Got game? Pharma's moving into gamification but needs to drop the bribes

Everything you know about gamification is wrong. That's according to Michael Fergusson, CEO of healthcare software and game design company Ayogo. The common conception--of giving rewards or incentives for actions--is not gamification but "bribery," which won't help patients change long-term health outcomes, he said.

As more pharma companies get into gamification as a way to engage with patients, Fergusson offered a definition of what real gamification is, along with a reminder that using it in healthcare is different from consumer marketing.

"Most gamification in the consumer world is created to get someone to do something, mostly just to buy your product, and then that's it. Pharma goals are very different," he said. "In healthcare, you have to be careful because the goal is not to get someone to do something once, but change behavior over time."

The opposite can happen in fact, he said. Patients who get rewards or virtual currency for real-world goods may "game" the system. That is, they become more concerned about collecting rewards than the treatment. When they meet with a physician, they may even say that they are taking medication or following a treatment plan when they're not, just to continue to get the rewards. That, in effect, incentivizes them to lie, Fergusson said.

Gamification, in Fergusson as well as many other designers' opinions, is less about re-creating a video game and more about applying the mechanics of game design and play to facilitate learning or behavioral change. In a white paper earlier this year, Ayogo defined the key elements for a system to be properly "gamified" as meaningful choices, challenges, uncertainty, discoverable rules, and recognizable outcomes.

For pharma that means designing apps that maybe don't always look like games but operate on game theory, which in its simplest form is how people make interactive decisions.

Boehringer Ingelheim's 2012 Facebook ($FB) game Syrum was one of the first examples of gamification in pharma, but it got mixed reviews. More recent gamification efforts--such as Roche's ($RHHBY) Aiir virtual world created by Langland for child asthma patients in a clinical trial, and Sanofi's ($SNY) Mission T1D and Monster Manor (built by Ayogo) aimed at helping kids with Type 1 diabetes manage their disease--have won awards for innovation.

"We're at the beginning of what I think is a transformative change in the way people interact with their healthcare," Fergusson said. "Gamification is just one part of that, but it's the way we're backing into it."

- read Ayogo's white paper