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Zynga doesn't do healthcare, but if it did...

…just how successful could we be in motivating people to take responsibility for their own health?

Games controllerUS-owned social network developer Zynga is well renowned for games such as Farmville, Mafia Wars and Words with Friends. What these essentially do is bring about behaviour changes through social networking and fun virtual scenarios. The concept of fulfilling a mission in collaboration with others is a gaming incentive that has proved phenomenally successful with millions of players worldwide (and a net profit last year of over $90m).

But what if it turned its attention to some of the challenges in healthcare? Would it be too big a leap to suggest that Zynga's techniques could motivate people to stay on their drug regimens and change the way we all take responsibility for our own health? We reckon this ostensibly flippant idea deserves some careful consideration.

'Gamification' as an approach is the use of gaming mechanics to change behaviour through a mixture of incentives and rewards that moves a player towards a specific outcome.

The first ingredient is 'positive feedback' on progress with the awarding of points, badges, status etc. Negative feedback mechanisms are seen as less effective as they can discourage people from playing.

Then what's required is a blend of time, mental agility and various game options for the player to complete the desired action. Finally, it's a question of finding the right point and the right trigger to prompt the player to carry out the specific behaviour 'now' rather than later – and to be given a reason to return in the future.

What dreams are made of
Many of these tasks involve carrying out 'hard work', but, with gaming dynamics, these tasks have been designed to be engaging and desirable (a 'good stress' termed 'Eustress' by Reality is Broken author, Jane McGonical) through use of motivational aspects like working and socialising with others, as well having the ability to build your own dream environments and communities.

And this is where healthcare could come in. After all, therapy adherence can be a form of undesirable work and also relies upon the elements of motivation, ability and trigger that are needed to change patient behaviour. Some companies are already exploring this. Last year saw the release of Bayer's DIDGET – a blood glucose reader that connects with Nintendo DS systems and converts blood glucose test results into reward points. These points can be redeemed to unlock new levels and mini-games.

Looking at another aspect of our work – what could the implications be for website design? We know that keeping people interested in our messages can be a problem, but few of us really think about how to challenge and reward visitors for staying with us. While people spend mere minutes on most websites, they'll spend hours on multi-player role-playing games.

Then there's the notion of how individually we take responsibility for our health. With the government imploring us to eat 'five a day' and take 30 minutes exercise five times a week, surely there's an opportunity to introduce personal and social challenges that give us a sense of achievement in an area where actual 'health' payback takes a while longer?

In a few weeks' time, we'll be writing a 'how to' guide in PME on this very subject as we believe it could be huge in healthcare, and we're only now scratching the surface.

Tell us if you know of any similar programmes and how they've fared, or if you have any ideas in a similar vein – and we'll include the best in the guide.

Matthew Hunt - Grey Healthcare Group

The Author

Matthew Hunt is European head of planning at Grey Healthcare Group
Emaill him at

Related links

Gaming for health - preview of the Games for Health Europe conference by Phil Taylor
Gamification in pharma - the potential for gaming technology in pharma

23rd September 2011


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