Serious gaming during multidisciplinary rehabilitation for patients with chronic pain or fatigue symptoms: Mixed methods design of a realist process evaluation

M.A.P. Vugts*, A.M.E.E. Zedlitz, M.C.W. Joosen, H.J.M. Vrijhoef

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

8 Citations (Scopus)
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Serious gaming could support patients in learning to cope with chronic pain or functional somatic syndromes and reduce symptom burdens.


To realize this potential, insight is needed into how, why, for whom, and when it works in actual treatment circumstances.


Following a realist approach, process evaluations were performed before, during, and after a two-armed, natural quasi-experiment (n=275). A group of patients with interfering chronic pain or fatigue symptoms received a short additional blended mindfulness-based serious gaming intervention during a multidisciplinary rehabilitation program. A control group only received the regular rehabilitation program. During two sessions before and one session after the experiment, expectations about serious gaming processes were discussed in focus groups with local care providers, implementers, and experts. Patients participated in a survey (n=114) and in semistructured interviews (n=10). The qualitative data were used to develop tentative expectations about aspects of serious gaming that, in certain patients and circumstances, trigger mechanisms of learning and health outcome change. Hypotheses about indicative quantitative data patterns for tentative expectations were formulated before inspecting, describing, and analyzing-with regression models-routinely collected clinical outcome data. An updated program theory was formulated after mixing the qualitative and quantitative results.


Qualitative data showed that a subset of patients perceived improvement of their self-awareness in moments of daily social interactions. These results were explained by patients, who played the serious game LAKA, as a "confrontation with yourself," which reflected self-discrepancies. Important characteristics of serious gaming in the study's context included innovation factors of relative advantage with experiential learning opportunity, compatibility with the treatment approach, and the limited flexibility in regard to patient preferences. Perceived patient factors included age and style of coping with stress or pain. Learning perceptions could also depend on care provider role-taking and the planning and facilitating (ie, local organization) of serious gaming introduction and feedback sessions in small groups of patients. Quantitative data showed very small average differences between the study groups in self-reported depression, pain, and fatigue changes (-.07<beta<-.17, all 95% CI upper bounds <0), which were mediated by small group differences in mindfulness (beta=.26, 95% CI .02-.51). Mindfulness changes were positively associated with patient involvement in serious gaming (n=114, beta=.36, P=.001). Acceptance of serious gaming was lower in older patients. Average health outcome changes went up to a medium size in patients that reported lower active coping with stress and lower pain coping before serious gaming. Mindfulness changes and gaming acceptance perceptions covaried with group structure and immediate feedback sessions after serious gaming.


This study developed transferable insight into how and why serious gaming can facilitate additional learning about coping in order to reduce burdens of chronic pain or fatigue symptoms in certain patients and in actual treatment circumstances. Future studies are needed to continue the development of this fallible theory. Such research will further support decisions about using, designing, allocating, and tailoring serious gaming to optimize important patient health benefits.

Trial registration: Netherlands  Trial Register NTR6020; 

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere14766
Number of pages29
JournalJournal of Medical Internet Research (JMIR)
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • chronic pain
  • eHealth
  • implementation
  • medically unexplained symptoms
  • realist evaluation
  • serious gaming


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