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A digital game could help reduce smoking, other substance use

November 19, 2009
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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Foundation-funded project will test a game that mimics effects of smoking

Could quitting smoking be just a game? Could a hand-held device to reduce tobacco use eventually assist the alcohol- and drug-dependent as well? Researchers at Teachers College at Columbia University will spend the next two years analyzing an innovative game design that could help smokers find a healthier alternative to reaching for a cigarette.

The college announced this month that it had received a two-year grant of $150,000 from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Health Games Research national program to develop and test “Lit,” a game that will be evaluated using an iPod mobile platform. “We want it to be mobile, because we want people to be able to play in places where they smoke,” says Jessica Hammer, a project consultant who taught a Teachers College graduate course in educational game design where students elected to develop a game that could assist in reducing smoking.

The students who have been involved with the project have a personal interest in tobacco use: They are smokers themselves, ranging from the social smoker to the three-pack-a-day user. The five-minute game involves the player breathing into a microphone to control play, and experiencing sound, graphics, challenges and feedback that mirror the various effects of smoking. Stimulant and relaxation effects will be measured through various physiological and emotional reaction measures, so that results are not evaluated solely through player self-report.

“We know that games do certain things relatively well,” says Hammer. “One thing this game can do is to make breath therapy not boring.”

If it were to be demonstrated that a mobile game could serve as a viable nicotine replacement, could this technology someday prove applicable to alcohol and illegal drug treatment as well? Hammer and the others involved in the project believe it is possible, but she adds that the nature and social context of a substitution therapy for alcohol or drug use could play out differently from the tobacco model they are testing.

The principal investigator for the Teachers College project is Charles Kinzer, professor of education in the Communication, Computing and Technology Program at Teachers College. Those interested in receiving more information on the project may send a message to the project’s e-mail address of litthegame@gmail.com.