Feds Spend $373,522 to Put Subliminal Cigarette Warnings in Video Games

DUI posters hang in background of first-person shooter game

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• July 16, 2017 5:00 am


The National Institutes of Health is spending nearly $400,000 testing how to insert subliminal messages against cigarette smoking in video games played by teens.

The University of Connecticut received a grant for the study earlier this year that suggest teenagers are easier targets for anti-cigarette messaging when they are lost in video games.

"With surveys indicating that 97 [percent] of adolescents and 80 [percent] of young adults play videogames for entertainment, use of entertainment videogames as a tool for delivering graphic warnings has tremendous potential to influence youth cigarette and e-cig rates," according to the grant for the study. "However, before such an approach can be pursued, researchers need to better understand health communication dynamics in computer-mediated, virtual gaming worlds."

Researchers say their project is needed to test the viability of "The Virtual Transportation Model of Health Communication," the theory that kids can be propagandized more easily when they are gaming.

"This model posits that, as gamers become psychologically immersed (or ‘transported') into virtual reality, their tendency to resist persuasive messages they encounter in these worlds is disrupted," the grant states. "The model further posits that such disruption will typically be strongest among individuals who are most likely to resist or reject ‘real-world' interventions."

The researchers already completed a pilot study where "graphic health warnings against alcohol-impaired driving and cigarette smoking were embedded in background scenes of entertaining, interactive 3D virtual gaming worlds."

DUI posters from "Mothers Against Drunk Driving" were inserted into a first-person shooting game.

"Such messages were shown to reduce willingness to engage in these behaviors in the future, particularly among higher-risk individuals who reported feeling psychologically ‘transported' during game play," according to the grant.

The new study will insert graphic warnings into two existing video games and create two more "while simultaneously empirically evaluating the best methods of delivering in-game health communications."

The project began in April and has received $373,522 to date. Research will continue through March 2022.