A Five-Point Collaborative Framework for Making Health & Science Games




We are pleased to present the second edition of the Games for Change Industry Circle, a program that acknowledges the achievements and opportunities in the impact games sector by highlighting leading studios that have made a significant contribution to our community. We hope you enjoy the following piece from Margaret Wallace, CEO of Playmatics, and that we will see you at our YouTube Live session and Q&A with Playmatics on December 15 at 12 p.m. EST. 



5-point framework for making health and science games

By Margaret Wallace, CEO, Playmatics

We live in an amazing time filled with enormous possibilities and many important challenges to overcome. With the emergence of revolutionary new computing platforms, like AR/VR and new technologies, we’re undergoing a major paradigm shift. There’s no better time to be innovating as far as games go and, given what’s at stake, perhaps most urgently in terms of health and science games.

Founded in 2009 by Margaret Wallace (CEO) and Nicholas Fortugno (CCO), Playmatics has roots in games as entertainment, both original and branded IP. The company has since moved into games with strong scientific, research, and health-care intervention components. Our work has been used as a mechanism to support smoking cessation, a device to aid attention training, a means to teach about pterosaurs, and a tool to advance citizen science. Knowing how to collaborate with science and health experts is critical for making games that satisfy often very specific criteria that may eventually impact thousands of lives.

What follows is a framework for collaborating with healthcare professionals and scientists for games. It’s less of a how-to manual and more about the sensibilities one must cultivate to work effectively with people from scientific disciplines outside the game industry. We use this approach with neuroscientists, behaviorists, academics, museum curators, and fellow entrepreneurs.

1. Scientists & Game Creators Part of the Same Team
Science Game Lab (SGL) is an online portal for providing researchers around the world with tools to integrate citizen science games into global leaderboards and more. Made with Dr. Benjamin Good and The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI), we built APIs (application programming interfaces) based on Playmatics designs and held many subsequent discussions with scientists to assess needs. We could have never anticipated many SGL features without this dialogue.

Science Game Lab developer tools panel | The Scripps Research Institute / Playmatics

When scientists, researchers, game designers, and developers operate as part of the same team, magic happens. Experts remain part of the team for the entire product lifecycle: inception, development, research, and commercialization. Without key stakeholders involved throughout, it could be nearly impossible to create fun games that satisfy clinical or research aims.

2. Respect Expertise
As much as teamwork matters, individual areas of expertise must be acknowledged and heeded. Game developers can never assume they’re experts in neuroscience, for example, and neuroscientists probably ought not see themselves as expert game designers. It’s a delicate balance as far as the final product is concerned.

Consider Pterosaurs: The Card Game a companion piece for an exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). The process for making this card game and mobile app educational, fun, and in line with this major museum exhibition entailed working with curators, subject matter experts (SMEs), and conducting design workshops with target audience members all treated as “owners” over their specific knowledge areas.

Pterosaurs: The Card Game | Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History

3. Determine Desired Outcomes Up Front
For health or science games, it’s useful to articulate up front your desired outcomes and how the user experience can help achieve them. Ask questions like how do you define project success? What player faculties are tested? How are player actions measured and evaluated? Determine these desired outcomes in tandem with tracking the usual key performance indicators (players, monetization, retention, attrition) from the outset.

For Pterosaurs, if we had not established desired outcomes at the beginning, game developers and SMEs might have been distracted with too many possibilities, perhaps going beyond scope or utility. Examples of initial goals mandated by The American Museum of Natural History and Playmatics included utilizing the vast materials being generated by the Museum to go along with the Pterosaurs exhibition. Another goal was to create a game with a short session length and a low barrier to entry in terms of understanding how to play. We wanted to also create a game experience that didn’t require an expert in the subject matter to be on-hand for the content to be understood.

4. Plan for Multiple Product Types & Launches
Product people are always making road maps and roll-out plans to define product strategy. Once health or science games are added into the mix, layers of complexity appear. Is the game intended for a laboratory environment? Or a major commercial release? Confusing these purposes can have a devastating impact on the quality of the game and its potential to impact lives. Your game may take a different form depending on these requirements and may have different requirements as far as regulatory, privacy, and “results” go. Best to plan for multiple product releases for the same health or science game from the outset.

5. Fun is Functional
When a game meets all clinical criteria, yet isn’t fun, we say throw it away and start over!. No game should feel burdensome. In our collaboration with Killer Snails for a board game about toxic sea creatures, the challenge involved making teaching about poison fun. We addressed this through an approachable visual style, introducing flow via a fun core mechanic and adding a humorous backstory (“assassins of the sea”). Thanks to the National Science Foundation, Playmatics continues this collaboration to take the experience to mobile.

Killer Snails digital game | Killer Snails LLC / Playmatics

Increasingly, games play an important role in health and science. The healthcare industry alone is a $2.8 trillion business. Using this collaborative framework enables Playmatics to work closely with researchers, scientists, and healthcare practitioners to bring our collective visions for a better world to life.

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