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Can virtual reality help you quit smoking?

In the game Nicot 1.0, available for download online, players use a virtual arm to crush cigarettes inside a castle.
In the game Nicot 1.0, available for download online, players use a virtual arm to crush cigarettes inside a castle.
Photo courtesy of GRAP

Do you feel like you've tried everything to quit smoking but just can't kick the habit? Virtual reality (VR) may be the answer -- or at least an interesting option for video-game lovers to try. If you can't seem to manage anything without a joystick, the early studies look promising.

A few years ago, the GRAP Occupational Psychology Clinic in Quebec put smokers to the test using a virtual arm [source: Girard].

Here's how the designers conducted the experiment:

  • They recruited 91 smokers.
  • They hid 25 virtual cigarettes inside a castle in a video game.
  • Some players had the task of rooting out those cigarettes and crushing them four times a week.
  • Other players' job was to find and crush balls that were hidden in the castle, instead of cigarettes.
  • Counseling and support were available to the players during the 12-week period.
  • The researchers compared the groups: 15 percent of those who crushed cigarettes quit smoking, while only 2 percent of the players who crushed the balls quit.

In initial observations of early participants, the researchers noted that many of the smokers reported that they felt the need to crush cigarettes in real life and relived the experience in their sleep. Some reported that they started crushing cigarettes in ashtrays instead of smoking them.

The researchers concluded in their initial observation that "a variety of sensorimotor stimuli in a VR environment seems to ease the imprinting of a new map of associative actions on the brain" [source: Girard]. In other words, the smokers may have been rerouting their cravings by using virtual reality. They learned to substitute the motions of smoking with the motions of crushing.

This method offers a twist on classic cognitive and behavioral therapies, in which patients learn to stop thinking about a craving or replace a bad craving with a good one.

If this sounds like a winning method to you, you can now buy the game, called "Nicot 1.0," on Apple's iTunes store as an app for the iPad, iPhone or iPod for $4.99. Designers hope the tool will help smokers in the 18- to 34-year-old age range.

For more great information on smoking and how to quit, check out the links on the next page.