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Communication, Media, and Learning Technologies Design
Teachers College, Columbia University
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Communication, Media, and Learning Technologies Design

Announcements > Game Research Team Receives $150,000 from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Game Research Team Receives $150,000 from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

A team of students (lead researchers: Nisha Alex, Azadeh Jamalian, Pazit Levitan, and Jessica Mezei), faculty (Principal Investigator Chuck Kinzer) and consultants (Jessica Hammer, expert in game design, Kathleen O'Connell, smoking cessation expert, and Sandra Okita, consultant in EEG and assessment design) have received $150,000 from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Pioneer Program to develop and test an innovative mobile game. Rosanna Lopez, a student in the International Educational Development Program, was also active in the initial stages of concept development.
The game Lit: A Game Intervention for Nicotine Smokers will be developed as part of a two-year project that will design and evaluate a smoking reduction game delivered initially on the iPod Touch or  iPhone.  The game is intended as an alternative to smoking, with the goal of reducing or eliminating tobacco use in players' lives.
The Lit project team cites 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. This could have implications for health care costs, as well."
The game involves breathing into a microphone to control gameplay, and is coupled with sound, graphics, challenges and feedback to mimic the stimulant and relaxant effects of smoking. The design elements within the game result in two modes of play (“Rush” and “Relax”). These will be tested for their stimulant and relaxation effects through emotional response and physiological measures (EEG, heart rate, galvanic skin response), and compared to subjects' emotional and physiological responses after smoking.
If successful, the game will emulate the effects of smoking, serving 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 be an additional outcome of this work. This aspect of the project integrates particularly well with the study of game design principles by the Microsoft-funded Games for Learning Institute, directed at Teachers College by Chuck Kinzer.
The project team released a statement explaining, “We are developing a mobile game to help smokers control their urges to smoke, and testing design principles as part of that process. Smokers can play the game on a mobile device anytime, anywhere, so they can play Lit instead of smoking. Breath control, biofeedback and game design techniques will evoke the physiological and emotional effects of smoking. Among other measures, we'll be validating our design process by comparing EEGs from smokers and people who play our game. If these are similar, then the game will be shown to emulate the stimulant and relaxant effects of nicotine, and might be a substitute for cigarette cravings in smokers who want to quit.”
The process of developing the grant application was as innovative as the project itself. The project grew out of a class, MSTU 6000: Advanced Designing of Educational Games, initially developed and taught by Jessica Hammer. Hammer had the idea that the advanced game design class could serve two purposes: provide instruction in game design, and give students the opportunity to explore what they were learning through an authentic project. In this case, that meant explicating their game designs through a grant proposal that could be submitted to a funding competition. After receiving support for this idea from Dr. Kinzer, CCTE Program Coordinator, Hammer ran the course as a combined game design and grant preparation course, with the understanding that while not all proposals would be submitted formally to a funding agency, one or more might be.
With guest lectures from Kinzer, groups of students in Hammer's class arrived at innovative game design concepts and searched for appropriate venues that might be receptive to their implementation. As it happens, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation had released a request for proposals that would develop and study innovative game designs for health-related games. The concept of a mobile game that would address smoking, with an innovative design incorporating a breath-control interface, seemed a good match.
As part of the course and with guidance from Hammer and Kinzer, the students wrote drafts of a proposal narrative and budget. After review and suggested modifications, the proposal was submitted and ultimately moved through a stringent, first-round evaluation by the Foundation to become a finalist for funding. Following several conference calls between Kinzer and Debra Lieberman, Director of RWJF's National Program Office in Health Games Research and Paul Tarini, RWJF's Senior Program Officer, and revisions based on responses to reviewers' questions, the proposal was funded. The process went on well after the completion of the Spring-semester course, and was finalized during mid-summer to meet the Foundation's timeline. It's to the credit of all involved that work was continued after the formal course requirements were completed, during what might be considered a "summer break."
Kinzer points out that, "Many doctoral students who seek academic positions after graduation express a desire to learn about the grant writing process, knowing that they will be expected to do so. Yet, little formal training is given in this area. I thought Jess's idea was an excellent way to provide relevant experience in grant writing, within the context of a class and without detracting from its content, and I was happy to help in this endeavor. It was a great learning experience for the students involved, even those whose proposal wasn't submitted to a funding agency. But for the students in the Lit group, the fact that they now receive some external funding for two years, based on their concept, is a real bonus. It's really Jess Hammer's vision for the course and the work by an exceptional group of committed students that made this proposal a success, and Jess continues to be a central figure as the project moves forward.
"Will this course direction continue in CCTE's future?—well, that's ultimately up to a course instructor. Many factors go into this decision, including class size. It's hard to do this kind of project-based work in classes with high enrollments. Also, course instructors and course directions do change, especially in technology programs where change happens quickly to reflect technology's evolution in education and society. But this experience could, I think, serve as a model for other advanced courses in the CCTE program and at TC."
Now, the work to implement the proposal is underway. Members of the project team bring diverse strengths and perspectives to bear.
Nisha Alex comes to an interest in game design through her experience with instructional design and courseware. She is particularly interested in how excellence in visual and audio design can change players' experiences during play.
Azadeh (Azi) Jamalian's strengths evolve from her background in systems engineering. Game systems can provoke cognitive and affective engagement through play which is hard to achieve in other media – and she hopes to understand how. She has also focused on how to integrate neuro-physiological research into the process of making game design decisions.
Pazit Levitan has consulted with academic and professional groups about the impact of technology on learning, and sees games as providing a unique opportunity to motivate players. She is especially intrigued by the social aspects of game-play.
Jessica Mezei is specifically interested in how games change the way players think. Her individual work focuses on the impact of games for science education, but she brings her insight into learning theory and game design to bear on this project as well.
Together, this group of students, TC faculty, and consulting developers are on the way to creating an innovative and exciting mobile game with design principles and health-benefit implications that could have great potential impact. If the promise of this project is realized, additional proposals for significant funding to refine this initial work and implement field trials will be submitted to the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and similar agencies.