Gaming for good

Harnessing the power of play to make a positive impact on health, technology and society.

Luis Villasmil, Unsplash

With blockbuster wild west adventure Red Dead Redemption 2 dominating the video game charts, it’s clear that creators Rockstar Games have another monster hit on their hands.

As the game takes over 60 hours to complete and sales are predicted to top 20 million units by the end of the year, that’s a serious chunk of time that fans will collectively be investing in gaming. While there’s undoubted appeal in escaping into a virtual realm as our society goes to hell outside our windows, some might argue that this time could be better spent sorting out the real world rather than faffing around in a digital one.

Well, guess what? The two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Here are five fascinating examples of games that are making a positive impact on health, technology and society, all through the power of play.


When world-leading game designer Jane McGonigal suffered a catastrophic head injury, she found herself battling memory loss, depression and suicidal thoughts. In the depths of her despair, she did the only thing she could do to get herself out of it: she turned her recovery into a game. By using the sorts of addictive dynamics that underpin games such as World of Warcraft, and by recruiting her friends and family to assist her in daily quests, Jane gradually motivated herself back to health.

Her experience went on to form the basis of SuperBetter; a best-selling book, app and online game designed to help other people combat debilitating conditions.

Jane’s techniques have been clinically proven and now help thousands of players to combat everything from anxiety and insomnia to chronic pain and depression.

Google Quick Draw

As artificial intelligence continues to be revolutionise multiple industries, the opportunities seem almost unlimited. But, in order to help AI reach its full potential, researchers are continually pushing the boundaries of what these technologies can do. Increasingly this means getting better at tasks that humans are naturally good at but computers tend to struggle with, such as abstract image recognition.

Like a machine-learning version of Pictionary, Google’s Quick Draw challenges players to doodle images in response to a series of on-screen prompts. Google’s neural network will then attempt to decipher these as fast as possible, getting smarter with each drawing it decodes. So far over 15 million players have created more than 50 million drawings, helping to advance Google’s handwriting recognition technology whilst building a vast open-source research database.


When people play together, they can achieve extraordinary things. Nowhere is this better evident than in the field of citizen science games, where mass participation can unlock some seriously impressive real-world breakthroughs.

Take Eyewire as an example – a neuroscience game designed to map the human brain in order to better unlock its secrets. Here, users are tasked with solving a series of 3D puzzles that help to identify the structure of neurons. Each game played helps to validate the results from other players, building collective wisdom and reducing the reliance on clinical analysis. Since its launch over a quarter of a million players have helped Princeton University’s researchers to map over 1,000 of these neurons, including six previously undiscovered types.

Zombies, Run!

Everyone knows that getting more exercise can help you live longer. However, for a lot of us, fitness does not always equal fun. As the Pokemon Go phenomenon shows, it is actually possible to motivate gamers to get off their backsides with the right proposition. But, let’s face it, a sedate ramble around the woods hunting down Pikachu isn’t really going to break much of a sweat.

Enter Zombies, Run!, the hit fitness app that adds a heap of horror to your health regime. Players download an interactive audio drama to listen to whilst running, which casts them as the heroes in their very own zombie apocalypse narrative. Tasked with a series of missions to complete, the further players run, the more of the story they unlock, and the harder it becomes to stay ahead of the pursuing undead horde. Since its launch on the iPhone in 2012, the app has been downloaded over four million times and helped players to rack up more than 29 million kilometres worth of high-speed zombie evasion.

The Re-Mission Series

A cancer diagnosis can be terrifying for an adult, let alone for a child. Add in the fact that many of the treatments carry nasty side effects in themselves, and it’s no wonder kids often struggle to take their medication. With missed doses of chemo meds accounting for a significant amount of cancer relapses, this can create some really serious complications.

The original Re-Mission game was designed to help young cancer patients to better understand what was happening inside their bodies. Taking the form of a fast-paced arcade shoot-em-up, players took on the role of a miniature hero in a battle against rogue cancer cells, learning more about the condition as they played.

Re-Mission has now evolved into a whole suite of free-to-play adventures, each one designed to teach players about how their treatments work and why it’s important to see them through.

Developed through a user-centred design methodology, Re-Mission has garnered widespread acclaim and enjoyed some impressive results. To date, the original game alone has empowered over 135,000 players in 81 countries to better manage their conditions. Re-Mission and its sequels are free to download on iOs, Android and Windows.

Gaming for good

So, there we have it, proof that games can actually be good for society after all. Now excuse me whilst I saddle-up, grab my six-shooter and don a pixelated Stetson, I’ve got a virtual sunset to ride off into…

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