MeYou Health Enters Social Gaming Realm with Daily Challenge for Improving Well-Being

Could social gaming be used to improve people’s health? Boston-based MeYou Health appears to think there’s a good chance the answer to that question is “yes.” The group plans to release an online social game this week called Daily Challenge, which attempts to get players and their friends on Facebook to adopt healthy behaviors and improve their well-being.

Call it an experiment in healthy competition (pun definitely intended), with a social gaming twist.

MeYou Health, a subsidiary of health improvement services firm Healthways (NASDAQ: HWAY), is banking on the power of social networks to influence people’s physical actions, and the mechanics of gaming to make Daily Challenge a consumer success. While video games like FarmVille and Mafia Wars have exploded in popularity on Facebook, MeYou Health is venturing into mostly uncharted territory with its health-focused social game. Still, Seattle-based Mindbloom has created a social game to motivate players to take actions to improve their health, and the Boston-based startup Practically Green launched a beta website in June to help people live “greener” lifestyles.

“There’s lots of successful examples out there that make it clear that these types of game mechanics really can engage large populations,” Chris Cartter, the general manager and head of MeYou Health, said. “Whether or not [game mechanics] have specific positive health consequences is something we have to prove to ourselves, our customers, and our users.”

Daily Challenge sends players simple tasks for them to complete on a daily basis, and the game encourages them to share their results with their Facebook cronies, who can provide encouragement and (ideally) participate in the game themselves. If players do something healthy—such as taking a walk, eating a vegetable-rich salad, or wearing lip balm that provides ample sun protection—they hit a “Done” button and gain points, earn health badges, and progress toward higher levels of the game. (It’d be easy to cheat in this game since there’s no mechanism to prove that a challenge has been done, but then players would really only be wasting their time and, potentially, misleading their friends.)

The game also includes what it calls the Well-Being Tracker, which gives players an online questionnaire to gauge their overall well-being. To measure people’s well-being, players answer questions about things such as their emotional and physical health and get an overall score. They can see how their score compares with the average score of the people in their network who play the game, Cartter said.

Playing the game will be free, yet its developer plans to work out over the next year whether to offer features in the game that people would pay for with their credit cards, Cartter said. Those features could be focused on helping players quit smoking, increase their physical activity, or achieve some other health-related goal. There’s also a possibility that Healthways could get paid to provide health-improvement products based on the game to companies, which could offer the game to employees as a wellness program.

“If we can engage people, and with that over time demonstrate with credible research that what we’re doing has measurable effects on peoples’ health and well-being,” Cartter said, “then that’s the real [return-on-investment] here.”

Healthways launched MeYou in Boston’s trendy South End in September 2009, Cartter said. The parent company is headquartered about 20 miles south of Nashville in Franklin, TN, but the firm chose to operate MeYou in Boston to access the software engineering and game designing talent in the Hub. The group also operates much like a startup with a small staff of a dozen employees. Prior to leading the launch of MeYou, Cartter was the senior vice president of Internet innovation at Healthways. He also served as CEO of QuitNet, a provider of online smoking cessation services, which Healthways acquired in 2006.

MeYou’s small staff has been busy over the past year. The group previously created Community Clash, an online card game that shows a player how his community’s health statistics stack up against another city’s. The game was noted in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’s Community Health Data Initiative, which is an effort to use the government’s public health data to boost awareness among citizens and communities and influence their decisions about their health. In addition, the group has developed a desktop app called EveryDrink that gives people reminders to help them remember to drink water when they’re at their computers and to help achieve their hydration goals.

This month, MeYou is planning to roll out a Facebook app called Change Reaction that gives players a health-related task to complete and pass along to their friends on the social network. Then it aims to launch an iPhone app called Monumental, which encourages people to climb actual stairs to make their way up virtual versions of famous real-world structures like Paris’s Eiffel Tower and the Sears Tower in Chicago. The app requires and uses the iPhone 4’s built-in accelerometer and gyroscope.

“Our intent is to reach a broad audience, not just those who are already predisposed to playing video games or online social games,” Cartter said.

MeYou, and other companies like it, will learn in the months ahead whether social games and mobile apps that promote healthy behaviors can gain a firm footing among consumers.

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