this applicable to health issues? We're constantly reminded about the negative effects that gaming can have on behaviour, but shouldn't we explore and embrace the notion that, when it comes to health, game play could have a positive influence on a patient's attitude and behaviour? Such involvement could range from simple in-game advertising, a more integral presence within a game, through to games focused solely on health-related solutions. What could this look like in practice? 

Back in Play features a new web-based game developed by Pfizer to raise awareness of ankylosing spondylitis (AS – that's arthritis of the spine). Based on football 'throw-ins', which require skill but also back strength and flexibility (physical attributes that AS could diminish), it combines game play with symptom awareness and education.

What is key here is that the football component is the filter to reach 18-40 year-old men – a 'difficult to reach' but at-risk group. Launched prior to the World Cup in June, it was played 1.6 million times within the first eight weeks with 10 per cent of players going on to seek more information about AS on the Back in Play website.

But the role of gaming doesn't stop there. Re-Mission is a third-person shooter game shown to improve medication adherence, self-efficacy and condition knowledge in young adults undergoing cancer therapy. What's more, its effects have been proven in a randomised clinical trial (PM Kato et al. Pediatrics 2008).

This study is a fascinating insight into the challenging area of adherence where numerous approaches have been tried but have failed in the past.

Many efforts have focused on scheduled, dictatorial reminders to take your meds, but what if the reminder/confirmation of consumption was built into a game where the benefits and consequences were clear, resulting in access to more game levels/content? Additionally, with the proliferation of mobile phones with built-in GPS, speaker, microphone and applications, not only can we interact with patients at their convenience but we can also track, collate and gather information never previously available.

This more inclusive, motivating and rewarding approach may actually shift attitudes rather than elicit a transient change in behaviour.

So should we be building health games for everyone all the time? Not at all. But by understanding the audience and objectives the best solution can be applied. Gaming may not be the answer in isolation but evidence is emerging to suggest it may have a key role to play in healthcare.

Caroline Howe and Simon StebbingThe Authors
Caroline Howe
is managing partner at OgilvyHealthworld Digital and Simon Stebbing is managing director at OgilvyAction Digital
They can be contacted and 



This article was first published in PME November/December 2010 as part of the Thought Leader series.

To comment on this article, email

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20th December 2010


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