Video games are many things: the bedrock of one of the biggest industries on Earth, a means of exploring what happens when competing masses of earthworms are armed with all manner of heavy weaponry, and a jolly good way to fritter away a commute.
What if, though, video games could be deployed for the purposes of health? And what if a game specifically designed to aid with the identification of Alzheimer’s disease in potentially at-risk individuals seemed to be genuinely picking up on vital information as to possible diagnosis?
A collaboration between UK game studio Glitchers, German communications giant Deutsch, and a whole host of British universities – including the University of East Anglia and University College London – Sea Hero Quest has currently attracted just over four million players. This, the developers say, has allowed them to provide scientists with “more data than traditional research methods could have ever gathered.”
Given that a new case of dementia (and Alzheimer’s is the most common disease that forms part of the wider term “dementia”) is recorded every three seconds, it’s evident that anything that we can do to ensure the medical industry has a fighting chance to start working on treatment is a positive thing.
But how does Sea Hero Quest work, and how do we know that it has been successful when it comes to early-stage identification?
The latter is dealt with in peer-reviewed detail over at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, which probably isn’t the sort of publication you usually idly browse through on a lunch break, but does suggest that Sea Hero Quest can be deployed as an effective tool under rigorous experimental conditions.
A VR game, it asks players to navigate a boat. Initially, you’re supplied with both a map and on-screen checkpoints. These aids are then taken away and you’re left to hop from A-to-B under your own volition. Kotaku notes that “researchers involved with the project studied people who carried the APOE4 gene, which is thought to increase that person’s risk of developing dementia, as they played the game.”
They go on to quote UEA-based professor Michael Hornberger, who worked on the title, as noting that “We found that people with a high genetic risk, the APOE4 carriers, performed worse on spatial navigation tasks. They took less efficient routes to checkpoint goals."
The team behind Sea Hero Quest says that the total play-time to date equates to around 17,600 years of research into dementia.
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