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Is Gamification the Key to Wearables?


The method pushed people to exercise more often, a new study found.

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Wearable technology receives plenty of coverage thanks to its potential as a digital health powerhouse. But, as researchers and experts have noted, questions regarding its scope of adoption and effectiveness remain.

So what will make this sort of equipment—from Fitbits to Apple Watches—become a useful player in healthcare? A new study in the Journal of American Medicine has found that the gamification of this technology could be the answer.

A randomized clinical trial of 200 adults, including 94 families, suggested that people who were motivated by game-like features worked out more often than those who were prompted to exercise without that carrot on the stick. Stimuli included the ability to earn points and progress through levels by walking a certain number of steps, according to the study.

“Gamification designed to leverage insights from behavioral economics to enhance social incentives significantly increased physical activity among families in the community,” wrote the research team, led by Mitesh S. Patel, MD, of the University of Pennsylvania.

The 12-week intervention relied on a game designed to “enhance collaboration, accountability, and peer support,” according to the study.

The “game” prodded participants to reach their step goals on more days. That group’s mean number of daily steps also surpassed that of the control arm, according to the study.

While physical activity declined in the period following the game, it remained “significantly greater” than the group that wasn’t egged on by video game-like features.

Wearables have sparked conversation in the healthcare industry and beyond. Yet their adoption and abandonment rates have yet to even out, meaning the sector still has strides to make, according to experts.

In one survey from Gartner, researchers found that the technology needed to boost its value to keep consumers engaged.

“Dropout from device usage is a serious problem for the industry,” Angela McIntyre, research director at Gartner, said in December. “Wearables makers need to engage users with incentives and gamification.”

At that time, she said many people didn’t believe the tech offered enough value, singling out the sort of fitness trackers that innovators hope will yield widespread health improvements.

This latest study established a baseline for each wearable user, posted goals, and sent feedback via email or text message. For those who experienced this regimen as a game, the study suggests, marking their progress offered much value.

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