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Imagine a world where procrastination became a productive pastime…

Written by Dr. Luke Farmery · Sunday 26th January 2014

Imagine a world where procrastination became a productive pastime…
Procrastination, as it stands, is a core feature of the ‘human condition’ and most would argue that it is here to stay. However, what if we could hijack the time we spend playing Candy Crush saga and trick ourselves into contributing towards something tangible. Today, I wish to explore this possibility with you.

The phrase ‘gamification’ is not a new or made up word (I promise) although I agree it does sound jarring and I certainly wouldn’t recommend trying to use it in a game of scrabble (yet). The phrase itself refers to the process of applying game thinking and game mechanics to non-game contexts to engage users in solving problems. For our purposes and for the purposes of this blog ‘problems’ will equate to promoting healthy living for our patients and maintaining our own medical education.

For one reason or another, most people show addictive behaviour towards games especially when they incorporate persistent elements of progression, achievement and competition with others. The underlying psychology won’t be discussed here; call it escapism, call it procrastination, call it whatever you will. What I want you to realise is that every day millions of people spend hours tending to virtual farms and cyber families whilst competing vigorously with ‘online’ friends. If we can take the addictive aspects of these popular games and incorporate them in to the non-game contexts I indicated to above, we could potentially trick ourselves, and even perhaps our patients, into a better way of life.

The first time I heard the phrase ‘gamification’ was only last year. I was in Paris attending the Doctors 2.0 conference listening to talks on how cutting edge technologies and the Internet had been (or were going to be) incorporated into healthcare. One example that stood out to me was a gaming app that intended to engage people with diabetes to record their blood sugars more regularly and also compete with themselves to achieve better sugar control.
People who have the condition of Diabetes Mellitus are continuously reminded of their diet and their blood sugar levels. I am not diabetic myself, but it is not hard to realise that diet and sugar control is going to be an absolute nightmare for people with diabetes both from a practical and psychological standpoint. Cue the mySugr Compainion, an FDA approved mobile application that was created to incorporate the achievement and progression aspects of game design to help encourage people with diabetes to achieve better sugar control. The app was a novel concept that struck a chord with me due to its potential to appeal to the part in everyone’s brain that makes them sit down and play ‘just one more level’ of their favorite game or app.
There are several other apps on the market that are games designed to encourage self testing of blood sugar levels in people with diabetes. There is even a paediatric example titled; “Monster Manor,” which was launched by the popular Sanofi UK (who previously released the FDA / CE approved iBGStar iPhone blood glucose monitor).

So applying aspects of game design into disease management apps has anecdotally been shown to benefit young people with Diabetes. However, disease management is just one area where game-health apps have emerged. We are taught throughout medical school and beyond that disease prevention is obviously beneficial to both our patients and the health economy. Unsurprisingly, one of the best ways to prevent disease is to maintain health (either through exercise and / or healthy eating). A prominent example of an app that helps to engage users in exercising is ‘RunKeeper,’ a mobile app that enables people to track and publish their latest jog-around-the-park. The elements of game design are a little more subtle in this example but the ability to track your own progress and compete with others via social media share buttons certainly reminds me of similar features seen in most of today’s online games. Other examples of ‘healthy living apps’ are rife amongst the respective ‘app stores,’ and there seems to be ample opportunity for the appliance of gamification in this field. An example might be to incorporate aspects of game design into a smoking cessation app or weight loss helper. Perhaps the addictive quality of a well designed game-app could overpower the urge for confectionary or that ‘last cigarette’…

The last area where I think ‘gamification’ could have a huge benefit is in (medical) education. Learning and revising are particularly susceptible to the rot of procrastination, so it goes without saying that many educational vendors have already attempted to incorporate fresh ways in which they can engage their users to put down the TV remote and pick up some knowledge for the exams. Meducation itself already has an area on its website entitled ‘Exam Room,’ where you can test yourself, track your progress and provide feedback on the questions you are given. I have always found this a far more addictive way to revise than sitting down with pen and paper to revise from a book. However, I feel there could be a far greater incorporation of game design in the field of medical education. Perhaps the absolute dream for like-minded gamers out there would be a super-gritty medical simulator that exposes you to common medical emergencies from the comfort of your own computer screen. I mean, my shiny new gaming console lets me pretend to be an elite solider deep behind enemy lines so why not let me pretend and practice to be a doctor too? You could even have feedback functionality to indicate where your management might have deviated from the optimum.
Perhaps more sensibly, the potential also exists to build on the existing banks of online medical questions to incorporate further aspects of social media interaction, achievement unlocks and inter-player competition (because in case you hadn’t noticed, medics are a competitive breed).

I have given a couple of very basic examples on how aspects of game design have emerged in recent health-related apps. I feel this phenomenon is in its infancy. The technology exists for so much more than the above, we just need to use our imagination… and learn how to code.