Betting They'd Rather Play Than Smoke
A digital game developed by TC students could help end that three-pack-a-day habit
by Patricia Lamiell
A self-identified smoker sits quietly in the computer lab conference room in Thompson Hall, playing a digital game with an iPhone. She could be a student on break between classes, except that she sprouts dozens of wires from an MRI cap, an electrocardiograph and a skin conduction device on a forefinger. The wires transmit readings of her brain activity, heart rate and skin response to be graphed on a laptop computer.
The object of the game is to blow into a microphone attached to headphones in order to prevent a shiny spaceship icon on the screen from sinking. Short, shallow breaths move the icon up; long exhalations make it hover. The subject does well at first, but after a good start at breathing rhythmically, she struggles to stay on pace, sending jagged lines up and down the multicolored graph on the laptop screen. TC doctoral student Adrienne Garber calls time.
Garber and fellow doctoral student Jessica Mezei are testing Lit2Quit: A Game Intervention for Nicotine Smokers, which they created for the iPhone with several other students in the Advanced Game Design seminar taught in the Communication, Computing and Technology in Education program by instructor Jessica Hammer. Specifically, they want to see whether playing Lit2Quit can simulate the two primary perceived effects of nicotine smoking on the brain and body: relaxation and stimulation. Relaxation is evoked in Lit2Quit by slow, measured breathing and game play along with calming music, colors and graphics; stimulation is provided by rapid breathing and game play as well as stirring music, colors and graphics, which increase brain activity, heart rate and electrical conduction on the skin. The hope is that Lit2Quit will someday be commercially packaged as a cigarette substitute and that, to borrow from the old Tareyton cigarette commercials from the 1960s, people would rather play than smoke.
As focused as they are on game design, the creators—Garber, Mezei, Pazit Levitan, Azadeh Jamalian and Dan Rabinowitz, as well as Nisha Alex and Rosanna Lopez—are education researchers first. They broadly define education to include any input that modifies human behavior. Underlying their work on Lit2Quit is the question “What makes games uniquely useful for education?” In this sense, TC stands out in the computer design world. Game design is a huge field, and educational game design is a burgeoning one, but both are still dominated by computer programmers and engineers. The guiding principle at TC, says Hammer, is to create games with educational value that are grounded in proven cognitive science and pedagogy. Or as Garber puts it, “Learning theory drives our design decisions.”
Lit2Quit reflects the approach of the project’s principal investigator, Charles Kinzer, Professor of Education and Director of TC’s Communication, Computing and Technology in Education program as well as its Game Research Lab in the Department of Mathematics, Science and Technology. (See story, page 42.) “There is something inherently motivating in the use of technology,” says Kinzer, who researches the social as well as cognitive principles of learning. He believes that research on gaming, which is popular across all age groups, might help educators learn what it is about digital games that makes people love to play them. Kinzer hopes that once they learn that, researchers can leverage the games’ blockbuster popularity to build successful instructional systems and behavior modification programs that work.
Perhaps unique in the country, TC’s game design classes draw graduate students from diverse disciplines and programs. Some have little or no grounding in gaming or even technology but see the potential of these tools for teaching and learning.
And Lit2Quit’s design team is as interdisciplinary as they come. Garber is a former attorney who worked on educational game licenses before coming to TC. Levitan is an award-winning independent film producer. Jamalian has a background in systems engineering and developed (with Hammer) a smartphone game for preschoolers called BoogieBash, which received a certificate of innovation from the Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop.
“At TC, we are culturally about teaching people,” Hammer says. “The program says it’s OK if you come in without design skills; you can learn them.”
It was in this spirit that in the fall of 2009 Hammer issued a challenge to students in her Video Games in Education class: Divide into teams and write a funding proposal for an educational video game tied to health care. One team came up with Lit2Quit, and what began as a classroom exercise quickly became part cognitive research, part marketing research. With Kinzer’s help, the team secured funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and got to work. Hammer’s and Kinzer’s aim, beyond giving the students experience in writing grant proposals, was to foster learning by doing, and the team members did precisely that. They researched the physiology of smoking and adapted breathing techniques used in yoga, outlined the graphics, supervised the game’s programmers and found a composer to write the music.
The lit2quit prototype has successfully completed its testing phase and has shown that the game generally mimics the perceived effects of smoking and the body’s physiological response to nicotine. The team hopes to secure additional funding to refine its research and, ultimately, conduct field trials to document that the game supports smokers who want to quit. Meanwhile, taking a leaf from Kinzer’s theory of video games as a form of social interaction, they have ideas to put the project on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter and leverage the social aspects of gaming, including competition, which appears to be an important motivator for many gamers. Lit2Quit players could support each other with online forums or contests. “Research on smoking cessation shows that people who want to quit smoking need support,” Levitan says.
The team may yet have a blockbuster game on its hands; its funding proposal cites research showing that 70 percent of adult smokers want to quit. But one result is already clear: Lit2Quit’s developers are learning a great deal about the educational value and social principles of learning through digital games.