Games designed to support health behavior change (“games-for-health”) take advantage of the engaging and experiential quality of games to deliver knowledge, motivation, and support for making healthy lifestyle changes. Several steps will help users of these games increase the likelihood of game play translating into actual health-behavior change:
- Look for a game that provides an experience that does more than just provide knowledge about your health. The most effective health-behavior change games provide experiences that also inspire, motivate, remind, track progress, and offer an opportunity for practice.
- Set a goal for a specific behavior change immediately after playing a game-for-health. Life coaches often talk about the characteristics of a successful goal being represented by the acronym SMART:
S: Specific Rather than setting a goal of trying to exercise more or eat better. [“I will start doing push-ups” or “I will drink unsweetened coffee instead of sweetened coffee.”] M: Measurable Describe how much you will achieve or change. [“I will walk 1 mile” or “I will add one serving of vegetables.”] A: Achievable Make sure it’s a change you are likely to be able make. A little bit of challenge can be good, but not so much that there’s a strong chance of failure. [“I will lose 2 pounds per week” rather than “I will lose 50 pounds in a month.”] R: Relevant and Results-Focused Think about the reason you are making the changes – what health benefit will you receive? Why does it matter to you? Keeping the relevance and intended results in mind will keep your feeling of motivation high, which will help propel you to face-down challenges and keep going despite feelings of resistance. [“I’ll add this exercise to improve my cardiovascular health” or “I’ll eat fewer sweets to help lower my triglycerides in my next blood test.”] T: Time Set a definite time frame, such as exactly when you will start the new behavior and how many times per day you’ll complete it. [“I will start my new diet on Monday” and “I will exercise three times per week.”]
- Play the game-for-health multiple times. Behavior change takes repetition and you have to repeat a new health behavior in real life many times before it will be automatic. One study found that it takes 18 to 254 days for a behavior to become a daily habit1. Continuing to play the game-for-health during this period while the new behavior is still becoming habitual may help provide new inspiration and revive motivation. So, look for games-for-health with varied experiences and challenges to keep you coming back.
- Do the new behavior in the same context each time while you are trying to make it part of your routine. That is, do it at the same time and same place. For example, add a serving of salad each time you make yourself a dinner. Every time you reach for a pack of meat in the refrigerator to cook for dinner, grab the lettuce at the same time. Or leave a set of weights next to your favorite chair and do 10 minutes of weight lifting before settling down to watch the news each night. By repeating the new behavior in the same context, some of the work of remembering to do the new behavior is transferred to environmental or time cues and is less dependent on intentionally doing the new behavior.
- Have fun! The consensus of a group of creators of games-for-health was that being fun was the most important criterion for success in changing health behaviors. So, to change your health habits using game-play, find a game-for-health that engages you and is fun to play.
- Lally Phillippa, van Jaarsveld Cornelia HM, Potts Henry WW, Wardle Jane. How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. Eur J Soc Psychol. 2010;40(6):998-1009. doi:10.1002/ejsp.674.