Bringing "Gamification" to the Serious World of Cancer Care

Bringing "Gamification" to the Serious World of Cancer Care

Michael Jordan Fisch, MD, MPH, FASCO

Aug 06, 2012
About eight years ago, before blogs and twitter were part of our daily world, I was intrigued by entertaining and informative syndicated radio programs such as ”Car Talk” (the talk show featuring “Click” and “Clack”) and “The Motley Fool” (the show about finances). I don’t know much about cars or finances, but I found that I both learned some things and enjoyed the process because of the clever way these programs were put together. I wondered about taking this concept to the world of cancer. My pitch was “let us start a conversation with the public about cancer care and clinical research and sustain that conversation using various media.” But cancer is not fun and games. It is clearly a serious problem, addressed through the serious efforts of focused, highly trained professionals who strive to eradicate this group of dreadful diseases.

While the serious efforts to cure cancer march forward, there has also been increased appreciation for the notion of “gamification” in health care. Gamification is the idea that games can be used to advance a purpose or strategy. Games, after all, are popular. Millions of us have been following the Olympic games quite closely. Games can be fun—they can bring a child’s sense of wonder into any endeavor, and they foster competition and social connection, creativity, and disinhibition. Disinhibition itself is quite useful. Even stuffy adults often enjoy costume parties (like at Halloween), dressing up at sporting events, and even incorporating certain games as “ice-breaking” exercises at work-related retreats and conferences. Sometimes, approaching an issue as a “character” other than oneself, problems can be examined through a fresh lens in a useful way. Games might help us and the patients and families we care for find new opportunities to identify goals and solve certain problems.

I recently blogged on the M. D. Anderson site about two specific games that I learned about that I have found useful enough to mention, in some context, to cancer patients. These games are SuperBetter by Jane McGonigal and Go Wish cards by Coda Alliance. Of note, I am not connected in any fashion with these games or companies, but I found both to be interesting examples of gamification in health care. Maybe a disease like cancer, famous for being serious, isolating, and overwhelming, can be approached with new levels of creativity and optimism and teamwork by inviting some aspects of gamification.


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Don S. Dizon, MD, FACP

Aug, 11 2012 6:28 PM

Dear Mike, This was a really great and thought provoking piece. Perhaps gamification may be a way to connect those patients with less social support who are living with cancer and its treatment? There is a wide world that can be connected digitally and social networks far surpass the importance of even neighborly relations for many. If games could be used as a means to engage our patients in a community, where along with the fun of play comes the support and connection that others can offer, than I am all for it! DD

Michael Jordan Fisch, MD, MPH, FASCO

Aug, 12 2012 11:31 PM

Don, thank you very much for your thoughtful comments. I suspect that many physicians share your approach--they are willing to endorse whatever interventions might be helpful for selected patients, including health-related games.  The ultimate impact of games on health and well-being will undoubtedly be evaluated rigorously through clinical research, much like the impact of other behavioral interventions (such as yoga, mindfulness relaxation, etc.).  As the research evolves, we'll better understand what works, how to properly select patients, and the conceptual and biological basis of gamification. 

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