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The game changer: Gaming in healthcare

How gaming can affect health, from improving lifestyle habits and behaviour modification, to self-management, through to motivating and supporting physical activity


Games are also increasingly used to train healthcare professionals in methods for diagnosis, medical procedures, patient monitoring, as well as for responding to epidemics and natural disasters.

In 2009, Rich Hilleman, chief creative officer of Electronic Arts, said: "I would like to be in a business where my game is prescribed by doctors – like Bayer Aspirin was to my dad after his stroke."

Playing the game

During my time as managing director of Digitas Health, I have come to understand pharma must look to engage with healthcare professionals (HCPs) outside the traditional owned and paid for media of websites and advertising and into the 'earned' space of social media.

Game mechanics have been a successful teaching aid for many years, from flight-training simulations to a three-dimensional anatomy programmes.

Gaming strategies are increasingly relevant to the way in which brands can influence consumer behaviour across health education, physical therapy, disease management, rehab, training and nutrition.

The neuroscience behind simulation games has already had an influential impact on improving the way that healthcare interacts with HCP and in turn, how HCP communicate information to patients and colleagues.

The rise of digital offers unparalleled opportunities for pharma to manage its changing relationship with HCPs and patients, as shown by the growing research that supports the adherence values delivered by a gaming approach.

Gamification is an exciting evolution, not just in nutrition, weight management and obesity but, across a much wider and more complex range of chronic conditions.

Feel good factor

Former neuroscientist, Adrian Hon created the app Zombie Run! as a running game, designed to get people exercising and improving their fitness levels. The story, the rewards and the level of engagement increase with the frequency of exercise. Through interaction and excitement, Hon argues that gaming fulfils a genuine human need.

Addressing the audience at Think Digital 2012, an event produced by Digitas Health focusing on digital marketing in pharma, Hon, CEO and founder of Six to Start, said: "If you've ever needed some added motivation to get running, try the fear of an untimely and horribly gruesome death. Zombie Run! is a cool example of how to turn your exercise routine into a game of survival. The motivation to run improves if you are trying to escape a pack of brain-hungry zombies."

The possibility of a gruesome death is enough to get anyone's legs moving, points out Hon. Drawing on positive psychology, cognitive science, and sociology, he demonstrated the ways in which game designers leverage the collaborative and motivational power of how people play games across a broad range of social issues.

The benefits of playing games are what positive psychologists call intrinsic rewards. “We don't play games to make money, improve our social status, or achieve any external signposts of success. We play games to feel good, productive and enjoy a clear set of goals and sense of purpose,” explains Hon.

Learning the rules

He believes that there are four key traits within gaming that influence behaviour and that can be applied to healthcare: 

1) The goal – achieving a specific outcome that focuses attention, guides progress and gives the patient a strong sense of purpose

2) Rules - place limitations on how players can achieve the goals, which drives the player/patient to think out of the box to be more creative and strategic

3) Points – progress monitoring encourages and motivates a player to achieve their goal and allows them to believe that the goal is achievable

4) Voluntary participation – everyone who is playing the game knowingly and willingly accepts the goals.

Hon's guidelines are important because they help differentiate health games from simulation and other computer-based activities that lack specific goals, rules, and a feedback mechanism such as a score.

Hon believes that Pharma should be using the lessons of game design to help fix healthcare problems, but is concerned about the speed at which this highly regulated industry with its extensive approval times is able to move.

Keeping pace

Brain Kelly, a regulatory lawyer with Covington and Burling Regulatory Compliance, urges the Pharma industry to be braver. Unlike the gaming industry, Pharma is not known for its speed to market. But handled the right way, the regulatory system should not slow down the development and launch to market for a mobile app or game.

"There are a number of regulatory hurdles and challenges. However, those challenges are usually surmountable or at least can be managed," explained Kelly.

"In some instances, it simply means adapting a classic regulatory mind-set to new contexts, like social media, mobile apps and the Internet.

"However, in practice, pharmaceutical companies find it difficult to move into these markets quickly. Speed to market is always in years not months, which means that a number of initiatives may well be out of date, which could lead to disappointment."

Experimental game

Boehringer's Syrum, the first Facebook game created by the Pharma industry, came to market this autumn (Beta version). It is the brainchild of John Pugh, Boehringer' s director of digital, who said the pharmaceutical industry needs games and it needs to learn how to inject more 'fun' into its communications programmes.

"Farmville doesn't just appeal to people who like farms and, Syrum isn't just designed for people who like the pharmaceutical industry. It's for anyone to play," said Pugh.

Syrum lets players run a fictional drug company and educates them about the pharma business in the process. It is a version of Facebook's Farmville crossed with the Japanese game Pokémon and its objective is nothing short of saving the world, one disease at a time, by harvesting molecules and then using them as trading cards to play against diseases.

A player must first investigate molecular compounds at a research desk before putting them to the test in the laboratory, taking part in clinical trials, learning about the process involved in patent applications and, if successful, advance a treatment to market.

Rules of engagement

Pugh has championed Syrum in a bid to help people experience and understand the challengers the pharmaceutical industry has to face.  He acknowledges social media is a tough nut to crack for pharma, but believes the industry must move forward in the way it engages with stakeholders.

"Boehringer places strong emphasis on target audience engagement despite this being a notorious challenge within our industry," explained Pugh.

"What really sparked my interest in the potential of gaming is that a lot of what we do in pharma is around educating and teaching people; whether that's teaching doctors about specific products, educating the general public and patients about diseases and healthy ways to live, or teaching people how to take their medication.

"Gaming seems to be a useful way and effective way for us to do that. I basically began the journey to try and work out what I could do in gaming that wasn't an arcade or platform-based game, but was something a bit more immersive."

Syrum has been in development for at least two years. At the beginning, Boehringer called in lots of experts from different industries, different locations in different countries all with different skill sets.

"We had various leaders, from specialised futurologists to branding experts, from pharma people to gaming people, and even young entrepreneurs who'd made a million dollars by the age of 17.

"This team really worked together to create a vision of the future and one of the strong things that came through was the influence of gaming and gamification," Pugh said.

Moving forward

Boehringer is using this platform to deliver its long-term message about how difficult it can be to research and develop drugs, potentially making the public more sympathetic to the process and costs involved.

While pharma continues to broaden its digital horizons, specifically through the use of gaming as a means of engaging an online audience, there is still a distinct lack of consistent regulatory guidance on how it should behave online. And as more companies enter into the online community, perhaps the future will bring industry self-regulation to help shape how we all behave in this space.


June Dawson is the managing director at Digitas Health and can be contacted at

19th February 2013

From: Marketing



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