Applied Games in Healthcare

In Europe, healthcare is facing huge challenges. These challenges are, among others, related to the rising demand for healthcare in a fast aging population and to the increasing health care costs due to expensive medical and technological advances. One way to face these challenges is by incorporating innovative approaches from other sectors into the healthcare sector. The entertainment industry, more specific the gaming industry, is a good example of such a sector where their innovative approaches can be used in healthcare.

The gaming industry has a history and great body of knowledge on how to involve people (users) in a game experience. Despite common belief games are not just about fun. Players may be frustrated throughout the play experience. The truth about the fun in games is not about being fun all the time, it is the sweetness of overcoming obstacles. The moment of overcoming the challenge is a moment of glory and victory, which provides the incentive to start a new difficult phase of overcoming obstacles. At a slightly higher level of abstraction there is a clear possible link with game play and design and healthcare: a disease or medical condition can be perceived as a journey in time where barriers and obstacles need to be overcome. Especially people with a chronic condition face challenges every day, which they have to manage to enable a ‘normal’ life. A problem here is that dealing with these conditions can be mentally strenuous.

Games have the rare ability to reframe a persons perspective or perception without affecting the underlying aims or objectives. This is the domain of applied game design. Applied games can be described as games designed for a primary purpose other than pure entertainment. Although applied games can be entertaining, the main purpose is to trigger specific behavior from the users. The bridge towards healthcare is maybe a little bit difficult to see for some, but if you look closely at healthcare you see that many patients are constantly faced with dilemmas, decisions, choices and the implications of their choices. Applied games are an innovative approach to support or guide patients in specific parts of their healthcare trajectory.

Obvious interventions in healthcare that are suitable for this approach are triggering movements, capturing data, setting, monitoring and achieving health goals and influencing users perception. Especially overcoming pain, mental resistance or blockades can be overcome through the fictional layers in games. At the same time, a game design enforces the necessity for input – throughput – feedback systems. This can reshape or improve existing health interventions becoming more transparent, user centered and stimulating.

An important pitfall in all this is too much focus on the game solution itself. Games in healthcare can only contribute to health innovation if these are designed instead of being engineered. Design is an inclusive mindset incorporating variables that are often overlooked from an engineering or ICT perspective. Secondly, a health game can only contribute its full potential if the context in which the game is situated is integral part of the design. This is a step further than mere ‘implementation’ in the traditional context of ICT products.

In short, applied games offer various angles for innovation in health care. Whether it is delivering recontextualised experiences to trigger specific user behavior, increase motivation or circumvent mental resistance and blockades. The core characteristic of game design is the mental frame through which a user approach problems. This goes well beyond mere product design, and includes the design of the health context in which the game solution will have to function.

More on ‘Applied Games’:
Documentary on ‘Games in healthcare’:


Matthijs Zwier (advisor at CBO, The Netherlands) and Willem-Jan Renger (Head of research program Applied Game Design at HKU, The Netherlands)

6 thoughts on “Applied Games in Healthcare

  • Pingback: «Machtfaktor Patient 3.0», Patient Empowerment, seltene Krankheit,

  • 2014-04-22 at 07:43

    Dear Matthijs,

    thanks for this blogpost — even though it has been published quite a while ago, the topic itself appears to pick up speed in health care. And it was discussed intensively at the Careum Congress 2014/2nd Enope conference.

    I just stumbled across this blogpost that summarizes some of the useful features of apps and applied games in health care:

    You might find it useful.

    All the best, Joerg

  • 2014-05-06 at 09:22

    Matthijs, me again! I just came across this outstanding portal for health apps. Appears very useful to me. What do you think? All the best, Joerg

    • 2014-05-06 at 14:19

      Dear Jorg,
      More and more of these sites appear. Still the general public has to feel the urge to take charge and become pro-active in their health. I think al these apps and applied gaming concepts can play an important role in prevention, as well as in management of disease(s).
      I welcome all apps with open arms, because the more the merrier. Eventually the best apps will surface…and find their way to the general public (consumer)

      • 2014-05-07 at 12:05

        Dear Matthijs,
        thanks for your comment! Talking about quantity, quality is also a critical issue. Here, a particularly useful way is consumer/patient engagement, like it seems to be a component in this platform.
        All the best, Joerg

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