The idea of creating games for healthcare has fallen so far off the radar, it's not even being tracked by Gartner any more.
"You could literally say gamification was last seen going over a cliff," said John Ferrara, creative director of Megazoid Games and author of "Playful design."
What that really means is that the concept might just now be ready for a renaissance.
As long as its proponents understand this: A game should be designed, first and foremost, to be a game – not an educational tool or philanthropic endeavor, but a simple contest with challenges and rewards.
[Learn more about the 2015 mHealth Summit.]
Ferrara kicked off this year's mHealth Summit as the opening speaker at the Games for Health University, a daylong workshop held Sunday at the Gaylord National Resort and Conference Center. His foray into the death and possible rebirth of gaming in healthcare drew an audience of roughly 100 attendees, all eager to learn why the concept has languished.
"The problem is design," Ferrara said. "Games are hard to design well."
Not only that, but most of the games designed for healthcare put the healthcare part before the game – and that won't attract and keep users. The message or lesson doesn't mesh well with the challenge, for instance, or the game is too complex for its target audience, or it was designed purely as a commercial product, which means all the effort went into selling it and little thought was spent on sustainability.
If healthcare games are to succeed, Ferrara said, designers and developers need to step back and simplify. He listed five elements of player experience – aesthetics, usability, balance, meaningful choices and motivation – and said designers must plan both for short- and long-term goals. And start simple, with a paper model, mapping out how the game establishes objectives, presents obstacles and escalates the conflict so that it continues to engage the user.
"Games necessarily involve challenge," Ferrara said, noting how that differentiates them from all other types of software. "In a game you want the challenges to mount as you go further and further through time," to make the game continually interesting and to make the rewards worth the risk taken.
Above all else, Ferrara said, healthcare gamers need to remember that a game won't succeed if its biggest attribute is that it helps someone deal with a chronic condition or tries to teach a child how to brush one's teeth.
"Games should be designed to be games first," he said.