Using games and dedicated software in the health field can make an impact on patient behaviour, essentially acting as an alternative form of treatment. This is now a growing market.

Healthcare: Online Games as an Alternative to Medicines?

Interview with Steffen Walz, researcher, Assistant Professor and Director of GEELab Europe, a laboratory specialising in research into the games and entertainment field at the RMIT University based in Melbourne, Australia.

You talk about the concept of the ‘Gameful World’. Could we use the term ‘gamification’?

Well, the term ‘gameful’ is more general and covers a range of aspects, including the concept of gamification. It would be too restrictive to summarise all that simply by the word ‘gamification’. These days this term is often used in marketing to create a buzz and people who make up the communities of gamers and game designers don’t like the term very much. At the moment we’re working on a book about the ‘Gameful World’ concept in which we talk about gamification, commercial games designed to help users obtain price reductions, serious games, and more entertaining software in the sense that there are no real winners or losers. People often think that creating a game is a matter of just adding the principle of points or badges to a given concept, but it’s not really like that at all.

Now that digital and multimedia are everywhere, the message that we’re trying to get across is that the computer is an excellent games platform. In fact computers were initially designed precisely for playing games. Now we see that the computer is becoming a game in itself. So we often hear it said that software is “eating the world”. And de facto the same is true of games. The spread of algorithms is also fostering mass distribution of games. However, it wouldn’t be appropriate to summarise this entire movement by the term ‘gamification’.

Where does the need for games in the area of health originate from: from patients, healthcare professionals or games designers?

Well, there’s a general need and all the stakeholders have their own reasons. It comes first of all from patients, from people suffering from illnesses due to their lifestyles – diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and so on, i.e. people over 50 years of age. These days most people own a smartphone, senior citizens included. This is a new entry point for the games market because a smartphone is basically a games platform that everybody carries in his/her pocket. So games services are provided on the back of the demand for electronic devices. Secondly, the doctors: from their point of view, illnesses associated with lifestyles depend on the patient. So if there were a piece of software that could work on a smartphone – which as nowadays seen as an extension of one’s own person – it could possibly come in and really have an impact on this type of illness.

So connected products in the health sector can become a sort of therapy. Then the third group of people involved – games developers and other companies working in the sector. We’re are an integral part of behavioural change strategy. In fact we can think of medicines as hardware, equipment, and the process of behavioural change as software. It’s important to have good hardware, but it’s also feasible to treat a large number of illnesses with software. As a researcher I find that fascinating and I’ve been fortunate enough to work on a number of projects in this area. I’ve come to realise that games are not just add-on software but are now becoming a product in their own right. These three perspectives on the topic are interesting but there are other aspects which we must also take into account – the media, data privacy issues, etc.

Do connected health games constitute a real market?

Yes, absolutely. We’re now seeing apps being developed which are certified, reimbursable and even available on prescription. Games hold out the promise of being entertaining and able to motivate people, so this is something that can easily sell itself. However, problems still remain when it comes to insurance, for example. People don’t always take their medicines and then it’s the taxpayer who pays for this. So I believe that games, and more generally software designed to promote behavioural change, can in certain cases replace medicines. This is a developing market and it has a lot of potential.

By Eliane HONG