Gamification and Encouraging Healthy Living

There are those that swear by the Quantified Self movement and those that think its bunkum. Having grown up around a grandfather who kept a meticulous daily diary of his bowel movements and sleep patterns, I can totally relate to the pleasures afforded by such healthful navel gazing. But unless the data can be distilled into meaningful information or can be used to effect behavioral change, it is just interesting data, destined to remain the domain of card-carrying data geeks.

Social health networks might just change all that. Dr. Jan Gurley, writing on SFGate, had a great post a couple of weeks ago on the effects we can expect to see with healthcare gamification. She wrote about Mindbloom, a website in beta with about 15000 users, whose CEO wants us to not “run away from something” but to want to run towards good health. To achieve that, Mindbloom has devised a game around the a tree of life, where the actions you report (positive health related changes based on commitments you made), get transformed into virtual rain for the tree, which in turn helps it grow. You can use your good deeds to purchase seeds and raindrops for your friends, and you can collectively inspire one another . Dr. Gurley calls it the Farmville of Health, but yeah, it is pretty similar to those virtual pets (fish, gerbil) you could raise in the early 2000s. As inspiring as this is supposed to be, I can totally imagine someone gaming the system by reporting that they ate a piece of fruit when they didn’t. I think the Achilles Heel of this idea is its reliance on self-reporting. It also veers Chicken Soup for the Soul-ish and that is not really everyone’s cup of tea.

One of the more interesting pieces of nuggets in Dr. Gurley’s post was about how working towards a collective goal as a group helps one travel farther than one would on one’s own (she cites religion, tai-chi in the park and Alcoholics Anonymous as examples of real life social networks that can affect positive behavioral change). The companies Dr. Gurley cites in her blog support this thesis.

Startup Zamzee keeps kids motivated to move by giving them points for ANY movement they make. The referral rates for Zamzee were as high as 50%, and soon involved original participants’ parents and friends. figured that while people fall off the change bandwagon very soon, they would also climb back on if the distance between the ground and the wagon was close enough. A company called Shapeup let people form teams to lose weight, increase exercise or walking. Apparently the game went viral in Rhode Island where 10% of the population participated. Shapeup also creates social health networks for employers. Now, these are programs I would love to know more about.

About the author


Priya Ramachandran

Priya Ramachandran is a Maryland based freelance writer. In a former life, she wrote software code and managed Sarbanes Oxley related audits for IT departments. She now enjoys writing about healthcare, science and technology.