Exploring Gamification in Health & Wellbeing Apps


While assessing the information rich roster of seminars at EHI Live 2014, I spotted an intriguing seminar hidden away under the HANDI Health Apps Conference line-up relating to one of my key areas of research: “Gamification”.

The EHI Live guide described the seminar as a discussion of how gamification in digital applications can enhance user interaction and help contribute towards positive behavioural change in patients’ wellbeing and lifestyle choices.

The panel comprised of 3 professionals:

  • Dr Alex Woolner, a Senior Researcher from the Serious Games Institute at Coventry University
  • Mary Matthews, the Director of Memrica, a mobile platform that links personal memories to items around you.
  • Max Bye, a game developer and designer who specialises in the gamification of digital therapies.

Mary Matthews

Mary Matthews began by creating an example of gamification live by inviting two audience members to participate in a game to see who could pop the most bubble wrap in ten seconds.

After the task was completed and the winner announced, Mary spoke to both participants and used their feedback to highlight some of the hurdles that gamification design has to overcome:

  • Identifying handicap and adapting to suit a participant – Person A had slippy new shoes meaning they couldn’t jump on the bubbles like person B.
  • Keeping users engaged – Person A found the task frustrating because he couldn’t pop the bubbles as quickly as person B
  • Dealing with user boredom – Person B said she’d become bored if she had to do the task every day. She indicated that repetition of an action can turn something initially fun into a repetitive task. If the reward for doing the task isn’t meaningful it simply becomes frustrating.

Mary noted that gamification does not work unless it speaks to something inside of us and stated how recent research has suggested we confuse progress with motivation. Although we may see an improvement in our performance it does not necessarily mean a change in our internal motivation drivers.

She also discussed the need to address people’s internal motivators and drivers in order to help them to form good habits, gain rewards and increase the pleasure they found in doing something repeatedly. From her experiences of working with technical specialists, Mary could understand how hard this concept was to achieve. She acknowledged a quick fix would not suffice, the process would require deep thought that not only addressed the entertainment side of the interaction but also the person’s internal drivers through a mixture of knowledge and motivation, which would not always mean fun but would always mean reward.

Dr Alex Woolner

Alex Woolner started his talk by explaining how gamification could be a very useful tool in enabling us to start thinking about where our healthcare comes from and help us to define our own role within the health ecosystem.

Singapore’s Ministry of Health commissioned Alex to carry out the development of a framework to gamify the health of the islands 5 1/2 million population. The island had a very high saturation of mobile devices, more than 1 device per person and the ministry wanted to utilise this infrastructure. This was done by giving everybody on the island their own personal health profile which they could gamify engagement with.

The framework not only covered when someone visited the doctor but also when they bought food or visited the gym. Every single member of the population could be involved, which allowed the ministry to start to develop a much bigger picture of island inhabitants’ health.

Alex also briefly discussed a new project he’s involved in regarding Minecraft and Autism. Autistic adults are educated about their condition through pamphlets and talks, however these methods are found to be less effective with children. A lot of young autistics play Minecraft, so Alex plans to carry out an investigation into how Minecraft can be utilised to help those with Autism understand their condition better.

Finally, he discussed an SPRI funded project looking at how we can use apps to deliver work-based learning for disabled people. The challenge his team faced was how to add an element of gamification to the product, whilst maintaining an environment in which the participants wouldn’t feel under pressure or as if they had failed in some way.

Max Bye

Max introduced himself as a games developer and designer who takes theory and applies it to game-making.

During his presentation he showed an application he’d been involved in called “Phobia free”. The app helps people come to terms with their phobias of arachnids through a series of increasingly more realistic challenges:

  1. A Cartoon spider with a big smiley face, top hat and boots
  2. A Cartoon spider with a big smiley face without a top hat and boots
  3. A Low fear spider
  4. A Medium fear spider
  5. A High fear spider
  6. A Tarantula
  7. A Tarantula in augmented reality

Max spoke about how ‘Virtually Free’ examines what people want to achieve in the real world and from that create a digital platform to support that goal.

The way in which an application is gamified depends on the group it is aimed at. For instance, an application for those with early psychosis who are potentially very young could involve the development of a fully blown very colourful roleplaying game (RPG). At the other end of the spectrum, an application for older adult patients with dementia would scale back on its technical advancement, shying away from 3D graphics to focus on something like taking care of a plant or a virtual dog, a more apt reward system for its audience.

Authored by Matthew Bennion

Credits & Thank you

Proof Reading / Amendments by Jakob Andrews and David Clayton

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.