Long gone are the days when the idea of "games for health" meant exergaming. The mobile and social world has virtually exploded with a wealth of productivity apps, interactive personal trainers and beyond -- to say nothing of the complex effect the gamification movement has had on the concept of digital games that can help people feel better and do things better.
Portable phones now come equipped with GPS and accelerometers that can help people keep track of fitness goals, and reward-oriented game design shows promise in helping people engage with their health goals. But Ben Sawyer, founder of the games for health conference, says there are even more big things about to happen that can create opportunities for game developers.
"You're seeing this whole cadre of people rethinking software-based health," Sawyer tells Gamasutra. "They're getting very interested in games, and you're seeing this gamut from apps and apps with gamification through things that are true games."
A happy side effect of current venture capitalist interest in game mechanics has been a stronger, business-oriented push into the field. They may be coming from the busines world, "but they're bumping into people who have been working on games for a while," Sawyer explains.
The upcoming Games for Health conference, set for June 12-14 in Boston, will convene health, gaming and business professionals looking to explore these synergies. Keynote speakers include Constance Steinkuehler Squire, senior policy analyst for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; Bill Crounse, MD, senior director of worldwide health for Microsoft, and SuperBetter Labs' Jane McGonigal.
"You're seeing people who aren't grant-based, not research-based, but product people looking at this mass opportunity in health and wellness, and they know games are going to be part of it," Sawyer says. "That's why you see this quick glom-on to gamification... then they have to figure out how to go further."
It's game developers that can take intrigued health and wellness companies beyond the sort of participation that comes from imitation or a sense of obligation and into meaningfully-fun experiences that can help people improve their health. A number of wellness and productivity apps -- take the popular Runkeeper for example -- are making APIs available for developers to use, too.
In particular, Sawyer is interested in a future for biometric sensors: "I think it's going to be a significant opportunity. It's still one of those things where you can see the pieces of it, but you haven't had that kind of 'aha' moment."
Right now, the tech -- sensors like Nike's Fuel band, which provide detailed feedback on fitness and body performance and interface with interactive software -- is a little too cost-prohibitive to create a ton of mass market opportunity, but "it's going to happen," Sawyer says. "If I were [a sensor company], I'd be talking to developers already, saying over and over, 'this is a big opportunity."
When you get those costs down, what's going to happen is if we can show that people who wear these bands get healthier because they change their behavior ever so slightly... then the large health companies might step in and start saying, 'okay, we're going to subsidize this.'"
Sawyer expects two distinct groups to emerge: Developers doing apps directly, and companies that focus on enabling app economies for game developers. From there, it could only be a matter of time before major healthcare providers look to buy in.
The gamification movement is useful in that it offers a starting point for companies from well outside the world of games -- but it can only do that, Sawyer warns. Without a strong, engaging infrastructure, layering game-like qualities on top of things will provide health companies only a temporary blip -- with the downside being that the minimal response might put them off games altogether, or make them believe gaming is a "box" they've already checked. Goal-setting or reward apps are only the beginning, not the sum of the whole.
"There's this real ability to present to people what those differences might be, so that's good; one doesnt exist without the other right now," Sawyer says.