As I’ve said before, games can do a lot more than just entertain. They can can make accounting fun, help kids learn, teach valuable lessons in design and suggest new interactions with the world around us.

In that context, here are two more examples of game design techniques in two of the least frivolous areas imaginable – health and wealth. Both from Raph Koster’s great blog (which is essential reading for people creating anything that another person will use/experience). 

Games for Health

Coming up June 10-12th is the Fifth Games for Health conference which looks at all the ways that games can act as a positive disruptive force in healthcare. For example:

  • games used for rehabilitation and therapy
  • “exergaming” (exercise gaming) which exploded onto the scene with Wii Sports and is here to stay 
  • improving doctor patient communication by using virtual environments
  • games to raise awareness of issues like STDs (“Catch the Sperm”)
  • game environments to train surgeons and rapid response teams
  • where games help kids to develop (and where they might be a problem)

Games have two things to offer healthcare. Firstly, they are engaging and can bring an addictive reward structure to just about anything. This is valuable for us all, as we tend to live our lives less healthily than we should due to the  of the delayed benefits. Using game mechanics to make the rewards more immediate could revolutionise our attitudes to our health.

Secondly, they can be very realistic simulations. Games can educate and train healthcare professionals in more engaging ways, which ultimately makes the learning more effective. They can also simulate things which are hard to otherwise experience (see Burn Center below).   

Here are some of the sessions that caught my eye (full list of sessions announced so far is here):

Mindless Eating Challenge
In the game, players are tasked with caring for a virtual pet or plant, similar to the popular Tamgotchi.  Pet care requires the user to follow a variety of health and eating recommendations and verify their actions with photos taken with their phone’s camera.  For example, the recommendation “Eat a hot breakfast” would require the player to submit a photo of him/ herself eating a bowl of oatmeal.  Photos and compliance are then judged either by judges or peers.  Based on compliance to these recommendations, the pet or plant changes its appearance and gains features or accessories–a tree might grow taller or grow more leaves or fruit in response.  Alternatively, leaves might fall off if the player’s performance is poor.  A social portion of the game allows the user to see various depictions of their performance in comparison to the performance of others in their group, as well as of their group in comparison to other groups.

Case Study : Burn Center
This session covers the design, development, and rollout of Burn Center by 360ED an award winning training game covering a mass casualty burn-victim event. Burn Center not only provides the immersive experience of a full-scale, chaotic triage situation, but it also features an extensive resuscitation mode that follows patients over the course of 36 hours of treatment on an intensive care unit following a disaster event.

Case Study : The Skeleton Chase, A Healthy ARG
SThis session covers the development, rollout, and results of an Alternate Reality Game (ARG) titled Skeleton Chase that was developed to serve as an intervention for college students who studies show routinely dial down their exercise activity upon arrival at college which in turn sows the seeds for bad health habits and outcomes later in life. (more at this link)

The Coming Age of Sensor Based Health Games
Increasingly, games are using a new generation of sensors that can detect movement, haptics, proximity, global position, light, audio, visuals, brain waves, emotional states, and physiological states, to name a few. These sensors often transmit their data to games without requiring players to transmit the data themselves, such as through an accelerometer attached to the player’s belt throughout the day, or a GPS system that inputs the player’s physical location into the game state.

Advances in sensor technologies and affordability are giving health game designers new gameplay options. This session will cite research findings and case-study examples to provide an overview of the many types of sensor systems that exist today or are just around the corner, and their potential integration into the research and design of games for health.

A Conversation with Richard S. Levine : Developer of Microsurgeon
 One of the first games about health ever debuted for the Intellivision video console. Microsurgeon featured incredible graphics for its day and detailed gameplay where you guided a nanobot through a human patient helping them battle a variety of ailments from cholesterol build-up in arteries, to bacterial infections, kidney stones, tapeworms, and tar deposits from smoking.

The YouTube clip of this 1982 game is a must see.

Games for Money

Personal finance sites like Mint and Rudder have been springing up to help us save money and make sense of the hundreds of options out there. They have incredibly useful tools which aggregate all your accounts in one place (so you don’t get fooled by your own mental accounting) and allow you to set budgets and send reminders when you go over. Mint has been a great success, and now reports over a million users.

Despite the zillions of products out there to do this, we still managed to wheel, deal, and borrow ourselves into a financial crisis (that is still ongoing, though swine flu may be eclipsing it just now). Clearly, something was lacking in the appeal here, for if said product category were truly successful, we wouldn’t be in this fix.

Now, Mint is in closed beta on a feature that turns personal finance into a game, complete with points earned for doing things like socking away some cash into the savings account each month, or switching to a credit card with annual rewards. Get enough points in a sustained way, and you too can be a Financial Guru.

This seems like a fairly straightforward harnessing of game-style incentive systems towards a laudable goal (though I should note that said credit card with rewards is likely from one of Mint’s partners). But honestly — money is points anyway, isn’t it? Why is it that we value the cash less than the flat-screen TV?

Raph goes on to wonder at the kind of game mechanic that would nudge us to try and save as money in the same way that WoW players go nuts over experience points.  

It may be that one reason why we used to be thriftier is simply because the money we hoarded was more tangible… gold coins trigger the brain’s systems in a way that a bank balance does not. This is what the Mint point system is designed to supplement: by creating a non-fungible point system, the game is giving you something other than real-world stuff onto which to displace your acquisitiveness, a “virtual stuff.” It would do even better, perhaps, if the points were gems or something else more “stuff-like” in terms of its representation.

Go read it the whole thing. It’s a powerful point. As with health, we save too little because the tangible reward comes in the future, and we massively understimate our future wants. Using game mechanics to bring that value forward can only help.