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Aetna Hopes Games Will Make People Healthier

The health-care industry is using games to encourage better choices.
November 14, 2011

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.

Healthy growth: In Mindbloom’s Life Game, exercise and other healthy activities are rewarded with sunlight and water that help a user’s virtual tree grow.

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.

See the rest of our Business Impact report on The Business of Games.

Many of these efforts have focused on encouraging people to tackle specific health issues, such as getting more exercise or managing diabetes., 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.

Friendly forest: Life Game players earn seeds that can be used to help grow the tree of a friend of family member, creating social reinforcement for healthy habits.

Users can invite others to play, creating a forest of family and friends. Healthy trees produce seeds, which can be used to buy water or sunlight for friends’ trees, or new inspirational songs or photos.

“We want to connect with people emotionally and engage in their entire life, not just in terms of fitness or nutrition,” says Chris Hewett, Mindbloom’s founder and executive producer.

In a trial of 15,000 beta testers last year, users visited the site an average of 35 times per week, spending about 15 minutes each visit. They set out to complete 13 million actions and performed about 75 percent of them. Hewett says that before Mindbloom added gamelike features, like the seeds that can be used as currency, that figure hovered around 50 to 60 percent.

Making lifestyle changes that significantly improve heath requires a long-term commitment, however, and research suggests that most people will use a new wellness application for about a month. In the game-enhanced Life Game beta test, the average user remained active for four times that long, but that’s still only about 16 weeks.

Aetna, which insures nearly 34 million people, may soon find out how much gaming can enhance health care. It plans to customize the Life Game for several large employers, which would then offer it to their employees. It will also offer a premium version to smaller groups and individuals. Brostek says Aetna is also considering how to turn the game into a profit center, following the example of games like Zynga’s FarmVille, which allow players to spend real money on virtual accessories and other items to enhance their virtual worlds.

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