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Gamification of physical activity: Beat the Street and Pokémon Go

This guest blog is by Katherine Knight, Marketing Director at Intelligent Health, whose public health initiative Beat the Street is one of our 50 New Radicals of 2016. Find out more

Since launching in the US on 6 July, Pokémon Go has become a global phenomenon with millions of downloads and more active users than Twitter. The game has been attributed with improving mental health, establishing augmented reality as mainstream and boosting traffic to local businesses.

Pokémon Go has also caused a massive spike in physical activity similar to that seen following New Year’s Resolutions. While the game’s main intention was not to transform the health of its players, it has clearly demonstrated the powerful potential of gamification as a means to get people active.

Gamified design has already been recognised by leading organisations in transport, nature, and the voluntary sector as a way to engage new audiences and change behaviour, but only recently have we come to understand how gamification can be used to dramatically increase physical activity and improve public health.

Changing habitual behaviours such as inactivity or driving to school and work has proven difficult via traditional health initiatives. Gamification provides new opportunities move people towards a more active lifestyle by providing positive incentives and rewards for players who get moving. In the case of Pokémon GO, the incentive to catch and collect as many Pokémon as possible is enough to nudge players to go outside and get active.

Gamification offers advantages over other types of physical activity campaigns due to its ability to bypass the perceived barriers to becoming active. Gamified design can deliver health through stealth by encouraging people to play a fun, free game rather than take part in a fitness scheme.

The impact of gamifying health can be clearly seen in Intelligent Health’s Beat the Street initiative which transforms communities into playable cities. At the heart of Beat the Street is a six-week game where residents are encouraged to explore their local area by tapping cards and fobs against special sensors – Beat Boxes - distributed across their town. Players are rewarded with points, can create teams and earn prizes depending on how far they run, walk or cycle.

Chosen as one of Nesta and The Observer’s New Radicals 2016, Beat the Street has helped transform the health of thousands of people with 500,000 people to have played the game by the end of 2016. In 2015, 1 out of every 7 participating adults said they were inactive at the start of the game - but by the end, 78% of these people reported that they had become more active. Most importantly, Beat the Street is able to produce a sustained change in players’ behaviour with around half of players continuing to be more active six months after completing the game.

The success of Beat the Street is due to the free, simple and fun game at its core. Players are lifted in physical activity by being encouraged to play a game rather than take part in a health campaign - the most common reported benefits of playing the Beat the Street are ‘having fun’, ‘exploring their local area’ or ‘spending time with friends and family’ rather than getting active. However, as the game progresses, players may discover that they have become more active without realising and their perceived barriers to physical activity are broken down.

The game is highly visible with players tapping cards against Beat Boxes in their area and talking about Beat the Street with friends and colleagues. Beat the Street engages huge proportions of the population – a programme in part of Hounslow saw 37% of local residents participate in the game. As a result, the game creates a social norm around physical activity, where it is more social to walk, run and cycle rather than drive or stay at home.

The gamification of physical activity is nothing new – we have been playing games in playgrounds and in sport for centuries. We are also social animals and games can help bring us together. Gamified design can reach people outside of playgrounds and sports fields and provide communities with new opportunities to enjoy their town and get active.

Author

Katherine Knight

Katherine is the Marketing Director at Intelligent Health. She combines a love of being active with blue chip experience in sports marketing and PR.