Startup profile: 500More – getting people more active using gaming apps24th September 2014
Taking inspiration from the lively Proclaimers refrain ‘I would walk 500 miles’ from their hit ‘I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)’, Bristol-based entrepreneur Greg Smart founded 500More to help people get active with mobile games apps that encourage health and wellbeing.
It may be a crowded market, but Greg reveals what makes 500More stand out: “Quite a few companies build apps and websites aimed at boosting activity, but most of them seem to be for people who are already motivated to get fitter. Unfortunately, most people realise that being more active would be good for them, but there are lots of other things that seem more immediately attractive, such as the comfy sofa or that delicious cream cake!
“For a long time I’ve been fascinated by how technology can be used to influence people and the work of people like Daniel Kahneman in developing the field of behavioural economics, or BJ Fogg researching behaviour change. It seemed to me that computer games provide a unique way to take the flabby motivation that most people have, and build a compelling, enjoyable experience to actually get them active.
“I can’t really claim it’s a unique insight. Lots of people will have heard of Zombies Run from Six To Start, I count that as one of my inspirations, although I’m not really built for running. Some people refer to this kind of thing as ‘gamification’, although that has become a bit of a poisonous label and there’s an ongoing discussion about what we mean by a game and gamification.
“For me, it boils down to the purpose. Games should be primarily for fun, whereas gamification has some other explicit purpose. We want to develop games that are fun to play, but have incidental benefits, such as helping you to get fit.”
The number of people suffering from lifestyle diseases, such as Type 2 diabetes, is rapidly rising and 500More is aiming to help prevent them. Greg explains: “In the main, these illnesses arise because of lifestyle; they’re diseases of choice rather than misfortune. The NHS is struggling to cope, and when you see headlines about hospitals running short of cash, this is a major factor.
“However, it’s not easy to change your behaviour and reduce your exposure to risk. Our aim is to be the ‘assisted motivation”.
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The business operates by targeting employers. “There are two reasons for this,” says Greg. “Firstly, it’s really difficult to create a successful mobile app for consumers, there are just so many competitors. It’s almost impossible to be noticed and, while our approach is distinctive, it felt like a very big risk to jump straight to a B2C (Business-to-consumer) model.
“Computer games provide a unique way to take the flabby motivation that most people have, and build a compelling, enjoyable experience to get them active“
“Secondly, we think that a community of some kind creates the right context in which behavioural change might be possible. For most people, the community that has greatest influence on them is their workplace. Plus, your employer has a vested interest in you being healthy. Healthy people are less likely to be absent from work and more productive when they are in work.”
The first game to launch is Walking Safari, available for smartphone download. Players choose from a range of challenges and targets, guiding a beast around the Savannah plains. “You have to walk to play the game,” Greg tells us.
“There are several levels and each level consists of a series of challenges, each one being slightly harder than the last. As you complete the challenges you increase your herd. You can compete against others, or in teams against other teams.
“There’s also a profile which allows for a more personalised experience, and the opportunity to share via social media.
“The idea is to be quite light-hearted, and to use the ‘tricks’ of casual and social gaming to engage people, but for a more positive purpose than driving downloads and in-app purchases.
One of the key challenges is to create that compelling experience without people having to stare at the screen, since this might be an issue in a walking game. We’re investigating how to use sound and haptic feedback to draw people in.”
The tech startup is based in the centre of Bristol, a city which appeals to Greg for many reasons. “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” he says. “Bristol is such a vibrant city and a really nice place to live, but it’s way cheaper than London so our precious seed funding goes that much further.
“What’s really encouraging is the positive response I get from people when I explain the concept. We’ve been lucky to identify a few early adopters who will be our launch partners and help us get the app right. That said however, I’d love to find a few more.”