The road ahead for health games

By Chris Gullo

3-douglas-goldstein-president-iconecto-gaming4healthHealth games have the difficult task ahead of them to be fun, yet taken seriously by physicians, according to a panel held at the mHealth Summit in Washington, D.C. last week. The panel, "The Evolution of Gaming and its Effect on Prevention and Wellness," included Dr Ravi Komatireddy (West Wireless Health Institute), Iana Simeonov (University of California, San Francisco), Debra Lieberman (University of California, Santa Barbara) and Doug Goldstein (

“How many people have mentioned happiness in previous talks [on gaming]? I think it is the missing ingredient for any solution focused on [user] engagement,” Doug Goldstein said in his opening talk. Facebook is so highly valued due to its casual gaming platform, he added, and games are popular for the positive emotions they bring players. “If you aren’t gamifying your app, then don’t ask the question of why people aren’t using it. If it’s not interesting, fun and connecting people with other people while solving a fundamental problem, then the answer is clear. This is what people are doing."

"Mobile games have tremendous advantages in that they’re always with you, they’re networked, they have so many sensors already built in and it’s possible to add more," Debra Lieberman said during her speech on gaming research. "It’s a game to be you -- you are the game. It's a way for you to be out in the real world, with your game being supported by technology." Lieberman mentioned one of the University of California's grant recipients creating an app that uses a smartphone's camera to track food intake and have it rated by others (a very similar concept to Massive Health's app The Eatery), and a Japanese app that has users walking to real-world locations to win virtual rewards. "We all know what we need to do to be healthy, but a lot of us feel we it’s not possible," she added. "But by rehearsing skills in a game, you can develop that self-efficacy and change your behavior more easily."

Dr Ravi Komatireddy's speech examined health games from the clinicians perspective. There are four main issues in physician adoption: efficacy, applicability, perception, and guidance. Efficacy received a positive nod, with Komatireddy noting work done so far by researchers like Lieberman in proving the effectiveness of health games. Despite this, there are still hurdles to overcome. "In healthcare, we’re slow. We’re like toddlers, we like to break things, we’re skeptical, and we’re really slow to change," he said. "Some of the responses we get from clinicians [about games for health] are: 'Isn't this silly? Is this really applicable to my patients?', even though there’s lots of supporting [efficacy] data and everyone’s got mobile phones."

Komatireddy then spoke on gaming's perception by doctors, nurses, and other providers, and proposed a new name for this category of health apps. "Names are really important. Perception is important. [You have to ask yourself], is it something they’re going to take seriously since it’s got the word game in it? Can we take the underlying principles of why it works, the gamification layer, and package it differently so that it’s accepted into the clinician world? So that they see it as ‘Yes, it’s a game, but it’s not a game. It’s serious, it helps people.'”

Finally, Komatireddy spoke on guidance and how games would integrated into medical curriculum. "Where’s the how to manual for games for health? As a physician talking to a patient, what do I tell them to go play? Do I prescribe it, or does my nurse do it? What if that game shows improved performance in tracking diabetes? Is someone supposed to get a hold of [the patient]? Is that information dangerous? These are the questions that come up in the clinical world. I’m a believer; I want to use this stuff. But how do you assure me that those problems won’t exist?"

To read more about mobile games for health, check out MobiHealthNews's complimentary report, Mobile Social and Fun: Games For Health, authored by independent analyst Bonnie Feldman which covers much of the activity going on in the mobile-enabled games for health space.