June 16, 2023

Breaking the Stigma Surrounding Gamification

art from the cover of a 1980s video game: an oil painting of a futuristic man with a phone and headset and computer screen

“How can we use this ‘gamification’ thing for our brands?” pharma clients asked their agencies a few years back. But as they came up with ways to make it work, gamification was suddenly dead in the water. Why has it been so difficult to bring healthcare and games together?

Gamification occurs when game-play elements are added into non-gaming activities. This approach works because humans are naturally wired to attempt tasks for rewards. Game play stimulates the mesolimbic pathway in the brain. The release of dopamine that comes with a completed task can help with motivation and the formation of healthy habits.

Researchers used this thinking in the 1980s to test games: as distractions in young patients who had nausea related to cancer treatment, and as physiotherapy through the improvement of flexion via joystick movements. The first widespread test of gamification as healthcare was 1992’s Captain Novolin, a joint effort by Novo Nordisk, the National Institutes of Health and game publisher Raya Systems. Its purpose was to help children with type 1 diabetes learn about controlling their blood glucose.

Although research showed that children preferred playing the eponymous diabetic superhero versus watching an educational video, it just couldn’t compete with mainstream games available at the time: it was too niche, the interstitial trivia was invasive, and the gameplay suffered.

Today, though, while major pharmaceutical companies have taken a step back from developing games, others are filling the void by using gamification to bring awareness and/or accurate representation to healthcare conditions, diseases, and/or treatments.

  • Perception, by indie developer Deep End Games, sought advice from blind advocates to understand echolocation and to develop an in-game plot advancement mechanic.
  • Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice by Ninja Theory worked with a neuroscientist to accurately portray symptoms of psychosis and trauma as a trigger for the game’s protagonist.
  • Ndemic Creations created a new version of the popular Plague Inc game in 2021 to address the COVID-19 pandemic, as part of a public-health campaign with infectious-disease researchers from the World Health Organization and other institutions.
  • EndeavorRx from Akili Interactive Labs is an FDA-authorized prescription digital therapeutic, indicated to improve attention function in adolescents with ADHD.

Gamification is growing up, and becoming more complex, making it possible for learning to be more organically woven into the narrative.

This tactic is something that EVERSANA INTOUCH often proposes and incorporates in relevant situations. No matter how rare the audience, or how complex the disease, as these current examples show, gamification can be applied to help think beyond traditional means to create groundbreaking works of art that can facilitate dialogue, increase awareness and even help treat diseases.