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New online game teaches teens about vaping dangers

A Stanford adolescent medicine expert helped develop an educational game to reduce tobacco use in middle school and high school students.

With help from a Stanford scientist, a school district in Southern California has released a free game app called BeatNic Boulevard to teach kids and teens about the hazards of vaping.

"Vaping devices are marketed in ways that appeal to teenagers," said Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, PhD, a professor of pediatrics at Stanford Medicine who studies teens' tobacco and marijuana use and helped develop the game. "It makes sense to counteract this with creative, teen-friendly tactics in anti-tobacco education."

In BeatNic Boulevard, players see how changing characters' tobacco use affects a virtual city.

Over the past few years, Halpern-Felsher has developed the Stanford Tobacco Prevention Toolkit -- which provides a set of classroom curricula, fact sheets, games and quizzes -- to educate students in middle school and high school about the hazards of all forms of nicotine use, including vaping. The free lesson plans have been used in schools across the country, reaching almost 2 million students. Helping to turn some of these materials into an educational game was a natural next step for the researchers.

"We'd been talking on the Toolkit team about gamifying our materials, and then the team from San Bernardino schools came to us with their idea of creating a game showing the effects of tobacco use, especially vaping, on individuals within a city," Halpern-Felsher said.

BeatNic Boulevard is designed to be played on a phone or other mobile device. Players navigate a virtual city while modifying its inhabitants' level of tobacco use, then watch how the city's landscape changes as a result. (In general, more tobacco use makes the streets more run-down.) Players can test different prevention tactics to stop characters from vaping, then observe the downstream effects. The game also features built-in quizzes to reinforce its educational content.

Much of the information in the game -- about addiction, the contents of vaping devices and how vaping industry marketing largely targets youth -- came from the Tobacco Prevention Toolkit. The new game will become an activity embedded in the toolkit's lessons, but it can also be used outside the classroom.

"My hope is that students will want to play it on their own and, because it's a game, it won't feel like homework," Halpern-Felsher said.

Photo by 1STunningART; screen image from BeatNic Boulevard courtesy of San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools.

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