Smartphone Game App Can Help Smokers Quit

The desire to stop smoking is a common New Year’s resolution. A new smartphone app developed by health psychologists and game designers may help many accomplish this difficult behavioral change.

Researchers from Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) and Kingston University developed the app, incorporating a combination of some 37 behavioral change techniques or theory-based methods for changing smoking behavior.

Overall, the Cigbreak Free app works like a regular smartphone game, with players having to complete tasks to progress through levels and gain rewards. In the game, players have to swipe a certain number of cigarettes to break them within a time limit. As well as progressing through levels, the app includes a quit journal where users can calculate how much money they are saving.

The app has now been commissioned for use by five London boroughs as part of their public health smoking cessation services.

Professor Robert Walton from QMUL’s Blizard Institute said, “I was keen to exploit the current trend in gaming to see it could be put to good use and improve people’s health.

“Based on our previous research, we selected and embedded health messages and behavior change techniques within the game, to help promote smoking cessation. Some of these include showing the player the health consequences of a behavior, gaining points for grabbing healthy items, or providing virtual financial incentives. But some of these techniques are so subtly embedded in the game, you wouldn’t even know they’re there.

“We’re essentially trying to ‘gamify’ health messages and behavior change techniques as a way of embedding them in a person’s mind, in the hope that they will then be able to quit smoking.”

Games creation processes lecturer Hope Caton from Kingston University said, “The good thing about a smartphone gaming app is that you can play it anywhere. Craving is a short-term thing, so if you get a craving at 11:00 a.m., you can play the game in the warm until it passes, rather than going out into the cold for a cigarette. You’ve also got something to do with your hands other than smoke.”

Rewards in the game were a way of giving smokers instant positive feedback, Caton added. “When you’re trying to quit smoking you don’t get much instant feedback except desire. Your health is better but somehow it doesn’t have the same effect as being told you’re winning or getting a gold star,” she explained.

This month — a key time for smokers to make the resolution to quit — the team will begin a three-month pilot study with app users to evaluate its effectiveness.

Source: Queen Mary University of London