Designing a Game for Smoking Cessation

Want to quit smoking? Video game designers at Teachers College hope that some day you will reach not for a cigarette, but a mobile game. For an L.A. Times blog item, click here:

TC announced Thursday that it has received a $150,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), through the foundation's Health Games Research national program, to explore how digital games can improve health. Teachers College is one of nine research teams that were awarded grants from Health Games Research to help strengthen the development and use of health games.

The game Lit: A Game Intervention for Nicotine Smokers will be developed as part of a study that will design and evaluate a smoking reduction game for a mobile platform (initially, on the iPod Touch or iPhone). The game currently in development is intended to be an alternative to smoking with the goal of reducing or eliminating tobacco use in players' lives. It involves breathing into a microphone to control game play, and is coupled with sound, graphics, challenges and feedback to mimic the stimulant and relaxant effects of smoking.

The game is designed with two modes of play ("Rush" and "Relax"). These will be tested for their stimulant and relaxation effects through emotional response and physiological (EEG, heart rate, galvanic skin response) measures, and compared to subjects after smoking or who play the game in lieu of smoking. If successful, the game will emulate the effects of smoking as a replacement therapy for smokers who want to quit. It will do so by allowing smokers who crave the physiological effects of smoking to reach for this five-minute game rather than for a cigarette. Game design principles, such as the use of a breath controller with mobile devices, and their application(s) to similar health-related games will also be an outcome of this work.

The Principal Investigator for this project is Charles Kinzer, professor of education in the Communication, Computing and Technology Program and the Game Research Lab at Teachers College, who notes that, "This is a very collaborative effort and relies heavily on the work and creativity of project team members and lead researchers Nisha Alex, Azadeh Jamalian, Pazit Levitan, and Jessica Mezei. Through their efforts, we will be creating and testing a game that will have the potential to help hundreds of thousands of people meet their goal of quitting smoking, and provide tested design principles that should prove useful to other mobile-platform health game designers."

Jessica Hammer, Kathleen O'Connell, and Sandra Okita are expert consultants to the project and, together with Rosanna Lopez, were active in the initial stages of concept development. All are at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Health Games Research is supported by an $8.25 million grant from RWJF's Pioneer Portfolio, which funds innovative projects that may lead to breakthrough improvements in the future of health and health care.

"Digital games are interactive and experiential, and so they can engage people in powerful ways to enhance learning and health behavior change, especially when they are designed on the basis of well-researched strategies," said Debra Lieberman, director of the program and communication researcher in the university's Institute for Social, Behavioral and Economic Research and a leading expert in the research and design of interactive media for learning and health behavior change. "The studies funded by Health Games Research will provide cutting-edge, evidence-based strategies that designers will be able to use in the future to make their health games more effective."

Kinzer and the Lit project team cite statistics from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (2009) and the World Health Organization (2008) showing that tobacco use is still the leading cause of death in the United States. Among adult smokers, 70% report that they want to quit completely, and more than 40% try to quit each year. The project team also notes that games and mobile devices are ubiquitous across all segments of the population. Kinzer says that, "If we can capitalize on the motivational aspect of games and the availability of mobile devices, there is tremendous potential to positively affect health and wellness for smokers who want to quit, and this would have implications for health care costs, as well."

Health Games Research, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's (RWJF) Pioneer Portfolio, supports outstanding research that explores processes of learning and behavior change with health games. Its grantees offer bold thinking and innovative approaches to improve the design of future health games and to advance the research in this field. For more information, visit