Childhood Health Improved with Virtual Pets

Publication Date
28 April 2016

Childhood Health Improved with Virtual Pets

Increasingly, technology is being used to enable better health outcomes across broad categories of experiences serving wide cross sections of the population. It is being leveraged in ever greater capacities, from helping us manage the medications we take, to helping us find out how to treat a wound, manage clinical trial participation, and even how to live with cancer and the care we are receiving. For any of these important efforts to be successful, the technology interventions we use and how we use them must be made with consideration of the intended audience in mind and how the technology used is driving the outcomes we seek.

It is common practice to make adults responsible for their own health outcomes. Parents are responsible for the health needs and outcomes for their children as well as themselves. One of the reasons, of course, is a child’s inability to effectively manage the complexity of their condition and treatment and the associated mental load that is placed on the child. To that end, engaging an effective behavior driver that assists children in managing their condition without pushing the stress of associated health outcomes on them can be an effective health aid.

Creating Engagement via Gamification

One method of effectively engaging children is through games, or in the context of technology, the gamification of an experience. In this case it is the gamification of the health care experience. It’s significant to note that it isn’t always necessary or even desirable to create a new gamification model to drive health outcomes. Not only does it introduce a large, risky, and complex design effort, it also is likely to take several iterations to get the engagement recipe correct. Instead it can be useful to take advantage of existing, wildly popular, commercially proven gamification models that ladder up to the context of health aids to drive health based outcomes.

The challenge is to engage children in a way that the game play model divorces the negative pressures of care management from the day to day tasks that the care demands. It must do this in the context of delighting the user rather than pressuring or coercing them.

One solution to this challenge is to present child users with an ‘adoptable pet’ that shares the same condition the child does. Because they share a condition and effects, the relationship between the child and pet grows strong rapidly.

In addition to adopting the pet, the child becomes the primary care giver for their pet and is thus responsible for making sure their basic needs as well as their treatment regimen are met. This gives us a scaffolding to support the child’s health needs without pushing the associated stress of ‘health’ concerns on them. When the child needs water, food, sleep, medicine, etc. the pet needs it as well. By giving the pet what it needs it also serves as a contextual reminder that the child needs the same thing too. This works to strengthen the bond between child and pet as a shared condition and treatment provides a basis for understanding in a way that is difficult to otherwise achieve with an adult, let alone a child.

This is, in essence, the same gamification model as the original Tamagotchi, a virtual pet of the 1990s and 2000s. First introduced in 1996 in Japan, Tamagotchi’s had sold more than 76 million units worldwide by 2010, proving the game model works across cultures, languages, and interaction models based on the technology used to make the pets.

One benefit is that as the child grows, so can the relationship and communication between them and their pet.

As the child becomes conditioned to the needs of their pet they also become increasingly aware of their own needs. Slowly, and most importantly, self discoverably, the child begins to associate cause and effect from the pet onto themselves. It is easy to see how missed treatments effect the pet and the child begins to be able to see the same things in themselves.

When the child misses a medication, their pet misses theirs as well. In that way we can use the state of the pet as a driver for user behavior. Most effectively we can use the visual state of the pet to trigger a highly motivated response. The drive is to make their pet happy and healthy again and the path to that is via proper care. As they repeat this process it becomes integrated with their own care.

An additional benefit is that by going through their treatments together the child is never ‘alone’ and has someone to share the experience with. By initiating conversation around treatment and sharing common fears, the pet can gain the user’s confidence.

Because this is a model for a health aid platform for children their is a need for a companion application so all of the child’s interactions can be tracked and reported to parent’s and any associated circle of care.

Sometimes it’s not inventing something new as much as realizing what we can harness from the past.


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