The potential massive social impact of gamification for weight loss and savings


Last night I was fortunate to be at a dinner with innovation strategist Charles Leadbeater, hosted by Martin Stewart-Weeks of Cisco. One of the conversations we had together with Hugh Morrow was about the potential of gamification of weight loss and personal savings.

Diet and savings habits aggregated across a society have a massive impact on the common good. Poor diet and obesity lead to vast increases in health care costs, among other issues, while savings do not only drive economies, but mitigate against financial stress and dislocation.

Anything that can have even a minor impact on diet and savings can have extraordinary value. As such, we certainly need to apply what is being learned in the field of gamification, particularly its social aspects, to see how it can help positively change behaviors.

Health Week Plan reports that:

If UnitedHealth Group had its way, all of its members would own a Microsoft Xbox video game system and would use it every day. While promoting video games might sound like a way to grow couch potatoes, UnitedHealth and several other major insurers are using concepts behind popular video games to promote wellness, encourage exercise and boost social interactions between people — and ultimately improve health outcomes and lower costs.

The article goes on to give examples:

In February, UnitedHealth collaborated with a local school district in the Houston area to give students the option to participate in a program that measures the potential impact of computer-based gaming, using Xbox Kinect, on physical activity and weight loss when combined with a weight management program. The insurer also has a mobile app for smartphones, called OptumizeMe, in which users can create and challenge each other to fitness competitions. The app tracks their progress and rewards them with virtual badges.

Humana is also using Xbox Kinect. The company has partnered with video game developer Ubisoft, which manufactures an exercise game for the system, to offer three workout games to members.

“Humana members are now able to seamlessly earn Vitality Points for exercising using Ubisoft’s breakthrough fitness games,” Shankar Ram, Humana’s vice president of innovation, tells HPW. The points can be used for items including movie tickets, electronics and vacations. “This partnership marks the first time a fitness video game has been integrated with a health care solution in this way.”

Aetna also is heavily engaged in gamification as it sees social interaction as a key to achieving positive outcomes, says Dan Brostek, head of consumer engagement at the insurer.

“Gamification works well when [a social element] is embedded in the game,” he tells HPW. “When I can connect with what I’m doing within a social network, there’s intrinsic value.”

In 2010, Aetna launched Get Active!, a team-based fitness and nutrition program for employers that uses online social networking to encourage colleagues to work together to achieve health goals. The program allows participants to schedule group exercise opportunities, find colleagues with similar health interests, use online fitness and nutrition trackers and participate in team competitions.

Brostek says that 25 of its group plan sponsors offer it to employees, and results show that those employees that participated in Get Active! had a body mass index (BMI) reduction of 7.8 points compared with those who did not enroll in the program. A BMI of 30 or above is considered obese, while 18.5-24.9 is considered normal weight. Although gamification programs rely heavily on technology, Brostek says that doesn’t mean it’s only younger members who take advantage of the programs.

“When you look at the statistics on utilization of technology, social network, people that are Generation Y, Generation X, Baby Boomers, they are all embracing and utilizing these channels. Some of these experiences may be utilized more within certain demographics.”

A great recent feature article in the Atlantic titled The Perfected Self discusses how behaviorial modification principles inspired by B.F. Skinner and now embedded into mobile apps are helping people to lose weight and change their lives.

Behavioral technology allows users to gradually and permanently alter all kinds of behavior, from reducing their energy use to controlling their spending. Now, with the help of our iPhones and a few Facebook friends, we can train ourselves to lead healthier, safer, eco-friendlier, more financially secure, and more productive lives.

There are a number of ventures applying gaming principles to personal finance, including how applies gamification and an interesting start-up Bobber, as described on The Gamification Blog.

Bobber is a financial product in development that will tie a savings and checking account to an innovative, social, gamified website. It hopes to help users reach their savings goals by providing far more support and feedback than a traditional bank would. An inviting interface will allow users to keep track of where their money is, what they’ve spent, and how close they are to achieving any goals which they’ve specified. It’s far more colorful, engaging, and mentally rewarding for a user to track their goals through this system than simply watching the number attached to their checking account.

These are early initiatives. There is no doubt enormous potential in applying games as a platform that people find useful in shifting to more empowering behaviors and habits. The outcomes are not just personal. The potential impact is in creating better, healthier, happier societies.