I’m always looking for “nudges” or ways to encourage more healthy behavior.  Sometimes knowing the healthy way to behave is not enough to make us actually follow up.   Not surprisingly (especially if you are the 1 in 10 Americans regularly using a fitness wearable), a powerful motivator to encourage us to move more and or to engage in healthy behaviors is the use of “gamification.” Gamification is the concept of applying video game thinking and game dynamics in a non-game context in order to engage people and change their behavior in some way. Commercial video games have been popular for years and the gaming industry is one of the fastest growing industries in the world – proof that their products are desirable and highly addictive.

Mike Tinney, a “gamer” in a previous life, has been studying aspects of social and behavioral engineering for online video games for years and now applying them to games that encourage people to adopt more healthy behavior. His company, Fitness Interactive Experience and his games: UtiliFIT and A Step Ahead: Zombies integrates techniques like competition and “progressive reinforcement,” where a player gets a challenge, they meet that challenge and then receive an immediate reward for their accomplishment (also referred to as the Nintendo effect).  Tinney reports that his top clients are seeing retained engagement as high as 90% from start to finish on their challenges.

Jane McGonigal, a senior researcher at the Institute for the Future and the author of The New York Times best seller Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, has done a tremendous amount of research on what she calls “being gameful,” using computer games of all kinds to minimize the negative impacts of post traumatic stress disorder and depression, to improve happiness and resilience, even to promote weight loss.  In a trial with the University of Pennsylvania, study participants tested the benefits of using a game called SuperBetter, a web-based and smartphone based application that provides users with engaging, interactive content designed to help them achieve wellness goals.  A version of the game was based on cognitive-behavioral therapy and positive psychotherapy and used with subjects suffering from depression.  After just a month of daily use, the SuperBetter users’ depression symptoms and anxiety decreased and life satisfaction and social support scores increased (based on survey data).  Here is her TED talk on SuperBetter:

Games like Candy Crush Saga, Bejewelled and Tetris have been shown to reduce cravings for food, drugs, cigarettes and other addictive habits by occupying the visual processing center of the brain, thereby reducing the vividness of naturally occurring cravings.  According to McGonigal, “A game like Candy Crush Saga can reduce cravings for things like food or cigarettes by 25 percent, which sounds like not a lot but it’s actually been shown to be enough of a reduction of the craving that you can make a better choice and gives your willpower a fighting chance.”  It may be that video games, during a break time, can do more than relax employees, it can help them curb addictions too!