Game On? Smoking Cessation Through the Gamification of mHealth: A Longitudinal Qualitative Study

JMIR Serious Games. 2016 Oct 24;4(2):e18. doi: 10.2196/games.5678.


Background: Finding ways to increase and sustain engagement with mHealth interventions has become a challenge during application development. While gamification shows promise and has proven effective in many fields, critical questions remain concerning how to use gamification to modify health behavior.

Objective: The objective of this study is to investigate how the gamification of mHealth interventions leads to a change in health behavior, specifically with respect to smoking cessation.

Methods: We conducted a qualitative longitudinal study using a sample of 16 smokers divided into 2 cohorts (one used a gamified intervention and the other used a nongamified intervention). Each participant underwent 4 semistructured interviews over a period of 5 weeks. Semistructured interviews were also conducted with 4 experts in gamification, mHealth, and smoking cessation. Interviews were transcribed verbatim and thematic analysis undertaken.

Results: Results indicated perceived behavioral control and intrinsic motivation acted as positive drivers to game engagement and consequently positive health behavior. Importantly, external social influences exerted a negative effect. We identified 3 critical factors, whose presence was necessary for game engagement: purpose (explicit purpose known by the user), user alignment (congruency of game and user objectives), and functional utility (a well-designed game). We summarize these findings in a framework to guide the future development of gamified mHealth interventions.

Conclusions: Gamification holds the potential for a low-cost, highly effective mHealth solution that may replace or supplement the behavioral support component found in current smoking cessation programs. The framework reported here has been built on evidence specific to smoking cessation, however it can be adapted to health interventions in other disease categories. Future research is required to evaluate the generalizability and effectiveness of the framework, directly against current behavioral support therapy interventions in smoking cessation and beyond.

Keywords: behavioral support; gamification; health behavior; health policy; mhealth; mobile health; public health; smoking cessation.