PharmExec Blog

Good Gamification Isn’t Child’s Play

By Peter Houston.

One of 2012’s biggest buzzwords was “Gamification” and that probably means that in 2013 there are a lot of people trying to sell you on the value of gamifying your pharma business. Excellent, there’s a lot of value in there, but before you head off to commission your own “Pharmaville” app, you should know that good gamification isn’t child’s play.

What is gamification?
You’re kidding me, right? It was everywhere last year… more buzz than an industrial-scale honey farm. Where have you been?

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Peter Houston

OK… Gamification  — other than one of the clunkiest marketing terms ever — is the introduction of rewards to make the performance of regular tasks more enjoyable and encourage members of a target group to engage consistently.

Think of it as the marketing world’s take on “Pavlov’s Dogs”. Have you watched the episode of the Big Bang Theory where Sheldon tries to modify Penny’s behaviour by tossing her a chocolate every time she does something he approves of? Well, that’s the thinking behind gamification — reward positive behaviors. Except with gamification in pharma the calorie intake is significantly lower; patients, doctors, nurses, sales reps get rewarded with badges, player credits or leaderboard status.

There are some great real-world examples listed in Ben Comer’s Pharm Exec “Gamification Grows Up” feature. My favourite concept is the Small Things beta that encourages kids with type-1 diabetes to stick to their daily testing regime: Children who complete tests and input results get rewarded with credits that allow them to create little tamagotchi-style creatures.

Anything that encourages patient adherence, delivers HCP or rep learning , or even broader engagement with your company has to be a good idea. But like all good ideas, the secret to success lies in the implementation not the idea itself. And that’s where gamification poses some challenges.

Achieving the outcomes you want
The driver behind gamification is the creation of an emotional response. Easy if you’re tossing chocolate around, less so if you’re working with a 3, 4 or even 5-inch smartphone screen.
As with every communications endeavor, you need to precisely target your audience. Marketing does this day in, day out, but with games you need to think a little more laterally. You no longer just have patients, you have patients with personalities. Will they respond to shoot-em-ups, building things or sharing stories? Before you hit the play button you need to be very clear what type of game your audience will engage with.

And unless you just want your target group to have a bit of fun at your expense, you need to think hard about how to achieve the outcomes you want. Those two Italian plumbers sold millions of console games, but they never changed much other than the costume lineup at your local fancy dress store.

Educational games created around complex disease simulations are a powerful way to bring active learning to HCPs. Doctors and nurses can be presented with diagnostic choices, they get an outcome, modify the choice if the outcome is negative and repeat if it’s positive. Powerful stuff, but to allow HCPs to work through a realistic set of symptoms and treatment options, you’re going to need a pretty sophisticated game algorithm. Better makes sure you choose the right vendor.

Of course, commissioning your own game is not the only way to get into gamification. More and more charities and non-profits have already made the move and sponsoring an existing game is a real alternative. This is a faster way to market and brings the additional benefit of non-profit credibility. However, it will also limit the control you have over any data collection objectives and the data collected. Better make sure you choose the right partner.

Once you’re ready to go, you need a strategy to get your game to your target audience and get them to sign up? Social networks are the biggest driver of app adoption, but they are crowded. Can you compliment a social campaign with email or SMS promotions? You could sit your game on a third-party network, as Boehringer Ingelheim (BI) did with its Facebook game Syrum. This brings the benefit of a pre-existing user-base, but also all the baggage of the network you sit on. Facebook… privacy… see what I mean?

Once you’re game is out in the wild, you need to know that it is working for you? Are you looking for increased disease awareness, improvements to specific health outcomes, market data. These are all perfectly valid objectives, but you need to know exactly what you’re looking for and how you will measure it.

We know the immense importance of data and the beauty of technology-driven patient communications techniques is the data that can be collected. This is also the challenge; the data stream that you can collect from the daily usage of a game played by thousands of patients is mind-boggling, and you need to be ready to deal with all that data.

You also need to think hard about the perception that industrial scale collection of market data can cause. BI’s Syrum initiative is generally thought of as a bold, innovative move, but I have seen criticism of it as a front for data collection that will benefit BI way more than any patient or HCP. That may or may not be true, but if it becomes a widely held perception then player engagement is likely to slip drastically. You need to be seen to be using your new data collection super-powers for good.

To be honest, the biggest success for gamification in pharma at the moment appears to be positive PR. Healthcare games add fun to often difficult circumstances and people feel good about them. Will they have a long-term impact on disease awareness, patient adherence or reputation management? Like anything else in pharma, only if you realise that it’s not child’s play.

Peter Houston is former Group Content Director for Advanstar Pharma Science. He is now an independent media consultant and founder of Flipping Pages.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted March 11, 2013 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    Good gamification should not be treated as the application being a game afterwards. Games that have no real benefit to the user other than the game will not live very long. Gamification however may be used to improve the user experience of an application or a service that serves a real purpose that is beneficial to the user. By adding game elements, like achievements, you can improve the user experience and gain a happier users that use the service more often. @AemdeeCom

  2. Posted March 12, 2013 at 5:20 am | Permalink

    Hi Peter,

    I enjoyed your blog. In our experience the NHS is increasingly keen on the use of actual games to inform and educate frontline staff, patients and carers to help change thinking and behaviour. A new game (board game and online version) was launched yesterday by NHS Midlands & East to help promote good nutritional care among HCPs, patients and carers in acute and community settings. You can play the online version here http://www.TheNutritionGame.com. There’s a fair bit of activity on Twitter @NutritionGame and #stopthepressure which also demonstrates that the NHS can use social media effectively.

    Feedback from similar games over the past 10 years has been overwhelmingly positive so anyone in Pharma thinking about using games to engage HCPs and patients; the door is already open.

    DOI – we developed/manufactured the games mentioned and are helping with the comms.

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