The WSJ article also mentions a 2008 study that showed casual games provide "'cognitive distraction' that could significantly improve players' moods and stress levels."
What if there was an equally compelling, health-centric game on tablets in doctors' waiting rooms? What if adults and children around the world were using apples and oranges to bomb junk food? Health games on mobile devices could be Schoolhouse Rock of this decade and kids could be singing about antioxidants instead of conjunctions if health marketers can start building compelling and informative games to promote health literacy and their products.
What are game mechanics?
To understand why a particular game works, it helps to understand the individual components.
Shufflebrain CEO Amy Jo Kim explains five basic game mechanics in this PowerPoint, including:
The first two are self-explanatory. Feedback is a hint to help the player get better faster.
You know those Farmville notes about watering your neighbor's crops in exchange for some reward? That's number four, an activity that allows players to connect within the game.
The fifth component is easy also: do you want ostrich or peacock plumes on your ceremonial headdress?
What about health?
You can find examples of gaming mechanics on both health web sites and public health efforts.
Diabetic Connect has a badge system to recognize 52 activities such as liking or disliking a post, sharing recipes, and uploading photos. You get a few badges simply for joining but most require action over time.
HealthCentral just launched a hearts system. Readers can award hearts to expert patients and community members who make helpful contributions. Guests have two hearts to give away daily. Registered members have 20.
Daily Feats encourages members to complete small tasks -- taking the stairs, eating whole grains -- to work toward life goals. Members earn points to use toward gift cards from sponsors.
Researchers at Teachers College at Columbia University used a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson's Health Games Research project.
Smokers play on their smartphone and use the microphone of a headset. They use their breath to move a character on the screen and advance to the next level. The game play causes changes in the body that mimic smoking and is designed to literally replace a smoke break.
Health issues have even infiltrated Madden Football. In the latest version, if a player suffers a concussion, he is taken out for the rest of the game. This reflects the latest research around concussions and the increased focus on brain injuries among football players.
How can a game help my brand?
Health care often involves waiting -- in a pharmacy, in a doctor's office, in a clinic. Televisions are ubiquitous in most of these places. Imagine if there were also tablets loaded with games that reinforced healthy habits, awarded badges for improvements in blood pressure, and allowed a patient to brag on Facebook about these accomplishments.
Endocrinologists could create teams of people diagnosed with diabetes at roughly the same time. These teams could compete for best blood sugar control or healthiest eating habits. Yes, there are HIPPA concerns but participation could be voluntary and specific health information could still be private.
For prescription and OTC products, consumers could trade in game points for coupons or discounts on prescriptions or other health care supplies. Insulin pump manufacturers could create games that teach people how to use their devices and to track usage and mastery over time.
Green Goose has a wireless tracking system that uses sensors imbedded in stickers. These can be mounted on water bottles, bicycles, or even pill bottles. All the data is collected by a small base station that connects to a wireless router. A brand could sponsor a sensors and award points for medication compliance.
Social media has been a challenge for pharma companies and health marketers, and I'm sure gaming will represent a whole new kind of med-legal review. However, simply understanding what makes an experience engaging -- simplicity, reward -- can change how you think about all campaigns, not just those that involve a game.