Op-Ed: Positive Psychology at Games for Health

Op-Ed: Positive Psychology at Games for Health


Julie Price, CEO of Mobile Adventure Walks, is an expert in human factors, UX, marketing, and product management. After analyzing gym members psychological and behavior profiles, Julie began building technology products to change behavior. Her designs and tests evaluated different interactions, themes, voices, and game-mechanics that would attract people to move more and eat healthier. Julie earned her MBA from Wharton and participated in Positive Psychology Training.

Attendees at the 2011 Games for Health conference were as diverse as the topics covered over the 3-day event, but the group was united by the shared belief that sometimes games inspire change where other more direct methods fail.

The conference began with Martin Seligman introducing Positive Psychology and the opportunity to create games that incorporate rigorously tested happiness interventions. This recent branch of psychology focuses on well-being and happiness.  The theories are constantly evolving from research around the world, with the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania at the center.

Martin Seligman
Dr. Martin Seligman, father of positive psychology

Dr. Seligman described the evolution of Positive Psychology and the newest research, but the game developers in the room seemed to focus on the new theory of well-being and the concept of positive health as the allure of gamifying the concepts seeped through the room.

The theory of well-being includes five elements: Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and purpose, and Accomplishment. Each element contributes to well-being and all are measurable. A major differentiator between Positive Psychology and other branches of psychology is the emphasis on adding positive elements rather than removing or mitigating the negative.

Current research in Positive Psychology also evaluates the effect of positive health assets that actually “increase health and illness targets”[1]. Dr. Seligman described the studies showing that exercise is a health asset and that being unfit may be more dangerous than being overweight. This insight was well received by those of us creating games to get people moving.

After the keynote in a large group discussion, Dr Seligman asked who would be interested in creating a game that promotes PERMA. Every hand in the room went up and the group rushed to buy Flourish to learn more about Dr. Seligman’s research behind and application of Positive Psychology.

As attendees brainstormed new games to promote happiness, I learned about games currently under development that directly apply psychological principles, including livn.it and AlterActions. The applied psychology theme was prevalent in other games, including my game, Mobile Adventure Walks, which will make walking fun by turning local, casual walking into an adventure.

Mobile Adventure Walk

The iPhone game, which will release late summer, will make the actual experience of walking more fun. We used the principles of PERMA in the experience design, focusing on players’ Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, and Accomplishment. Many exercise games emphasize the reward for completed activity or the support during the activity, but my team has decades of experience in the fitness industry and we have seen how these strategies are not enough to create long-term behavior change.

Our testing uncovered the main attractions to our game: the feeling of adventure and connectedness to the moment and environment (Positive emotion and Engagement).  We expect players to form Relationships and feel a sense of Accomplishment through the game, as is relatively standard for this type of mobile, social game.  Our main goal, however, is to create lasting positive feelings during the act of walking itself.

We want our players to exercise by accident as they learn to enjoy the additional movement in their lives. We all enjoyed this accidental exercise in the Exergame & Active Gaming Expo while we absorbed the new inspiration from the event. I greatly look forward to next year’s event where we can learn about the newest ways to game ourselves into greater health and happiness.

[1] Martin E.P. Seligman, from Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being


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