Can gaming make us healthier?

Society in general believe that kids spend too much time gaming, but what if gaming could be used for good?

What if gaming actually helped us to get healthy?

Niantic released the game ‘Pokémon Go‘ in 2016 and it quickly became one of the most popular mobile games ever. The game required users to go for a walk and capture augmented reality Pokémon characters along the way. The health benefits of playing the game have been widely documented, and range from increasing general exercise, to improving mental health (easing anxiety and depression). Whilst the initial hype has calmed down, five years on, the game is still hugely popular.

The use of information technology to promote healthy behaviours is becoming more popular amongst health care providers and professionals (Alahaiivala and Oinas-Kukkonen, 2016). In fact, a recent systemic review of the literature surrounding gamification for health and wellbeing supports the use of gamification to promote positive health behaviours (Johnson et al., 2016).

Despite the click-baity heading, this blog post is not looking at games, we’re focusing on ‘gamification‘, and how it is currently being used in the health industry.

Gamification is defined as “an informal umbrella term for the use of video game elements in non-gaming systems to improve user experience (UX) and user engagement” (Deterding et al., 2011:1)

Or put simply, it’s when game elements such as points, badges, and leveling up, are added into places where they would not normally exist.

We’re going to look at three examples, ‘Zombies, Run!’, ‘Yumit’, and ‘My QuitBuddy’.

Zombies, Run!

At its core, Zombies, Run! is a simple fitness app that tracks your exercise. What separates it from other similar apps (and what made it so popular – 3rd highest grossing fitness app), is how it places the user at the centre of a zombie apocalypse.

The user listens to each episode (or ‘mission’) whilst running, and using GPS data, the app (through a narrator) warns the user when they need to speed up to avoid incoming zombies. On each run, the user collects supplies needed to build up the virtual base, which the user can do within the app after their run. The storyline is gripping, and through the narrative, the app encourages the user to go for additional runs to complete new missions.

See the video below to get a better understanding of how it works.


Yumit’s goal is to encourage children to eat, and to educate parents to create well balanced healthy meals. Yumit is essentially a plate with inbuilt scales. It weighs the meal and then calculates how much food is eaten by the child based on the reduction of weight on the plate. The plate is linked to a phone app, and for each gram of food eaten, energy is given to a virtual character in the apps. So the more “healthy” food the child eats, the more energy their character receives in the game.

Whilst this is still an example of gamification, it doesn’t seem to have been a successful one. The company hasn’t updated it’s social media accounts since soon after it launched (in 2015), and as others have pointed out, there are many flaws in the concept. My one year old, for example, definitely throws more food onto the floor than he puts in his mouth (not that he is at an age where he plays video games anyway).

My QuitBuddy

Everyone knows that quitting smoking is hard. So adding incentives through gamification is worth a try, and the Australian Government Department of Health has done that by creating the My QuitBuddy app. The app allows the user to set their own goals, helps track their progress, and sends them notifications and rewards when they achieve their set targets.

A new version of the app is currently being developed, and I expect there to be more gamification elements built into the new version such as a points system, streaks, and the ability to earn badges.

Final thoughts

In the case of Zombies, Run!, gamification has been successfully used to help encourage and entice people to live healthier, more active lives.

But like Yumit, just because you can add gamification elements to something, doesn’t always mean you should.

Gamer‘ by Florian Olivo (Unsplash License)
Phone‘ by SCREEN POST (Unsplash License)
Zombie‘ by Yohann LIBOT (Unsplash License)
Cereal‘ by Providence Doucet (Unsplash License)
Cigarette‘ by Mathew MacQuarrie (Unsplash License)

Alahaivala, T and Oinas-Kukkonen, H (2016) ‘Understanding persuasion contexts in health gamification: A systematic analysis of gamified health behaviour change support systems literature’, International Journal of Medical Informatics, 96: 62-70,

Deterding, S, Sicart, M, Nacke, L, O’Hara, K and Dixon, D (January 2011) ‘Gamification: Using game design elements in non-gaming contexts’ [conference presentation], Proceedings of the International Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Vancouver, BC, Canada.

Johnson, D, Deterding, S, Kuhn, K, Staneva, A, Stoyanov, S and Hides, L (2016) ‘Gamification for health and wellbeing: A systematic review of the literature’, Internet Interventions, 6: 89-106,

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Can gaming make us healthier?
#gamifyingtwitter – Part 1
#gamifyingtwitter – Part 2