Quick, what comes to mind when you think of gamification in wellness programs? For me, it’s always been about the latest gadgets and smartphone apps that can track everything from the food I eat to how many steps I take. So I was taken aback when Natalie Sintek, Aon Hewitt’s gamification expert, asked me to explain how I interpreted the term. “Smartphones,” I mumbled. “And challenges?”

Turns out technology’s only a small piece of gamification and I was missing the bigger picture.

[Image credit: Bloomberg]
[Image credit: Bloomberg]

“One way you can think about gamification is using game-think or game design and player-centric design to motivate and engage users in ways that can help control costs,” she explained. “It can be offline, it can be online. It can be an individual experience. It can be a social experience.”

Gamification is, I learned, a fusion of three different fields of study: behavioral economics, consumer loyalty and game design. It’s more about understanding why people make the choices they do and figuring out how to get them to consistently make different choices by using games.

“In a lot of ways the technology comes as sort of a delivery system for a gamified system, or a gamified design,” said Stephanie Pronk, practice leader for Aon Hewitt’s national health transformation team. “There are absolutely employers out there who think of them as synonymous or think of gamification as just a technology solution.” At least I’m not alone.

So when it comes to wellness, what should benefit plan sponsors understand about gamification?

“Understand that gamification is an action or behavior that consumers have to engage in,” said Sintek. “If there’s nothing for somebody to do, it’s very difficult to create a successful gamified experience. … as long as there’s a core behavior change that you’re trying to motivate, then gamification can be really successful. But if you’re just doing it for the purpose of having something new and shiny, that’s sometimes when people get in trouble with it.”

Second, don’t think of gamification just in terms of your wellness program. “When you look at what the definition is, all of a sudden it becomes something that can be embedded in almost anything that the organization is doing around behavior change,” Pronk explained. “It can be around how you run meetings or how you do strategy. There are just all sorts of very positive things it can bring to the table when you look at it from a broader definition standpoint.”

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