How gamification is changing health promotion campaigns

Gamification and health promotion

By James Mulvey


Gamification, a growing trend in health promotion, is showing that fun, social experiences can dramatically improve and change people’s behaviour. 

Gamification—applying game incentives such as prompts, competition, badges, and rewards to ordinary activities—is exploding. Consider that the population of CityVille, the social city-building Facebook app, reached 100 million users in just 42 days—a virtual population that is seven times larger than Shanghai, the world’s largest city. Facebook has over 500 million members (which means that one in every 13 persons on Earth is a member). And according to 2011 statistics, 250 million Facebook members log in every day. More than half (53%) of Facebook users play social games. 

Corporations and innovative health care campaigns have also taken notice. By 2015, more than 50 percent of organizations will include gamification into their customer retention strategies, says Gartner, Inc. By 2014, Gartner also predicts that 70 percent of Global 2000 organizations will have at least one gamified application. In 2010, corporations spent $100 million on gamification. In 2012, it’s predicted that this number will rise to $2.8 billion (Source).

Health care has also seen some early innovative uses of gamification—from a Sony PS3 Move motion controller used to help children diagnosed with cancer to the launch of Games for Health, the first peer-reviewed journal dedicated to the research and design of health games and behavioural health strategies. 

So what is gamification exactly?

As the clunky name implies, it’s the process of taking an ordinary activity (like jogging, car sharing, or any behaviour really) and adding game mechanisms to it, including prompts, rewards, leader-boards, and competition between different players.

When used in social marketing and online health promotion campaigns, gamification can be used to encourage a new healthy behaviour such as regular exercise, improved diet, or completing actions required for treatment. Typically, gamification is web-based, usually with a mobile app or as a micro-site.  

Why gamification works: the psychology behind social games

Behavioural change campaigns require an understanding of human psychology, specifically the benefits and barriers associated with a behaviour. For the purposes of health promotion, gamification offers several effective ways to motivate users into action.

The herd mentality

As we’ve explored in other blog posts on behavioural change, social norms can dramatically encourage or discourage the adoption of healthy behaviours. Badges, social media updates about reaching new levels (via push notifications and prompts), and public leader-boards all work to help “normalize” a new behaviour such as eating less salt, exercising, or even green habits like reducing household water consumption.

Virtual status 

Social status is another powerful motivator that can be used with gamification. "We have this tendency to care about what image we portray," says Dan Ariely, a professor of behavioural economics at Duke University. “In real life, there are mansions and handbags. In the gaming world, there are badges," says Ariely.  

Augmented reality

The evolution of mobile apps and the increased accessibility of the web opens the door for really cool, fun ways to augment reality. Health promotion campaigns can move beyond the traditional broadcasting of PSA messages and harness hard-wired psychological triggers such as competition, social recognition, and play.

Successful health promotion gamification campaigns

But does gamification work for health promotion? Although new, there have been several campaigns using gamification techniques that have had remarkable results.

Consider the company NextJump. Their CEO Charlie Kim wanted his employees to exercise regularly. And so, NextJump installed gyms in their offices and created a custom application that rewarded employees for “checking in” to the gyms. With this campaign, around 12% of the company’s staff began a regular workout schedule.

However, the CEO wasn’t satisfied and so NextJump included gamification into their program. Now their employees could form regionally based teams, check-in to workouts, and chart their team’s progress on a leader-board. This had a powerful effect on creating and sustaining a positive behavioural change. With gamification, 70% of NextJump’s employees now regularly work out. 

Similar game mechanics have been used in sustainability campaigns. Recyclebank, for example, is a campaign aimed at increasing household environmental compliance. The site uses game mechanics such as points, challenges, and rewards to increase daily green habits like recycling, and conserving water. The campaign has seen a 16% increase in recycling in Philadelphia. It also has over 100K fans on Facebook and over 2 million members. 

Other behavioural change campaigns that have used social gaming include the Speed Camera Lottery which reduced speeding by 22% in Sweden. It also received worldwide coverage from ABC to BBC Worldwide Service. And products like Fitbit allow users to track their healthy behaviours through the day, including miles traveled, calories burned, and stairs climbed.

A better way to think about health promotion and digital channels

By Redbird Communications.

This eBooklet is going to change how you think about digital health promotion campaigns.

We are going to depart from the usual mix of online tactics that many national non-profits, government agencies, and organizations use to raise awareness and change behaviour.

We will show you why the digital components of most health promotion campaigns fail to attract large audiences or make much of an impact.

Our hope is that you will see the possibility in digital and better understand how audiences are using these channels.

online health promotion

What your organization will discover:

By the end of the eBooklet, your organization will understand:

  • Why social sharing campaigns often fail with health promotion.
  • Why many health promotion sites do not attract large numbers of visitors.
  • Three essential frameworks to help rethink the way digital can be used in health promotion. 

Advanced online health promotion insights

Redbird's guide offers a compact analysis of current digital health promotion strategies and tactics.

It analyzes several provincial and national campaigns, showing that health promotion organizations have fallen behind in their understanding of how to attract large numbers of visitors to their campaigns.

The guide offers a new framework for creating successful campaigns. These three frameworks are detailed below. 

Principle #1: Add value with a unique audience asset. This is much different than creating a blog or interactive tool.

Principle #2: Interrupt at the point of need. The guide shows concrete examples of how mobile targeting and digital channels offers a much more relevant and contextual way to reach your target market.

Principle #3: Market for intent. You'll see why most current health promotion campaigns misunderstand social and search channels. 

Case Study: ‘Stop Bullying’ Campaign. The guide offers a powerful analysis of Anti-Bullying campaigns, showing how these campaigns could easily make a larger impact with a few easy and inexpensive changes.        

Purchase Redbird's Advanced Guide

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Any questions?

Please email



  • Strategy guide for health promotion organizations
  • Detailed analysis of current digital health promotion tactics
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  • $10 (no tax)



Redbird Communications is a socially conscious marketing communications agency based in Victoria, British Columbia. Founded in March 2001, we help our clients create 'healthy people' and 'healthy places', by raising awareness and changing behaviour. 

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