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Pharma’s Call of Duty

Updated: Aug 28, 2020

Words by Michaila Byrne

‘Just one more level and then I’ll go to bed…’ This plea has often echoed down the headsets of gaming enthusiasts, but likely was never followed with the legitimate justification ‘…because it’s good for me!’

Since the golden age of arcade gaming, gamers have been warned of the varying and potentially harmful side-effects. Long have we feared and fought against the popular pastime, but now, in this increasingly remote era, the pharmaceutical industry is beginning to acknowledge and harness the power of games for good. In embracing their potential as both a digital therapeutic (DTx) and an educational tool, pharma can not only encourage positive behavioural practices, but also change health outcomes for the better.

From candy crush puzzles to immersive real-world simulations, games are as varied as they are useful: a tool for good, ill, and all shades in between. Olli Rundgren, CEO, Psyon Games, explains the addictive, engaging nature of gaming: “The two most important aspects are habits and learning. Games have great power to teach you something… first you learn, then you build the habit loop. After that, you don’t actually have to make decisions anymore. It’s automatic behaviour.”

In partnership with pharma companies, Psyon Games operate within therapeutic areas such as diabetes, oncology, respiratory medicine, and immunology. Rundgren suggests that games can help wherever “there is a need to improve disease awareness, shorten time to diagnosis, increase treatment efficiency, and increase compliance or adherence.” For example, as players engage with Psyon Games’ WHO-endorsed ‘Antidote’ game, they learn about the acquired immune system and how vaccines are made.

But their value is not limited to a singular end-user; games can be played by physicians, patients, and carers alike. These can be of particular use to practitioners based in the developing world, they may not necessarily have access to conferences or simulations, but will likely have access to a smartphone. Thus, the opportunity to improve physician performance on a global scale is enormous. Sam Glassenberg, Founder and CEO, Level Ex, explains: “We are capturing the challenges of medical practice as video game mechanics. Whether it is the puzzle of diagnosing a difficult patient, the hidden object game of finding precancerous polyps in a colonoscopy, or the physics puzzle of removing a nail from a patient’s airway.” By applying this “neurochemical recipe”, audiences can improve their skills, and ultimately change their behaviour.

And patients can benefit too. Presenting at the Digital Health Summit 2020, Matt Omernick, Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer, Akili, affirms this characterisation of “a video game as medicine” and advocates for their use as remote tools in a post-COVID-19 world. Akili’s game, EndeavorRx™, enables families of patients with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) aged 8–12 to track symptoms and observe behaviour; unearthing commonalities and trends of good and bad health days. In addition, Akili’s ‘Neuroracer’, was announced this year as the first FDA-approved video game therapeutic. The game positions players in a car race simulation to discern relevant cues from distracting ones. This multitasking activity has led to substantial improvements in completing external tasks that involve sustained attention and working memory, generating an overall improvement in mental cognition. For behavioural conditions like ADHD and depression, this burgeoning ecosystem is rife with opportunity. “This is real medicine and the data is crystal clear to show there is something significant going on in these experiences: they are very powerful. It is very evident that games do change the brain,” says Omernick.

Notably, the opportunity for pharma to acquire data to optimise products and services is hugely significant but largely unrealised. “The gaming industry is one of the most data-collecting industries; information is used to improve user experience, create feedback and habit loops, increase retention, increase social sharing, in-game design, meaningful marketing messages, and community behaviour. We are between the pharmaceutical industry’s data needs and the gaming industry,” explains Rundgren.

We have long dismissed video games as, at best, a frivolous waste of time, and, at worst, detrimental to our health. But now, with emerging data, it is becoming increasingly possible that through collaboration with non-traditional industries and by embracing the neuroscience of game design, we could be prescribing games sooner than ever predicted. Two industries, alike in their capacity for data collection and in their ability to improve outcomes for end-users: will they unite? Player one (gaming) and player two (pharma)...ready?

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