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Playing for Time: How Gaming Can Help Treat (and Prevent) Dementia

Playing for Time: How Gaming Can Help Treat (and Prevent) Dementia

Cognitive decline has become a worldwide epidemic, with an estimated 50 million cases reported as of 2021 – a number that is expected to triple in thirty years. As of 2022, 6.5 million in the U.S. alone have dementia, or one in nine people over the age of sixty-five. Some say these growing numbers are due to environmental factors such as exposure to aluminum, power lines, and air and noise pollution, while others point to the fact that we are simply living longer and therefore susceptible to diseases younger people typically don’t experience.  Whatever the case, it is taking a huge emotional and financial toll on sufferers and their families – not to mention the global annual price tag of $605 billion.

Mental Activity to Prevent Brain Decline 

Gamification Miracles

Healthy Competition

Allow More Play

Mental Activity to Prevent Brain Decline

Currently there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, though there are medications that treat the symptoms. A growing body of research suggests that the most powerful tool we have to prevent or slow the decline of brain function is through mental activity, much like physical exercise keeps the body strong and limber. While any kind of activity is better than nothing, play has been particularly effective. For example, a 2021 study found that playing cards and other games can delay dementia by up to five years, while another, which spanned several years, found that engaging in mentally stimulating activities can protect brain health well into one’s nineties.

A much shorter study, just eight weeks, yielded even more exciting results: play, especially when it encompasses both physical and mental training, can actually diminish existing symptoms. The participants were forty-five residents of two Belgian nursing homes, with an average age of eighty-five and severe dementia symptoms. One group trained with Exergame – a machine that combines cognitive and physical exercises, while the other listened to music and watched videos of their own choosing.

Incredibly, after using Exergame for just fifteen minutes three times a week the first group experienced improved cognitive function; the second group, however, got worse. This built upon an earlier, similar study, in 2015, that also had positive results but only tested healthy individuals. The researchers also noted that the typical reluctance of this demographic – elderly and suffering from dementia – to engage in physical exercise was conspicuously absent here. The reason: they had made the “workout” fun… like a game.

Gamification Miracles

While these results certainly seem like something of a miracle, they may not be all that surprising to neuroscientists – or those, for that matter, who employ gamification in their businesses or classrooms.  The former will explain to you how gaming (specifically hitting certain milestones and/or beating other players to reap a reward) releases dopamine, a chemical that stimulates the hippocampus, which is part of the brain’s pleasure centers.

This not only aids in the learning and retention of new information, the recognition of achievement makes it more likely that the user will return to the game and strive to reach the next level. The employer will likely forgo fancy lingo and simply point out that their sales teams are meeting their quotas, mundane tasks that are usually pushed to the side are now being completed, and the culture has become more collegial. Or they may speak to the fact that they use a gaming platform to recruit candidates most aligned with the organization’s mission and as part of their onboarding and ongoing training processes.

Healthy Competition

Similarly, teachers will have noticed that their students are enjoying the material more and are performing better, even when it comes to subjects they avoided in the past – this, because the fun in playing the game reduces stress, a major barrier to comprehension and retention.  Just as importantly, they are learning how to collaborate and compete with each other in healthy ways, a social skill that will serve them well throughout their lives.

On a related note, gamification is also an excellent tool to restore healthy socialization to those with any kind of cognitive impairment. Undoubtedly one of the biggest sorrows for their friends and family is feeling like they have lost their loved one, even though they are physically present.  This study discusses the benefits of digital play in terms of changing the public perception of people with dementia by showing that they can participate in activities and, hopefully, will lead to their being included more frequently.  Positive feedback provided throughout the game is key here, as it helps to keep the user, whether they are impaired or not, remain engaged.

Allow More Play

Finally, if you’re worried that you haven’t “played” enough throughout your adulthood to prevent dementia, don’t be. Researchers have also found that your behaviors as you get older are actually more determinative in the prevention or reduction of dementia symptoms. The ability of the human brain to rewire and regenerate itself is nothing short of astounding, and we have barely scratched the surface.  In the meantime, we have our wake-up call to introduce more play into our lives, starting today.

 

Gamification Build or Buy

Gamification Build or Buy

Gamification Build or Buy

Several Factors Impacting Success

The saying “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should” usually refers to something being technically legal, acceptable, et cetera, but possibly not the most ethical or prudent. In the case of gamification, the caveat is more like, “The likelihood of higher revenue and/or better employee engagement is not an invitation to run headlong into the process without due diligence.”  Indeed, while the decision to gamify is probably a matter of “when” rather than “if,” there are several factors to consider than can impact your platform’s success, and the health of your company. One of these is whether you should buy that platform or build your own.

For most businesses, making the decision to use gamification is basically a no-brainer.  It capitalizes on the psychological and neuroscientific effects of gaming, such as lighting up the pleasure centers of the brain and improving data retention, to increase user enjoyment, motivate them to seek rewards or avoid loss and, hopefully, keep coming back. The result is a positive ripple that can affect every aspect of the company. Employees become more productive because the mundane tasks they usually avoid are more palatable – and even fun; moreover, the prizes and leaderboards for a stellar performance create an environment of both collaboration and healthy competition. The same is true for mandatory (and often snooze-worthy) trainings on new product lines or best practices. On the consumer side, users might be more excited about the rewards (i.e. points after purchasing a certain number of lattes) than the product or service – unless, of course, the product involves learning (i.e. Duolingo’s language courses), in which case the user is motivated by their own achievements. That said, while the benefits of gamification are obvious, the process to getting there may not be.

1. Money

2. Time

3. Plan Ahead

Money

Money. For many businesses, the decision will be driven by cost. Whether you buy or build a platform, you will be paying, not just for the technology but the knowledge of experts who design and maintain it. The price tag in either case is nothing to sneeze at, with a wide range in the thousands – or tens of thousands – of dollars for designers, project managers, and front- and back-end developers. It is also an ongoing expense, be it in the form of a subscription fee or freelancers you regularly engage to fix glitches and add new features. Again, the first step is research, research, research. Some of the initial questions you might ask include, “Does the projected increase in revenue from gamifying the purchase process justify our expense?” and “Are there are other measures we can/should put in place before gamifying to improve corporate culture?” The concept of gamification has been around, in one form or another, as long as business itself, so you might start out with an “old school” method as a way of collecting data. For example, if a gamification goal is to motivate a lagging sale team, run a contest for the highest quarterly sales in that department, with increasingly attractive rewards for levels of performance. This way, you will see if the boost warrants taking it to a larger, company-wide scale – and perhaps what sort of platform you need.

Time

Time – This is another big one, not only in terms of human hours to create and/or maintain the platform but the timeliness of making the experience available to users. Let’s say you are launching a new product and want to reward consumers for their purchases. The idea of your own platform may be tempting, but if you don’t have staff dedicated to updating it on a regular basis you may constantly find yourself behind the eight ball – and losing fickle consumers who will quickly turn to your competitors. In this case, licensing it from a SaaS company makes more sense because it will enable you to direct your resources to other aspects of marketing, quality assurance, and so on. On the other hand, when you have your own platform, you can build it incrementally according to your own pace and needs as determined by measurable results and user feedback. This may also be the far more economical option, as every change you implement through a licensing company will result in a much larger bill.

Plan Ahead

Given the above factors, you can see how the decision to buy or build is not a simple one, but requires planning, a realistic assessment of your company’s size and position in its market, and a clear vision of where you want to take it the future. Not everyone will be a Facebook or a Walmart – nor does everyone desire to be. That is the beauty of gamification – its principles apply whether you are a multinational conglomerate or a mom-and-pop operation, allowing you to earn more, build communities and brand recognition, and increase employee satisfaction and retention.  As for your platform, you want to make it a destination spot that attracts people anywhere on the globe, and keeps them coming back, without breaking your bank.