Most people know they shouldn't eat that double cheeseburger. But Jack Lesko, 29, gets real-time reminders from virtual friends. "They're like, 'Hey, man, what's going on?' " he says of peers on the Eatery, a new photo-sharing smart-phone app that has users award one another points for eating healthy or withhold them if they're not. "It's fun," Lesko says, and also effective: that social accountability has helped him drop 60 lb. (27 kg)--and counting.
Games are the future of health care--or one version of it. At least 124 million people use smart phones to log exercises, track blood-glucose levels and even perform ultrasounds. A new crop of mobile entrepreneurs wants to leverage that momentum by making health care fun and social, like Farmville. "We can't change people to work like our health care system," says Aza Raskin, whose start-up, Massive Health, created the Eatery. "So let's make our health care system work the way people do."
That's a daunting task. Although social games are great at getting people to obsess over, say, zapping virtual fruit (see Zynga's Bubble Safari, which touts 26 million monthly users on Facebook), stirring that level of enthusiasm for health care "is really, really hard," admits John Solomon, whose SuperBetter app gives users badges for completing so-called health quests. And many people can't change their behavior without help from traditional therapy or medication, says Dr. Benjamin Toll, a professor at Yale University.
But these games are gaining ground. The five-month-old SuperBetter, for example, just logged its 120,000th download, and the Eatery has amassed some 10 million ratings. "We have to improve design and product," says Raskin. "That's what will make these apps applicable."