By this January, some people who are insured by Aetna will have a new tool to help them keep New Year’s resolutions: the Life Game, an interactive platform that helps users formulate health goals and stay motivated to achieve them.
About 70 to 80 percent of health-care costs in the United States stem from chronic conditions that are largely preventable or manageable, such as hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease. Those three conditions alone cost U.S. employers nearly $500 billion in lost productivity, according to the Milken Institute, a nonprofit economic think tank. But effective prevention strategies have proved elusive; simply educating people about the benefits of eating better and exercising has had little effect.
Aetna and other health-care companies, such as Humana, hope the features that have made games so addictive will motivate people to adopt healthier lives. A crop of startups are integrating social networking and behavioral economics with games toward that end. Although Aetna declined to provide estimates, even a modest change for the better could have a big impact on an insurer’s bottom line if the results were sufficiently widespread.
“I think health interests are starting to ask themselves, what’s the next major [way to interact with patients] that will help them innovate and help people engage and become healthier?” says Ben Sawyer, cofounder of the Games for Health project, which brings together medical professionals and game developers. The big question is how to blend research on what drives behavioral change with good game development practices, he says.
Many of these efforts have focused on encouraging people to tackle specific health issues, such as getting more exercise or managing diabetes. Earndit.com, for example, tracks users’ exercise activity and rewards them with coupons for clothes, food, and other products from companies marketing to the fitness-inclined. But the Life Game, developed by the social-media startup Mindbloom, takes a broader view, encompassing health, career, relationships, finances, and even spirituality. That was appealing to Aetna. “Every domain of life will impact physical and mental health,” says Dan Brostek, who heads the company’s consumer engagement group. Aetna knows from other outreach programs that these are issues people want to talk about in relation to their health, he says.
Mindbloom players grow and maintain a virtual “life tree” by earning sunlight and water. Sunlight is awarded for choosing and viewing inspirational images, quotes, and songs, a concept similar to the inspiration boards used by some life coaches. Players earn water for their tree through specific actions, such as taking a walk, scheduling a date night, or contributing to their personal emergency fund.