Rowan prof designs video game to help save lives

Rowan prof designs video game to help save lives

For Rowan University psychology assistant professor Dr. Bethany Raiff, quitting smoking is not a game.

For Rowan University psychology assistant professor Dr. Bethany Raiff, quitting smoking is not a game.

She’s developing one, however, to help motivate smokers to kick their habit.

NIH funded

Board-certified behavior analyst Raiff and her collaborators received an approximate $600,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop a video game for Facebook called “Up from the Ashes.”

Up from the Ashes is a contingency management (CM) intervention — a video game that uses nonmonetary incentives to encourage people to quit smoking, basing those incentives on verification that they abstained from smoking. According to Raiff, CM is a behavioral intervention that has been shown to promote abstinence in many areas, including smoking and cocaine abuse. Her main focus is to ensure the game is consistent with good science.

In the case of Up from the Ashes, verification comes in the form of participants exhaling into a carbon monoxide (CO) monitor and submitting a web-camera recorded video of the action.

Incentived based

When their CO levels support a reduction in smoking, the participants will earn incentives tied to the game, such as game-based food and fuel that will help them rebuild and thrive in the Up from the Ashes’ post-apocalyptic world.

“Smoking is the number one preventable cause of morbidity and mortality in the United States,” said Raiff, a resident of Collingswood. “It’s still a huge public health issue. The majority of people who quit smoking end up relapsing. So there’s a need. There’s still a great need to find effective interventions that are also acceptable to users — we want to develop something they will want to use and have access to.”

Raiff, who came to Rowan in 2012 after working as a principal investigator (PI) for four years at the National Development and Research Institutes, Inc., in New York City and as an adjunct professor in Massachusetts and Texas, conducted initial research on the concept with fellow PI and video game designer Darion Rapoza, president of Entertainment Sciences in North Carolina, and staff at Red Hill Studios in San Francisco, who are helping develop the game.  

In 2012, they published a paper in the journal Nicotine and Tobacco Research that outlined a preliminary survey on the potential of the video game-based initiative.  In “Prevalence of Video Game Use, Cigarette Smoking, and Acceptability of a Video Game-Based Smoking Cessation Intervention Among Online Adults,” they indicated that in an online survey of 499 adults, including health care providers, nearly half were smokers and nearly 75 percent of those played video games.

More motivation

“Overall, the majority of participants believed that earning virtual rewards contingent on abstinence, in the context of a multiplayer video game, would increase smokers’ motivation to quit (63.7 percent) and reported that they would recommend the intervention to smokers who wanted to quit (67.9 percent),” according to the paper. The team’s research also indicated that more smokers play video games than nonsmokers (74.5 percent vs. 60.4 percent).

“The video game in particular makes it something that is fun and accessible to people anywhere in the country,” said Raiff, who earned a Ph.D. and M.S. in psychology with an emphasis in behavior analysis and behaviorial pharmacology from the University of Florida and a B.A. in psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.  “It holds a lot of promise from what we can tell.”

Raiff and her team started work on the three-year project last year. They plan to refine the game this year and recruit nationally to begin clinical trials.