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The Gamification of Wellness

For a full 80% of the population who don’t exercise – it’s just not fun! Hey, for some of us dutifully heading to our workouts – is that why we call them “work?”  As gamification intersects every aspect of life, wellness can get into the “game” as well.

Companies are realizing that “gamification” — using the same mechanics that hook gamers — is an effective way to engage people.

Since the advent of videogames, skeptics have questioned their inherent value: why do players spend hours accruing virtual points working towards intangible rewards?

Chalk it up to basic human behavior, which game makers have been trying to understand and appeal to for decades. The more effective a game resonates with users, the better its sales. The developer’s goal is to design a structure and system of rules in which players will a) enjoy the process or journey, and b) create a sense of added value. As gamers and developers have found, a fun process coupled with a system for incentives or rewards for a job well done can become downright addictive.

Too often a social media or marketing guru armed with “gamification” aspirations will try to  employ game-like mechanisms to provide  a sense that customers/audience is having fun while working towards a rewards-based goal. In doing so, they hope the added value will enable and reinforce positive behavioral change across a wide spectrum of non-game-related issues — healthcare, finance, philanthropy, general lifestyle – and to our key interest: wellness. It takes a rare set of gamification-design skills to get the process right.  At HCD we are flexible enough to identify the needs of our client communities and wellness sponsors (from insurers to food manufacturers to grocery chains) and then bring in the experts with the best track record of software, engagement and game/reward mechanics.

Proponents of “gamification” consider conventional incentive-based mechanics to be flawed, broken, or skewed. In healthcare, some employers and health plans have tried to drive down prescription drug costs by raising copayment fees and thereby “encouraging” members to use cheaper drugs. Certainly these companies are incentivizing, but for all the wrong reasons. They’re about cost efficiency instead of making people healthier and addressing problems like actual participation in physical activity.

Looking at gaming in order to re-frame the incentive structure and getting people to change their behavior to support the desired change is something we need in order for the system to be healthier.”

Profiting from workout goals. When Nike released Nike + in 2008, it “gamified” exercise. Place the pedometer in a pair of (Nike) sneaks and it monitors distance, pace and calories burned, transmitting that data to the user’s iPod. The Nike software loaded on the iPod will then “reward” users if they reach a milestone. If a runner beats his 5-mile distance record, an audio clip from Tour de France cycling champ Lance Armstrong congratulates him. Users can also upload their information online, discuss achievements with other users, and challenge them to distance or speed competitions. To date, Nike has moved well over 1.3 million Nike + units.

The ultimate education contest. In July of 2009, President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced Race to the Top, a $4.35 billion points-based grant program from the Department of Education designed to encourage education reform on state and local levels. Each state application is worth a maximum total of 500 points, based on criteria like teacher effectiveness, turnaround of lowest-achieving schools and the use of data to improve instruction. States with the highest points are eligible for portions of the $4.35 billion funding. During the first round of winners in March, Tennessee and Delaware won the first round: Tennessee walked away with $500 million and Delaware won $100 million.

Once effectively implemented, “gamified”  programs and products prove that people respond positively to this new level of engagement. Unlike in most games where there’s only one winner, successfully gamified programs will result in a win-win situation, both for the company and the consumer.

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