Professor Joseph LaBrie Receives NIH Grant to Use Gaming to Talk to College Students About Alcohol

ACADEMICS | The National Institutes of Health has awarded a five-year, $2.2 million grant to psychology Professor Joseph LaBrie and his team for a research project intended to bring gamification to alcohol abuse intervention.

The project, “Revolutionizing Normative Re-Education Delivering Enhanced Personalized Normative Feedback within a Social Media-Inspired Game about College Life,” was evaluated as highly innovative by the NIH for applying a growing literature on gamification to risk prevention interventions with college students.

In the past 15 months, LaBrie has received three significant NIH awards with the most recent being a prestigious R01 grant, which is targeted at health-related research and typically reserved for faculty at larger Research 1 universities. This is the first R01 awarded to a researcher at LMU since 2001 and only the second in LMU’s history, according to LMU’s Office of Research and Sponsored Projects.

“It is a huge honor for this type of grant to be housed at a school the size of Loyola Marymount University,” said LaBrie, “and it really is important as it comes at a time when LMU is ramping up its research profile and moving into a new R2 Carnegie classification.”

LaBrie was encouraged to explore gamification strategies in his prevention work by Sarah Boyle, co-director of the HeadsUP!, and others on his research team. For current college students, games are as much a part of life as studying and partying, LaBrie said.

Once functional, the game about college life will provide real-time norms for all sorts of behaviors of interest. Three cohorts of first-year college students at two universities will participate. The project incorporates many core gaming elements such as choice, chance, rewards, and virtual copresence — that is, being part of an online community.

Participants will report on perceptions of the behavior of other members of their class –  perceived norms – as well as their own behavior across many aspects of college life chosen within the game, e.g., number of drinks consumed in a weekend, how often they skip class, how many times they workout a week, etc. Students will play the game across 12 weeks in the first year of college, and researchers will examine the most effective level of alcohol-related feedback for three different types of first-year student drinkers: nondrinkers, light/moderate drinkers and heavy drinkers.

LaBrie’s pilot work has found that the delivery of normative feedback within a game that is not explicitly about drinking reduces students’ reactance to that feedback, while increasing attention to and the credibility of the feedback.

The ultimate goal of the project is to reduce alcohol consumption during the transition into college years, a high-risk time for extreme drinking. “College students have a tendency to overestimate the extent to which their peers are drinking, and this misperception influences personal drinking practices,” said LaBrie. “Correcting their beliefs in a fun way impacts their behavior when it comes to drinking, and even other risky behaviors such as hook-ups.”

LaBrie’s research teams at HeadsUP! consists of Boyle, as well as two to four full-time research assistants. In this project LaBrie will partner with Professor Andrew Forney in the Computer Science Department and several computer science students, as well as researchers at the University of Houston. Through this project, LMU undergraduates in psychology and computer science will have the opportunity to engage in high-level academic research.

Since LaBrie began teaching at LMU in 2003, he has received roughly $14 million in grant funding for his research on adolescent and emerging adult development and alcohol prevention/intervention.