Games4health Challenge: Innovation through Gamification

The University of Utah will be tasking students from around the world to tackle real-world issues ranging from health and fitness to psychological wellbeing at this year’s second annual Games4Health Grand Prix Competition. With prize money totaling $50,000, the Games4Health challenge is set to be the largest competition of its kind in the world.

This year there are 120 students competing on 40 teams from 10 universities across four different countries. Two teams will be flying in from South Korea as well as a team flying in from Australia and another from Spain. There will also be a number of American teams competing including teams from BYU Hawaii, BYU, The University of Utah, Utah State University, The University of Arizona, The University of Texas, among many others.

The competition, which is being hosted by the Sorenson Center for Discovery and Innovation [SCDI], has doubled in size in its second year according to SCDI Executive Director and Professor of Innovation Christopher Wasden.

The Sorensen Center for Discovery and Innovation has a four part lab called the “Digital Sandbox” for students that includes Internet of things innovation, simulation and gamification, data analytics and visualization, rapid prototyping user experience.

The Games4Health challenge falls under the category of gamification based innovation.

The process of gamification takes the principles and mechanics that support game activities and incorporates them into other types of activities that people may be less inclined to participate in in order to create greater levels of engagement.

“Applying these things to activities that we haven’t normally gamified such as fitness, health, diabetes prevention or management, or following prescription drug regiments, that’s what the ultimate goal is,” Wasden said.

One example Wasden provided was of a game developed in partnership between the Sorenson Center for Discovery and Innovation and the Entertainment Art and Engineering program at the University of Utah. The phone-based game humorously titled “Save Your Bacon” was developed for their client Arches Healthcare, and was designed to help promote the purchase of health insurance among college students.

The game was essentially a quick reaction and timing app in which players would tap icons that would appear on screen as quickly as possible to avoid accidents that would cost them money without insurance. The accidents could range from minor bumps and bruises to catastrophic injury. In the end the player’s goal was to avoid going bankrupt without insurance for as long as possible.

“The goal was to show you that based on who you are and the activities you participate in what the associated risk is of not having health insurance and the economic consequences,” Wasden said. “Young people tend to think of themselves as invulnerable and that they can do anything that they want with no consequences, where as this clearly shows you what the consequences could be.That’s just one example of gamification.”

Students at this year’s Games4Health Grand Prix will be competing across three different tracks. One will be a game design track called “The Wireframe Track” where they will have to create a basic layout for a game design.

There will also be a “Game Track” where the contestants will actually develop a functioning playable demo of their game.

The final track will be a “Mod Track” which allows contestants to create a module [a modification of existing game files to create something new]. Students competing in the “Mod Track” will be able to create either a functional demo of their Mod or a wireframe layout similar to the other two tracks.

The design requirements for these tracks can fall under three broad range categories in which students will be competing. The first is “Well Being,” which encompasses health, wellness, fitness, positive psychology and more. The second is “Home Therapies” which will allow games and gamification applications for home-based care as opposed to a clinical environment. Lastly, there is the “Clinical” category which would include games developed specifically for clinical use and prescription.

There are a number of corporate sponsors who will be partnering with the University of Utah to provide cash prizes for the teams competing for their specific challenges. One example of this is MetLife who will be sponsoring a challenge tasking teams with developing a game or game concept that will address the issue of distracted driving.

“They want students to gamify the driving experience to reduce distractions, whether that distraction be a phone call, text message, or other activities such as having too many people in the car or having the music too loud,” Wasden said. “We have six teams that will be competing in that challenge and MetLife will be providing prizes for the best designs in that category.”

Other challenges will be made available through partners such as the iThrive program from the Centerstone Research Institute, local health plan provider Arches Health, and the Sorenson Center for Discovery and Innovation

These challenges will range in category from positive psychology and resilience, to getting youth to sign up for health insurance,  to Fitness, and more.

Last year the Games4Health challenge offered a total of $25,000 in prizes with this year doubling that to $50,000. Wasden said his hope is to double that yet again for next year’s challenge.

“We’d like to have 250 students competing from 10 different countries and 25 universities in the future,” Wasden said. “This summer we will be creating an online version of the courses I teach so that students would be able to take my courses online in the fall and learn how to compete in the challenge and meet the submission requirements, allowing them to compete in next spring semester’s challenge.”

According to Wasden The University of Utah is really one of the only entities in higher education making an effort to push events such as the Games4Health challenge forward in academia and beyond, but with some of the best gaming, health and business programs in the entire country, one would be hard pressed to find a better home for the annual game design competition.

“We’re the only ones who have really begun doing this. It’s not as though we have 10 other universities competing with us or trying to do it better. Simply, no other universities have stepped up to innovate here, making us the largest Games4Health challenge in the world,” Wasden said. “We have the number two game design program in the country, we have one of the top 10 medical systems in the country, and we are the number 20 top entrepreneurship program in the country among MBA schools. So when you take the top gaming, top medical, and top business schools in the nation and put them in one place, who better is there to be doing this type of stuff than us.”

Bringing about innovation in the world of health-based gaming isn’t without it’s challenges however. Wasden explained that despite a push for growth in the gamification of the health industry in the past, not a lot of progress has been made. This isn’t necessarily due to a lack of potential within the field, but rather a steeper learning curve than many of the research field’s early and enthusiastic supporters anticipated.

“It’s been a lot harder than many people have thought to take the main principles of gaming and apply them to some of the more boring aspects of life to turn them into more fun and engaging activities,” Wasden said. “We’re part of the group now who has said that while a lot of people may have become disillusioned with this [the concept of gamification], we believe that there is something here and we’re starting to see how these principles could work and make a difference in the future.”

This year’s Games4Health Challenge has seen significant growth over the previous year not only in terms of the number of student teams competing and the amount of sponsored prizes being given away, but also in the number of international teams getting involved. Wasden said that much of the international growth that the challenge has seen this year came about through a partnering professor, Doug Han, from Chung-Ang University in Seoul, South Korea. Through his help the Games4Health challenge was able to bring in student teams from Chung-Ang University and Korea University allowing for a more international focus.

The challenges associated with moving into the international space have given Wasden and his team at the Sorenson Center for Discovery and Innovation some ideas for the future of the Games4Health Grand Prix competition.

“Clearly working on an international level has been a huge challenge, but one of the things we found early on was that just moving beyond the boundaries of the University of Utah campus was going to be a big challenge,” Wasden said. “Figuring out how to get the word out to people about the Games4Health challenge or provide the training for students so they know what they are doing became very difficult to accomplish. We plan to start earlier next year, pushing the event more aggressively to expand it and try to double the size.”

In addition to their partnership in bringing international teams to the Games4Health challenge, the Sorenson Center for Discovery and Innovation will be partnering with Chun-Ang University this year to create a center for gaming development and research in South Korea. During the Games4Health event on March 31, the President of Chung-Ang University will be meeting with the President of the University of Utah to participate in a number of the events going on as part of the challenge as well as to sign a memorandum of understanding regarding the partnership for the new research center which is set to open in September 2015.

“The research conducted at the new center will have a physiological focus due to the work of our partnering Korean professor, Doug Han,” Wasden said. “We will have imaging technology allowing us to image the brain and understand how games are impacting people mentally. We will also have a commercial focus to understand what business models are most successful in developing and promoting games as well as a clinical focus to look at the different aspects of game application both within and outside of the health field. So really, it’s going to be a very broad based digital game development and research center.”

The Games4Health Challenge will take place over the course of two days. Monday, March 30 the University of Utah will be hosting a summit at Snowbird which will include skiing throughout the day with a large break in the middle of the day for lunch and a keynote address by Jeff Peters, an expert in gaming who has worked for a number of professional game design studios, along with a 20 year history in health-based gaming.

March 31 will focus on a three hour workshop on gaming in the educational environment, creating a pipeline for student engagement and success and how to support them. The workshop will be followed by an open arcade event from 12 to 3 p.m. which will allow attendees to view and even go hands on with a number of the games developed by the student teams for the challenge. The events on the March 31 will wrap up with the signing event with both the Faculty from Chung-Ang University and the University of Utah followed by a Gala event and award ceremony where the challenge participants, and judges will be in attendance.

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