The Power of Play

Why do gamers spend hours amassing points for rewards that don’t really exist?  

Because games are fun.    What does this have to do with health communications?  Health communicators are trying to use game mechanics to hook people into doing things that will improve their health.  That’s right:   instead of being preachy, there is an effort afoot to make losing weight or increasing physical activity enjoyable.  By coupling a system of incentives with any number of efforts to improve health , health communicators hope to make doing a new healthy behavior fun and “addictive.”  Getting people to begin a new health behavior is difficult…that’s where the fun comes in.  Making it ‘addictive’ is critical because one of the major problems for any behavior change initiative is maintenance:, that is,  how can we find a way to keep people from backsliding, losing their momentum and quitting the behavior? Gamification is the new buzz word.  Why is gamification so fashionable?  It makes sense.  Let’s look at human beings.  According to economists, we are loss averse, favor immediate gratification and are overly optimistic about the future.  What this means is that the risk-oriented messages that are part of traditional health interventions really don’t convey.  Investing in your future good health or relating present behaviors to the future just doesn’t have as much impact as the immediate rewards of the behavior.  For example, even though you know smoking that cigarette can cause cancer in the future, you still smoke it because it tastes great with your first cup of coffee. According to health game aficionados, since people are more interested in reward in the present than what will happen in the distant future, communicators need to think out of the box.  This is where the structure and reward system of games comes in. With games you can invent immediate gratifications for behavior change, you can offset the configuration of time of action and payback around desirable health behaviors.   Here are some ideas to keep in mind when making a behavioral intervention, at ,for example, a workplace, into a game. The first is KISS…keep it simple means choosing one task or behavior and focusing on that.  Second, it is important to find out the key motivators for the audience. What can you do to integrate their motivators into the game? Relatedness, or an individual’s need to feel connected socially or to a group is a powerful tool that is used.  This is also related to a person feeling valued by things outside his or her self.
Third, incorporate the opportunity to work together if there is a desire.  The group size is important, apparently 8 is the magic number to get things to happen.Fourth, allow people to advance through levels and acquire points as individuals and as teams.  Fifth, use social and monetary equivalent rewards. Be sure to reward based on information on motivations.Sixth, be creative and use narrative themes to keep interest. Finally, provide rewards/incentives at regular intervals but then add to the game some surprise rewards.  Surprises work and keep people interested.

An innovative use of game mechanics is the Biggest Loser Minnesota Challenge.  The Alliance for a Healthier Minnesota partnered with RedBrick a company located in Minnesota to create the game. More than 22,000 Minnesotans participated in this statewide health program.  Altogether they lost 75,000 pounds. Now that’s a powerplay!

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