Healthy Games, a UK start-up focused on developing smartphone games for health behaviour change, has developed a gaming app, called Cigbreak Free, intended to help people quit smoking.

The app was developed by academics at Kingston University and Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), and is the brainchild of Game Creation Processes lecturer at Kingston University’s School of Computer Science and Mathematics, Hope Caton – who is also the Founding Director of Healthy Games, and Professor of Primary Medical Care at QMUL, Robert Walton.

“People think games are frivolous but we learn a lot through play. The good thing about a smartphone gaming app is that you can play it anywhere,” said Caton.

“Craving is a short-term thing, so if you get a craving at 11am, you can play the game in the warm until it passes, rather than going out into the cold for a cigarette. You have also got something to do with your hands other than smoke,” continued Caton.

The smartphone app requires players to progress through the game levels by swiping a certain number of cigarettes to break them within a time limit.

The game incorporates a combination of 37 behavioural change techniques selected by QMUL health psychologists to help smokers quit. As a result, the rewards in the game give smokers instant positive feedback and stars which, according to Caton, is an important element in helping smokers quit.

“When you are trying to quit smoking you do not 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,” said Caton.

There are also mini-games where the player has to clear smoke from a room to reveal a health message. The app also includes a quit journal where users can calculate how much money they are saving.

According to Professor Walton, Cigbreak Free uses the latest trends in gaming to help improve people’s health.

“Some of the health messages and behaviour change techniques we have used in the game are based on our previous research and include showing players the health consequences of a behaviour, gaining points for grabbing healthy items, or providing virtual financial incentives,” said Walton.

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

The team have initiated a three-month pilot study with app users to evaluate its effectiveness. “The next step for us is to prove quit rates,” said Caton.

“We’ve had people smoking 25 cigarettes a day quit, some who’ve gone from 25 to four. It shows it can be effective but we need to get the analytics into the app to get more data and that’s something we’re working on now,” concluded Caton.

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