Gamification and Government Health Care

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Drew Brees talking about PALA+ and the ESA partnership (Photos courtesy of


Drew Brees talking about PALA+ and the ESA partnership (Photos courtesy of

I recently had the privilege of running into Secretary Sebelius at the launch party for PALA+ (Presidential Active Lifestyle Award). I truly did ‘run into her’, as I accidentally followed the wrong signs and walked into the VIP prep room where she was standing prior to her talk. In turns out that she is extremely personable, and extremely excited about what HHS is doing with games.

The launch event was in part to announce the new partnership between HHS and the ESA (Entertainment Software Association). As celebrity speaker Drew Brees highlighted, “The President’s Council and ESA recognize the need to embrace technology in the fight against childhood obesity… Through the Active Play PALA+ Challenge, we are motivating kids and families to adopt a healthy lifestyle by using active video games to achieve PALA+.”

The move to adopt video games for healthy living initiatives represents a huge innovation in how public health is tackling the lifestyle diseases that are such a burden on our healthcare system. Using games to promote healthier behaviors will help prevent health problems before they start.
While most of the news in healthcare these days is devoted to dealing with the high costs of care, often discussing the Affordable Care Act and the implementations of EHRs, it is important to reframe the questions to understand why the costs of healthcare are so high in the first place. Finding innovative prevention strategies aimed at healthy living will be key to lowering costs in the long run, and I expect that this initiative is one of many more to come from HHS. For more info on prevention strategies, check out the National Prevention Strategy, published in 2011 by HHS.

It’s not clear yet which companies are going to take the lead with the PALA+ initiative, but ESA member companies, including Electronic Arts, Konami Digital Entertainment, Microsoft Corporation, Nintendo of America, Sony Computer Entertainment America, Take-Two Interactive Software/2K Play, and Ubisoft, will incorporate PALA+ promotional features into some of their most popular active video games. Those features will include:

  • Interactive tools to help kids and families monitor the progress of their physical activity and healthy eating goals;
  • Tracking tools to help participants in different schools and communities engage in competition; and,
  • Helpful tips and information on healthy living from PCFSN (President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition)

In addition to providing very practical ways for us to get active and stay healthy through gamification, these initiatives are also simply doing a great job at raising awareness for healthy living. I remember when Nintendo’s WII first came out, and it was a big hit among families, and incorporated WII Fit as a way to actually get exercise while standing in front of the television. Now, it seems we are in the second phase of the fitness gaming evolution, and the games that are being developed are more refined and linked in with broader initiatives. While there have always been trendy ways to stay fit, it seems that these innovative technologies being developed will truly have widespread appeal, particularly for the younger audience.

Here are some key features usually included when applying game mechanics to non-game applications:

  • Points: Points are used in non-game apps as a way to denote achievement and work to keep the user motivated for the next reward or level.
  • Badges: Merit badges are often used as codes of honor in the gaming world, representing challenges overcome and status earned. In a community, badges can carry mild social nudges to encourage everyone to ‘keep up’ or pursue an area of specialization.
  • Leaderboards: Leaderboards rank users and work to motivate through competition. Leaderboards can also be used in team vs. team competitions, where the additional motivations of social obligation and camaraderie encourage individuals to participate.
  • Challenges: Challenges focus attention and effort and take the mind off of everything else. Challenges can also be used to make the more mundane tasks of everyday maintenance more enticing.

Click here for more info on PALA+.

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