• Article
  • February 2, 2016

How the Gamification of Health Care can Help Patients

Sometimes, gaming can be just what the doctor ordered.

In 2009, the struggle to recover from a brain injury had Jane McGonigal wondering if she would ever get better. After months of anxiety, depression and cognitive challenges, McGonigal called on her years of game design and research to begin her recovery. She developed an app called Jane the Concussion Slayer.

The game worked so well, McGonigal teamed up with colleagues to develop the SuperBetter app and program. SuperBetter LLC is now a digital health company headquartered in Chicago where McGonigal serves as the chief science officer. McGonigal is also the author of SuperBetter and Reality is Broken and is the keynote at the 2016 Quality and Safety in Children's Health Conference in New Orleans on March 8.

Why develop SuperBetter? In addition to cognitive symptoms, I was dealing with depression and anxiety. I was waiting to heal, and my friends and family were having a hard time understanding what I was going through. As a game designer and researcher who had been studying for 10 years, it occurred to me games help us be more creative problem solvers and more optimistic about our own capabilities. They also make it easier to ask other people for help.

Why center your recovery on play? When we play games we tend to deal with stress and challenge in a very different way. We actually see the stress and challenge as an opportunity to learn something new, to discover what we're good at and to have a bonding experience with other people. It's a different way of approaching obstacles.

The problem is in real life when we're not choosing our obstacles, we don't bring those same psychological strengths. Too many of us tend to focus on what we have lost or what we feel we will lose, our weaknesses rather than our strengths. We are resistant to other people knowing what we are going through because it's so personal and so real.

There's nothing fun about surviving an illness or injury, but you can use the same psychological strengths and ability to focus on opportunities to get stronger, learn and connect with others. Games are an accessible and powerful structure for doing that. 

Does SuperBetter apply to everyday challenges? There are a lot of people using positive goal setting or behavior change, whether they want to eat healthier, get in shape, or manage chronic conditions. Even though I invented SuperBetter for my own traumatic and acute challenge, it has been used to support people with depression or anxiety on an ongoing basis. This gameful method allows people to focus on positive change or whole-hearted engagement with the therapeutic treatment.

What's the benefit? The biggest shift we've measured is in self-efficacy. For many, the biggest obstacle to behavior change, or maintaining optimism and engagement with health care, is they don't have self-efficacy. They feel nothing they do matters. At every level, SuperBetter is designed to increase confidence, showing there are things you can do every day that have a huge impact on your health and happiness, no matter what you're going through.

Consider small challenges like making sure you talk to someone every day, or find small opportunities for physical activity. We have "high five a tree" as one of our popular power-ups. We want to get you moving so you're not as sedentary or get outdoors for fresh air. That's when we measure the positive effect on people and why SuperBetter helps.

Does this work in any environment? It's designed to be customized. In the clinical trial, we had doctors and nurses helping patients look at their environment to see what would be a better power-up or a realistic quest. The user is playing the part of game designer and player, so he or she is investigating his or her life to see what will feel better. Users identify what makes them feel better and share that with doctors or friends and family.