it’s “game on” in the world of workplace wellness

June 8, 2011

in health games,reviews: products, services, books,wellness

have you heard of virgin healthmiles? shape up the nation? limeade?

how about redbrick health? keas or meyou health?

it’s likely a few of these are familiar, if not more. they’re all companies providing workplace wellness solutions with some level of game mechanics. game mechanics use different responses to reinforce and guide choices. they’re meant to engage an audience and to keep that audience hooked. with foursquare, as an example, it’s badges and status. you check into a place (choice) and earn badges (response). you elevate your badge level from newbie to mayor (response) the more times you check in (choice). the desire to earn badges and the related social status drive you to check in more frequently.

with workplace wellness, game mechanics strive to make the hard fun, the undesirable desirable. that’s why more workplace wellness companies are latching on to the concept. they’re seeing the promise in motivating employees with rewards, status and other responses to do everything from exercise a bit more, eat a little better or sleep a tad longer to find control at work and develop a hobby. with the launch of keas’ enterprise solution this month and the impending announcement that meyou health is targeting employers, too, i think we’ve just witnessed workplace wellness shift tack. it’s “game on.”

each of these solutions works slightly differently. virgin healthmiles uses wearable devices and a guided process to increase a person’s physical movement. employees earn rewards as they reach new levels of activity. virgin also relies on social accountability and communication to keep people’s feet to the pavement. shape up the nation follows a similar approach, though they’re expanding their 10-week team challenge to a full-year calendar of activities and competitions. in this way, they’ll echo limeade’s more customizable solution, which allows employers and employees to use limeade’s existing programs and to add activities that better reflect their goals and priorities. like the other workplace solutions, employees are rewarded with social support and incentives for a job well done. not having demoed and not having a client that uses redbrick health, i’m least familiar with it. from publicly available information, it appears to follow the same format of personalized solutions, team interaction and individual rewards. keas also lets users drive their experience, selecting personal health goals that are then team-supported and rewarded based on achievement.

it’s meyou health that falls outside the fold. as of this blog post, meyou health, a healthways inc. subsidiary, is still a consumer product. they’re planning to announce their enterprise solution soon. until then, we won’t know which of their available products will be available to employers. it’s a safe bet that their “daily challenge” will be. it delivers daily micro-challenges to all users, allowing them to self-select which they want to make. these, along with community exchange and, again, badges are meant to grab people’s interest and spur them on from small lifestyle changes to larger ones.

this is the ever-present hurdle with workplace wellness. what will keep people on track? each of these solutions shares strong results. shape up the nation and virgin healthmiles, two of the more mature companies, have evidence of sustained behavior change. but here, even with the rewards, recognition, and social accountability, today’s workplace wellness solutions have an albatross—wholesomeness. don’t be fooled into thinking health games are by nature wholesome. hopelab’s re-mission is a first-person shooter game à la call of duty: black ops. with these workplace wellness solutions, the wholesome factor may be because of the audience they’re geared to, on many levels. first, there’s the employer. when employers shy away from social channels, it’s hard to imagine them embracing games that feel too, well, game-like. creators of workplace wellness solutions have to be considering this when they’re designing their approach. second, there’s the mass audience these solutions are targeting. they’re built for everyone in a company, and that can span millennials to baby boomers. it’s challenging to create an approach that’ll appeal to this broad spectrum of individuals and the health challenges they face. still, workplace wellness solutions need to figure out how to shed the good-for-you image. we may want the gains associated with healthier choices, but choosing to “avoid high-fat dairy” and “eat only healthy snacks” has a granola-crunching pollyanna-ishness to it that’s undesirable. health in general needs a makeover—but that’s a post for another day.

for now, let’s close by noting that the prevalence of workplace wellness companies offering solutions with game mechanics should make other workplace wellness providers, including insurers, quake in their boots. it’s no longer sufficient to provide health libraries and attention-must-not-be-paid webinars on how to get your five fruits a day. today’s consumer—and we want employees to be health care consumers, right?—are more sophisticated, more easily distracted, and more apt to move on to the next best thing. we need to bring it. game on.


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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Carol Harnett June 8, 2011 at 9:36 am

nicely done, as always, fran.

iive wondered why these companies haven’t embedded their games into applications that are part of something people already use – like facebook. i assume it’s part economics, part fear of being part of a much larger universe for which they have little control.

it would be interesting to have a linkedin app. i haven’t seen an application yet that along this line that is targeted for this more work-related social network.

p.s. my attempt at all lower-case is my #ff hat tip to you 😉


fran June 9, 2011 at 7:54 am

thanks for the lowercase tribute, carol. sounds like you struggled against the grammarian within you!

i agree with you about connecting to or embedding in applications people already use. that’s particularly important when you consider trying to reach the family. they’re not behind the firewall. i suspect it’s going to be a slow migration. many companies have to start by getting their benefits information onto the internet and then optimized for mobile tools.

meyou health’s daily challenge connects with facebook. this may go back to their consumer products roots.



David Reeves June 8, 2011 at 6:49 pm

Great post!

The trend toward “gamifying” wellness is really a recognition that fundamentally, more information, education and money really aren’t the solution. Most people know that they should exercise and eat right, and they at least have an idea of what that means.

Ultimately, it’s about moving the rewards for self-improvement forward from some undetermined point in the future to the here and now.

But even though there’s some inherent manipulation of our psychology of attention and decisions, when done right, it helps us do things we wanted to do anyway but were never able to adequately prioritize in each moment.

It’s interesting that you call out a wholesome feel as a weakness for games in the workplace; I have the feeling that’s really code for “boring and irrelevant” – producing the same roll-your-eyes reaction you see when HR tries to get people to do team-building exercises.

For sure, designers of a program or game that’s trying to target everyone in a company is going to be operating under a different set of parameters than, say, Forza. Many fewer shared assumptions about ability, cultural knowledge and interests. And, they’re selling to a buyer who most likely isn’t signing in to world of warcraft every night.

Different kinds of people play games for many different reasons; for some, it’s about status; others, cooperation and sociability; for others, it’s about crushing the competition. Etc.

But a well-designed program/game should be able to tap into a variety of different dispositions and motivations, while still passing the bar of the HR buyer.

A few challenges we’ve been thinking a lot about:
– How to help everyone feel a sense of real meaning in the program?
– How do you create spaces for autonomy, voluntary participation and self-direction in employer-sponsored games?
– How to make a system that’s relevant to each person and each office?


fran June 9, 2011 at 8:08 am

david, thanks for the thoughtful response. really well said, the idea of using games to help us do what we want to do anyway.

in terms of my “wholesome” comment, it was definitely not intended as code for “boring and irrelevant.” that’d be sad — i’d have to really question what i’m doing with my life (and why) if i thought that! what i was trying to say was that health in general has a burden to bear. few of us excitedly dish about the delicious quinoa salad we ate last night the way we do about a chocolate mousse, for example. we may once we get hooked, but it’s not our default setting. or our default’s been reset over the years.

while i think we’re in a moment where health is all around us, i also think health has a brand problem. it smacks of “good for you,” and we don’t always want what’s good for us, especially when, as you noted, we have a difficult time skipping something now for the benefits it’ll deliver later–sometimes much later.

one thing i really like about limeade’s solution is its inclusion of more philosophical/spiritual or mental goals. when you say “help everyone feel a sense of real meaning,” what does that mean?

thanks again for commenting,


David Reeves June 9, 2011 at 10:16 am

I should probably be clear what I mean by “boring and irrelevant” — that it simply doesn’t speak to people in a language that resonates, even though everyone knows it’s the right thing.

While I was out for a bike ride yesterday, it occurred to me that a show like the Simpsons is actually a pretty good analogy – it’s tame enough to be broadcast on national TV, but is so multilayered (physical, slapstick, dense cultural references) that people with some pretty different sensibilities can find something to love.

Where’s the health game equivalent?

To answer your question about meaning: efforts, including games, are most powerful when there’s a sense that it’s all adding up to something bigger — in the case of a wellness program, beyond whatever incentive or carrot is offered. Maybe that’s social status in a wellness game; maybe that’s being around for your kids. It’s different for each person.


fran June 9, 2011 at 10:32 am

i should send you the ad from “the mood” shop i just passed — speaking of irreverent yet tame enough to be in a store window. the chasm between how we experience the world at large and the world at work is too vast. it’s time for the business world to let its hair down!

i getcha on the meaning definition. yes, this is exactly where my point about wholesomeness and yours about meaning collide. do i find “being healthy” compelling enough to give up high-fat cheese? nuh-uh. will i cut back to help rob, my husband, stick around a lot longer? yup.



Henry Albrecht June 8, 2011 at 7:42 pm

i knew Dave would provide a better reply than I could from Limeade Global HQ 🙂


fran June 9, 2011 at 8:09 am

yeah. you have a good spokesperson there, henry.



Greg Matthews June 9, 2011 at 11:26 am

You know what would be cool? A wiki that listed all of the health games/apps out there that are tailored to workplace wellness … something that the whole #co_health community could contribute to. You’ve listed the biggies, but I like the smallies too …;;!/wellthyapp


fran June 9, 2011 at 2:52 pm

sounds like a job for #co_health chick.


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