Health games still waiting for a runaway hit

By: Jonah Comstock | Jun 26, 2013        

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Ben Sawyer games for health 2013This year marks the ninth Games For Health conference, an event which has long paid particular attention to mobile health gaming. But Ben Sawyer, the event’s organizer and arguably the biggest name in health gaming, says the mobile health gaming industry is “still in pre-season.”

“The software’s evolving, but no one seems to be running away with anything,” Sawyer said in the opening address of the conference. “There’s no amazing, super-amazing mobile health game that is just the beacon upon which to foster activity.”

But Sawyer believes a number of trends in mobile and gaming are leading the nascent health gaming industry to that point. One of the biggest, he said, is the ascendancy of tablets, particularly as they displace not the smartphone, but the PC. This shift necessitates a distinction between mobile gaming — which integrates mobility as part of the gaming experience — and games which happen to be run from a tablet.

“From a health standpoint, and looking at experimentation and innovation we still need to be thinking about what is different about adding a device that can sense movement, that can sense light, that is always with you, that also has a camera,” he said. “As tablets become such a focus it’s more about replacing a desktop experience, and less about the accelerometers, the sensors. Both of those things will take place, but I hope this community will keep experimenting about what happens when this thing leaves this place, with you. Not just so you can play Civilization on a park bench.”

Sawyer pointed to the action and consolidation in the activity tracker space as a major trend in health gaming, citing Jawbone’s recent acquisitions of BodyMedia, Massive Health, and Visere.

“You see Jawbone looking across at Fitbit, looking across at Nike, looking at other sensor startups and saying ‘We’ve got to start moving and making investments.’ So you’re now starting to see acquisitions and roll-ups in terms of trying to build a bigger war chest,” he said.

But Sawyer also pointed out that both Apple and Android are making major changes that could be beneficial for those building health apps. Apple’s iOS7 operating system will change the protocol for background applications, including the accelerometer, making it easier for built-in activity trackers to run on an Apple device without using too much power. Apple is also making moves toward gaming with its announcement of a made-for-iOS certification program for peripherals, which include joysticks and game controllers.

While Apple is moving toward becoming a gaming company, Google announced a new protocol for Google Play games that will allow users to save games and achievements in the cloud and open them up on another device — even an iOS device. This could make Android an even more attractive platform for health game developers.

Sawyer said one of the most promising shifts within the health gaming community was a shift away from a rhetoric he sees as unproductive — the distinction between gamification, where apps incorporate game mechanics like scores and leveling without a true game structure, and “true games.”

“Real consumers and real producers weren’t going to spend the time on that culture war among game designers, but instead they just pick and choose the things that work for them. And there were benefits of design practices coming out of each end of the spectrum. What was nice to see as I started talking to more companies throughout the year is I saw less people trying to get caught up in whether they were one in the same and more people doing a little bit of both and seeing what consumers like and what they don’t like. So it seems like things have died down a little bit in terms of the war.”

In terms of the “beacon” health gaming is still awaiting, Sawyer conceded that the closest contender is Six to Start’s “Zombies, Run!” which is scheduled to make a big news announcement at the conference tomorrow.