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Virtual Reality Helps Smokers Quit

Volunteers who played a cigarette-crushing game had better odds of kicking the habit.

A screenshot from the cigarette-crushing game

Smokers who regularly play a computer game that involves crushing virtual cigarettes could have a better chance of kicking the habit. At least, that’s the implication of an experiment carried out by researchers at the University of Quebec in Canada and published in the latest issue of CyberPsychology and Behavior.

Virtual reality has been used to treat a variety of disorders including phantom limb syndrome, arachnophobia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and even the pain experienced by burn victims.

In the University of Quebec study, 91 smokers played either the cigarette-crushing game or a ball-grasping game via a motion-tracking, head-mounted display over 3 months. In each game, players wandered around a medieval castle and used a virtual arm (controlled by a wireless game pad) to either find and crush floating cigarettes or grasp virtual balls. At the end of the three months, 15% of those in the cigarette-crushing group said they had cut down on smoking (as measured by carbon monoxide levels in an exhale test), compared to 2% of the ball-grasping group.

Aside from better smoking abstinence, those who played the cigarette-crushing game also reported having lower nicotine cravings.

The researchers speculate that crushing virtual cigarettes may help smokers feel more confident about quitting. The game may have also help players associate crushing cigarettes with the feeling of winning.

It would be interesting to know if a regular video game would have a similar effect, or if a more immersive virtual reality experience is crucial.

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