How does gamification work in therapy?

24 Mar 20212-minute read
TALi How does gamification work in therapy?

'Gamification’ is a word that’s being used more and more in our everyday lives. It’s likely to be a concept that most people know when they see it but struggle to define in its varying contexts.

With gamification in the form of digital therapy playing an increasing role in treatments – including the treatment of issues in children such as learning disorders – it’s good to have an understanding of what gamification encompasses and how it works in a clinical setting.  

What is gamification?

Gamification, as a broad concept, “can be defined as the use of elements (and design) of games in non-related game contexts.” (Deterding et al., 2011)  

“Unlike traditional games, [it] uses game elements with the purpose of encouraging users to perform tasks not related to a game (Werbach and Hunter, 2012). These tasks may [be] linked to, for instance, improving a skill [or] encouraging fitness.” (Silva et al., 2016)

In simpler terms, the motivation at the root of gamification is to use the specific design features of games to stimulate user engagement and interest. Think of apps that require the input of users to inform the information contained with the app (e.g. the way traffic data in Waze or ratings in Uber encourage participation with an incentivised score system) and you have an idea of how gamification works.

How is it applied to therapy for children?

In many ways, the motivation for using gamification in both children and adult therapy are the same.

Gamification has the capacity to increase a person’s motivation, which offers real benefits in a therapeutic environment. The gamification of fitness apps, for example, has been shown to drive improvement and engagement – real-time activity tracking (heart-rate, VO2 capacity, lap timing, etc.) enables users to monitor performance and challenge themselves to better a previous time/distance.

When it comes to treating children, it’s more likely the child will engage with the programs in a positive, productive manner improving the overall efficacy of their treatment. Children are especially susceptible to the incentives that gamification brings, although the response of adults to gamification in a myriad of settings has proven that we never lose the desire to ‘play’. 

Mobile technology also influences the way gamification can be applied to therapy for children. With mobile phones and tablet devices present in nearly every home, kids get to access therapeutic tools beyond the consultation room, and at a time when they’re most likely to receive the maximum benefit of its use ie. relaxed in the lounge room, their bedrooms or at the kitchen table. This is particular useful during a global pandemic when remote health and physical distancing is being enforced.

Accessing programs on a mobile device can also play a role in removing some of the stigma that children may experience from their peers when undergoing therapy. 

Additionally, gamification in therapy has been shown to support wellbeing. As noted by Johnson (2016), “Engaging with gamified applications can directly contribute to wellbeing by generating positive experiences of basic psychological need satisfaction, as well as other elements of wellbeing like positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment.”


The use of digital technology in therapy is still a relatively new area but underpinning this new horizon in treatment are factors that help drive better outcomes, especially for kids. 

Gamification helps improve efficacy across the board by making treatment more accessible on an ‘anytime’ basis, increasing patient motivation and engagement levels, reducing stigma and encouraging greater wellbeing through achievement.

Given current uptake, it’s likely we will see more and more use of gamification in clinical settings in the immediate future.