Health gaming is a growing movement to use games and gamification in areas like healthcare, education, science and fitness. If you haven’t heard of health gaming, it’s probably because you’re surrounded by it.

That’s right, folks. Even if you haven’t played a full-fledged health game, you’re probably familiar with gaming elements like rewards, points, leaderboards and social competitions. These techniques are increasingly part of most industries, including. healthcare. You’ll find gaming techniques in corporate wellness programs, medical training and fitness apps.

Gaming and gamification were big buzzwords a few years ago. In 2013, consulting firm ICF international released a report titled Gaming to Engage the Healthcare Consumer. They defined gamification as “the application of game elements and digital game design techniques to everyday problems such as business dilemmas and social challenges.”

As MobiHealthNews wrote in 2013, gamification in healthcare has been fueled by four trends: movement toward value-based care, the increasing role of patients as consumers, the millennial generation as desirable health insurance customers and the proliferation of smartphones and tablets.

If gamification was the next big thing in 2013, today it seems pretty normal. A list of new digital health products debuted at CES 2018 is revealing. There’s a new AR-enabled toothbrush for kids that turns your smartphone into a game console for fighting cavities and plaques. Neofect exhibited its latest rehabilitation device for stroke patients, which uses game-based elements to make rehab more entertaining and effective. A new Aflac duck uses medical play to support kids going through chemotherapy.

The list goes on.

Different types of health games

As with healthcare, health gaming covers a huge range of topics. As innovation blog Technologist summarized in a blog post, “From mechanical pacemakers to virtual-reality rehabilitation to calorie-tracking apps, games have become part of a movement toward more personalised healthcare that draws on every available resource.”

Here’s one way to slice the complex world of health gaming and gamification.

1. Physical fitness and exergames

At some point around 2007 you probably found yourself in a friend’s living room swinging a virtual tennis rack at a Nintendo Wii console. As we know, this was just the beginning. Nintendo’s latest Wii Fit Plus has upped the ante, billing itself as a full-on training and fitness tool. As Nintendo writes:

Wii Fit Plus combines fun and fitness into one product. It can change how you exercise, how you balance, and even how you move. Expanding upon the original Wii Fit software, Wii Fit Plus is packed with every feature from Wii Fit—plus new exercises and tools to personalize your exercise routine.”

Of course, game techniques have entered fitness apps way beyond the Wii. Many video games and mobile apps use competition and play to get users moving. For example, Zombies, Run! is an app that gets users running in the real world by sending them on a  mission to escape the zombie epidemic.

Fitness app Zombies, Run! uses a creative motivator to get users moving in the real world

2. Corporate wellness

As with fitness apps, employers have started using points, rewards and competitions to motivate workers to move more or eat better. Corporate Wellness Magazine sum up this approach saying, “Game mechanics are a proven, effective strategy for higher employee participation and completion in technology-based Wellness 2.0 programs.”

3. Simulation games

Simulation is increasingly part of medical education, whether to train new surgeons or help public health workers practice having difficult conversations. An early example is patient engagement company Kognito, which partnered with the American Academy of Pediatrics to create an app that addresses childhood obesity. The app trains healthcare professionals by having them play through challenging conversations about obesity and behavior change.

4. Physical therapy and rehab

One award-winning innovation from CES 2018 is Neofect’s RAPAEL Smart Board. The board is a rehab solution for stroke patients that trains hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills, cognitive ability, space perception and concentration. Neofect’s game is just one of many examples where digital technology has been used to gamify physical therapy.

But aren’t video games bad for you?

Video games often get a bad rap, so you aren’t alone if you see some irony in using games to promote health. In 2018, the WHO is expected to add “gaming disorder” to its forthcoming 11th International Classification of Diseases. Research on the health impacts of video gaming is mixed, but a recent article found that children playing video games 8 hours or more per week may be at risk for decreased prosocial behavior.

However, researchers have also found that video games can help us learn, focus and multitask. While too much gaming and screen time can negatively affect health, innovators have lots to say about the positive health benefits of gaming and play.

Gaming and health: ideas worth spreading

A quick look at the Gaming topics page on TED.com is revealing. Many of the game-focused ideas worth spreading are also about health.

These health gaming TED Talks aren’t just about the cognitive benefits of games. Although it’s true that playing video games can help us learn, focus and multitask. That’s the gist of brain scientists Daphne Bavelier’s talk.

Beyond these cognitive benefits, TED Talks reflect the innovative ways gaming is being applied to health more broadly.

Take physical therapy as an example. Imagine you’ve just been injured and you’re on the way home from an hour of physical therapy. The last thing you want to do is be alone repeating a bunch of confusing exercises that take too long to show results. In his talk “Physical therapy is boring – play a game instead,” TED Fellow Cosmic Mihaiu demos a fun, cheap software solution that turns boring physical therapy exercises into video games with clear instructions.

TED speakers also share how games can help people recover from injuries and process loss.

When game designer Jane McGonigal found herself bedridden and suicidal following a severe concussion, she had a fascinating idea for how to recover. She dove into the scientific research and created the healing game called SuperBetter. SuperBetter uses gaming tactics to help users recover while building physical, mental, emotional and social strength.

When Amy Green’s young son was diagnosed with a rare brain tumor, she made up a bedtime story for his siblings to teach them about cancer. That story developed into a video game called “That Dragon, Cancer,” which takes players on a journey they can’t win. In Amy’s TED Talk about coping with loss, she brings joy and play to tragedy. “We made a game that’s hard to play,” she says, “because the hardest moments of our lives change us more than any goal we could ever accomplish.”

Whether a new mHealth app, corporate wellness program or simply gamification more broadly – innovators are beginning to harness the power of games and play to improve health outcomes.

5 unusual digital health innovations at CES 2018