University of São Paulo: USP researchers use gamification to treat chemical dependency

Consumption diary, treatment goals, panic button. These are some of the features of BeOK , an application for smartphones created by two psychologists and researchers at USP. The app is available for download and has become an accessible tool to help drug users manage their own recovery, but with a difference: it is based on scientific research and proven clinical practice.

Using game design techniques, BeOK offers videos, tests and statistics about the evolution of the chemically dependent person, as well as positive reinforcements in the form of levels. For this, the user must fill out a consumption diary and follow the treatment goals for 12 weeks. The app also features a customizable panic button.

According to the program’s founders, its differential lies in offering a “gold standard” treatment without the costs and difficulties of conventional therapy – such as shortage of qualified professionals, problems with displacement and even the fear of judgment. In the search for a specialized service, only one in six patients who seek help receives treatment.

“It is a work based on scientific evidence in which we can transfer what we were doing in person to the application, while maintaining the methodologies and approaches in the psychotherapeutic treatment of addiction”, explains Flavia Serebrenic, who highlights anonymity as an adjacent solution to the tool.

The idea for the application arose from research for a doctoral degree by Flavia and a master’s degree by Natália Ragghianti, psychologists and members of the Interdisciplinary Group for Studies in Alcohol and Drugs (GREA) of the Institute of Psychiatry, Faculty of Medicine (FM) at USP. The first version of the app was developed by students from different areas of knowledge and managed by USP’s Entrepreneurship Nucleus, but it was restricted to a small group of users for tests.

After the validation phase, the researchers arrived at a more robust and professional model, making use of resources such as videos, reminders and personification to engage the user to change behavior. Among other strategies, the program uses motivational interviewing and psychoeducation to propose an improvement in the chemically dependent person’s quality of life. “Not necessarily abstinence, but at least help the person to become more aware”, says Flavia. According to the researcher, ambivalence is a hallmark of people in this condition. And having a resource available on her cell phone just as she’s thinking about asking for help can be a decisive start.


Even open to the public, the application maintains the mark of scientific research, as the user contributes to the evaluation of both the tool and the effectiveness of the treatment. In addition to downloading and using the app, the user can participate in the randomized clinical trial on this link , which aims to test usability and, at the same time, improve assistance for users of alcohol, cocaine, crack and marijuana. Study enrollees must sign a consent form and can receive the full treatment free of charge.

All app content is based on approaches scientifically proven to be effective by addiction experts. The scientific basis involves techniques such as Motivational Interviewing, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, Relapse Prevention, Social Skills Training and Contingency Management, but it adds the advantage of the psychologists’ vast clinical practice.

helping people to get well

“Our proposal is not an online therapy, but an online intervention. In this first version of our app, there is no interaction with a professional; it is totally artificial intelligence, in an evidence-based approach”, highlights Natália. She says that one of the future goals of the research is to have a team on duty for cases where artificial intelligence is not enough.

Click here to download the app from the Google Play Store
AA: Accessible and Anonymous
The so-called mHealth or Mobile Health is present in watches that monitor the heart rate, biosensors to measure the glycemic rate of diabetic patients and, of course, in smartphone apps that monitor the user’s health. In the first quarter of 2021, more than 53,000 medical apps were available on the Google Play Store, the official app store for the Android system.

The future of the sector is promising, but it needs support to succeed. For this, Flavia and Natália turned BeOK into a business model. Thinking about expanding the search and the number of users served, the startup of researchers is currently looking for partners.

With one foot in research and the other in social, the company takes new steps presenting the idea as a potential corporate benefit. “Today you take care of the quality of life in companies, such as gympass . He can enter this context of benefit to the employee and their families”, proposes Natália.

In just over a week of unrestricted use, BeOK already has more than a thousand active accounts and has counted more than 900 users so far.

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