A Chat With Ben Sawyer of Games for Health

ben sawyer headshot-only

If you read yesterdays post, youll know that Pixels and Pills recently sat down with Ben Sawyer, Director of the Games for Health Project and organizer of the Games for Health Conference to talk about how gaming can improve the Pharma and Healthcare industries. In addition to his work with Games for Health, Ben is also the founder of the Serious Games Initiative and his own game design firm Digitalmill. So hes a man who knows his way around a joystick. Heres what Ben had to tell us about the “state of play for Pharma today:

Pixels & Pills: Weve written often on Pixels & Pills about the popularity of the Gamification trend in Pharma. But you feel that its important to differentiate between “Gamification and “gamin. What do you thin are the differences and is Gamification a positive trend?

Ben Sawyer: My concern is that Gamification just skims the content of successful video games without embracing deeper concepts that make them effective. It also makes things too easy for people developing these projects. Gamification is easy, real games are hard and sometimes more costly to develop.

And what do we mean by Gamification, anyway. There are a lot of advocates for the trend in the Pharma and Healthcare space who seem content to mouth the latest jargon. But is Gamification actually using the principles of gameplay or is it simply borrowing tiny traits from games and actually utilizing age-old industrial psychology? Leaderboards and other gamelike interface elements are not necessarily game components.

P & P: So you see the Gamification trend as a negative force?

Sawyer: Not necessarily. Gamification is great at creating interest in subject matter. My concern is that Gamification is like advergaming. It obscures things and makes organizations think they are creating real games.

I do think that gamification and games merge nicely when things like sensor-based technology are involved.

P & P: So you think Pharma hasnt really embraced the games space, yet?

Sawyer: I think were getting there. And weve had some breakthrough moments. Projects like REMISSION or FOLDIT. Those were breakthrough moments. But the challenge now is to figure out how we create games that improve everyones health as opposed to improving the lives of specific disease state sufferers.

P & P: What do you think holds the industry back from the kind of “breakthrough moments youre describing?

Sawyer: I think Pharma has traditionally been biased towards education, whether thats educating sales forces, health care professionals or patients. Game designers approach projects very differently. For them its all about experience and entertainment. Im not saying education cant be fun or a fulfilling experience. But its easy to focus too much on communicating data and forget about making something engaging that people want to come back to after their first experience.

P & P: So the Pharma industry just needs to hire a bunch of traditional game designers?

Sawyer: I think if that was the answer, J & J or Merck would have done that a long time ago. But I dont think the breakthrough moment Im talking about will come from duplicating the kind of games people can find at their local GameStop. If we could take the research capabilities and process engineering resources that the major Pharma companies have and marry them with the creative engineering and psychological skills possessed by game designers then we could find a really exciting convergence point. Companies like Bayer with their Didjit game that syncs with the Nintendo DS are already starting to play in this space.

P & P: Do you think there will be more of that kind of collaboration between Pharma and the gaming companies?

Sawyer: I think theres a great joint opportunity. At this point I think there are way too many gaming apps. In contrast, there are relatively few Pharma apps for a huge community. Companies like Rockstar and EA are scared of the space because of the regulatory concerns and the huge opportunity cost. But Wii Fit would have been a top 10 drug launch the year it came out (and it came to market a lot quicker than the traditional drug development cycle). This may be one of those strange bedfellows moments where the opportunity is so great that these radically different companies pool resources to take advantage of the potential of the market.

P & P: So we can look forward to Super Mario Doctors, sometime soon?

Sawyer: Well there is Dr. Mario but If I were Nintendo, Id be trying to create the next big Wii Fit like breakthrough as fast as possible.




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