Using game mechanics to solve health care problems

The same tools video game designers use to guide players through games can be harnessed to improve healthcare delivery.

Jay Greene Former Staff Writer
Jay Greene, a CNET senior writer, works from Seattle and focuses on investigations and analysis. He's a former Seattle bureau chief for BusinessWeek and author of the book "Design Is How It Works: How the Smartest Companies Turn Products into Icons" (Penguin/Portfolio).
Jay Greene
2 min read

Plenty of teens can tell you about the therapeutic benefits of video games. Health care companies are increasingly looking at the value of games too.

That's because games offer incentives that health care providers can harness to alter patient habits. "Health behavior change is hard," Alex Tam, a senior interaction designer at frog design, said at the Innovation Learning Network conference for health care providers in Seattle hosted by the design consultancy. "It's frustrating. There's extra work."

Health care providers can use the tools of game design to innovate in prevention and treatment. That's important because patient behavior often gets in the way of their recovery. Physical therapy after surgery can be grueling, leading many patients to forgo, or delay it. Busy schedules can often get in the way of taking medication or checking important gauges of health such as blood-glucose levels.

Re-mission cancer-fighting video game

Tam works with health care providers on building game mechanics into products. When faced with competition, timers and progression measurements, all the tools of game design, patients perform better. "Games get people engaged," Tam said. "They will play for hours and hours."

Take Expresso Fitness exercise bicycles. The indoor training cycles come with a video game that users navigate by pedaling. They get points by chasing and catching dragons, for example, or picking up coins. Cyclists spin faster and longer. "You're very focused on the game and not on your pedaling," Tam said.

Some games simply educate patients about treatments, which helps them follow proper protocols. HopeLab created Re-mission, a first-person shooter game, where a pilot named Roxxi travels through the bodies of cancer patients destroying cancer cells, battling bacterial infections, and managing treatments. It's not Call Of Duty, to be sure. But studies have shown that cancer patients who played the game at least one hour per week maintained higher levels of chemo in their blood and took their antibiotics more consistently.

"This isn't just blue sky thinking," said Teaque Lenahan, frog's director of business development. "There really are a lot of opportunities."

Updated at 9:15 p.m. to correct the spelling of Alex Tam's name.