Developing a Game (Inner Dragon) Within a Leading Smartphone App for Smoking Cessation: Design and Feasibility Evaluation Study

JMIR Serious Games. 2023 Aug 11:11:e46602. doi: 10.2196/46602.


Background: Several stand-alone smartphone apps have used serious games to provide an engaging approach to quitting smoking. So far, the uptake of these games has been modest, and the evidence base for their efficacy in promoting smoking cessation is still evolving. The feasibility of integrating a game into a popular smoking cessation app is unclear.

Objective: The aim of this paper was to describe the design and iterative development of the Inner Dragon game within Smoke Free, a smartphone app with proven efficacy, and the results of a single-arm feasibility trial as part of a broad program that seeks to assess the effectiveness of the gamified app for smoking cessation.

Methods: In phase 1, the study team undertook a multistep process to design and develop the game, including web-based focus group discussions with end users (n=15). In phase 2, a single-arm study of Smoke Free users who were trying to quit (n=30) was conducted to assess the feasibility and acceptability of the integrated game and to establish the feasibility of the planned procedures for a randomized pilot trial.

Results: Phase 1 led to the final design of Inner Dragon, informed by principles from psychology and behavioral economics and incorporating several game mechanics designed to increase user engagement and retention. Inner Dragon users maintain an evolving pet dragon that serves as a virtual avatar for the users' progress in quitting. The phase-2 study established the feasibility of the study methods. The mean number of app sessions completed per user was 13.8 (SD 13.1; median 8; range 1-46), with a mean duration per session of 5.8 (median 1.1; range 0-81.1) minutes. Overall, three-fourths (18/24, 75%) of the participants entered the Inner Dragon game at least once and had a mean of 2.4 (SD 2.4) sessions of game use. The use of Inner Dragon was positively associated with the total number of app sessions (correlation 0.57). The mean satisfaction score of participants who provided ratings (11/24, 46%) was 4.2 (SD 0.6) on a 5-point scale; however, satisfaction ratings for Inner Dragon were only completed by 13% (3/24) of the participants.

Conclusions: Findings supported further development and evaluation of Inner Dragon as a beneficial feature of Smoke Free. The next step of this study is to conduct a randomized pilot trial to determine whether the gamified version of the app increases user engagement over a standard version of the app.

Keywords: feasibility; games for health; gamification; mobile app; mobile phone; smoking cessation; software design.