Psychology professor makes quitting more than a game

Psychology professor makes quitting more than a game


Dr. Bethany Raiff is on a mission: to help people stop smoking and cut the death rate attributable to the habit.

She’s not an M.D. or D.O., however, and she is not unpacking a medical bag to make a difference. Raiff is an assistant professor of psychology at Rowan University, and she is using the ever-popular electronic game format to help save people from a recognized killer.

She is a collaborator on research funded in part by a July 1, 2014, National Institutes of Health Small Business Innovation Research Grant of close to $295,000 — a portion of which comes to Rowan — that is designed to help small businesses develop a product and bring it to market. As a subcontractor on the grant with two collaborators, Entertainment Science, Durham, North Carolina, and Playmatics, New York City, Raiff is working to develop a mobile smartphone game tentatively called “Breathe Free.”

Need effective interventions

Smoking, Raiff said, is the number one preventable cause of death in the United States, and the majority of people who quit smoking end up relapsing.

“There is a need to find effective interventions that also are acceptable to users,” she said.

The researchers are in the early stages of development to bring the smoking cessation game to life. Their work is on a “fast track,” and they expect to spend six months in the early development for Phase I and two years on the large-scale development Phase II.

During Phase I, Rowan undergraduate and graduate psychology students are working with Raiff to recruit smoking participants to test the game.

During Phase II, students will work with the professor to recruit smokers nationally to evaluate the game and to collect and analyze data from the testers.

Eventually, the collaborators plan to commercialize Breathe Free.

Second project

Raiff’s work is similar to an earlier project, a smoking cessation video game for Facebook called “Up from the Ashes” that the NIH funded in 2013.

Breathe Free is like Up From the Ashes in that is a contingency management intervention — a game that strives to promote abstinence by using nonmonetary incentives to encourage people to quit smoking, basing those incentives on verification that they abstained from smoking. In both games, players provide carbon monoxide samples, either via a monitor attached to their telephones or a web camera attached to their computers. CO is an indication of whether a player has been smoking and to what extent.

“It’s like a breathalyzer for alcohol, but it tests CO levels,” Raiff said. It indicates if players haven’t smoked. If they haven’t, they receive game-based rewards.”

Raiff worked on Up From the Ashes in part with video game designer Darion Rapoza, president of Entertainment Sciences. 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. Most of those surveyed 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 latest NIH grant is important validation of the work. “It’s very rare,” Raiff said. “It’s very exciting. We’re really looking forward to seeing where we can take this project.”

(Smokers interested in learning how to participate may contact Raiff at