Join three-million people gaming in the name of science and become part of the world’s largest dementia research study simply by downloading a mobile game. Playing Sea Hero Quest for only two minutes generates the same amount of research data that would take scientists five hours in the lab. Contributing to dementia research has never been so fun.
Sea Hero Quest is an unprecedented mobile and virtual reality game developed for dementia research, making research 150 times faster than traditional lab-based methods.
The game has been played in 193 countries for the equivalent of 106 decades, providing scientists with a whopping 158 centuries of dementia research.
Thirty-thousand Australians have already played the game. Previous spatial navigation studies involved less than 600 people.
Game developer Glitchers’ Lauren Presser said scientists had discovered that navigational capabilities decline from 19 years of age and that there are global differences between the navigational strategies of men and women.
“Key differences across the nations have also been found with the Nordic countries like Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark, appearing to have particularly noteworthy spatial navigation capabilities across the set of 193 nations of the world contributing to the sample,” she said.
Every three seconds an individual is diagnosed with dementia, which is 47 million people worldwide according to the Sea Hero Quest website. This number will triple by 2050. Dementia is an umbrella term encompassing Alzheimer’s disease and is caused by proteins clumping together in the brain leading to the death of brain cells.
Sea Hero Quest follows the story of a sea-captain traversing the ocean in his beloved boat, Sea Hero, to help his father cope with dementia. Throughout the game, players navigate the boat through icy waters, shoot flares over icebergs and chase brightly-coloured sea creatures.
University of East Anglia’s Professor Michael Hornberger said he decided to create the game after becoming frustrated at the lack of early dementia detection.
“Now for many years we knew that navigation problems occur very early in dementia and even before memory problems, however measuring those navigation problems was difficult as it was unclear how even healthy younger and older people navigate,” he said.
“I realised that gaming was an ideal way of measuring navigation behaviour in a playful way. We hope the data will allow us to diagnose patients up to 10 years earlier than currently possible.”
The United States of America has the highest number of players, while African countries have the lowest number of participants.
Before starting the game, players are asked to answer questions relating to their age, country of residence, gender, if they live in an urban or rural area, which hand they write with and how many hours they sleep at night. Researchers from the University College London and the University of East Anglia are using this data to create a benchmark level of how humans navigate, which will be a critical diagnostic tool for dementia. Scientists will score each game performance based on how efficient the person was at navigating.
Telekom’s Stephanie Leonhardt said the virtual reality version of the game had been downloaded 100,000 times and could determine the players orientation to within 1.5 degrees, 15 times more precise than the game’s mobile version.
“Considering that there is an average of two profiles created per download the number of people having played the game is even higher,” she said.
“The platform itself has a low barrier to entry for elderly players as they don’t need to learn anything new, they simply look around as they would in the real world.”
Ms Presser said it took Glitchers 10 months to develop the mobile game and six months to establish the virtual reality aspect of Sea Hero Quest.
“People are motivated to play Sea Hero Quest not only because it’s a fun, casual mobile game, but also because many have experienced the impact Alzheimer’s dementia has had on their friends and family,” she said.
“The game has adapted three experiments into gameplay; a checkpoint experiment to assess spatial awareness via wayfinding based on a map, a flare experiment to assess spatial awareness by challenging the player to determine the direction from which they have come from and Morris Water Maze to assess spatial memory and learning.”
Ms Presser said the virtual reality game collected data every 0.1 seconds compared to 0.5 seconds in the mobile game.
“VR also allows for the inclusion of an additional experiment, the Morris Water Maze, a gold standard in behavioural neuroscience research,” she said.
“The games industry has been leaders in creating engaging narratives and world-class technologies and it makes sense that we use that expertise to help innovate in other industries, such as data collection and scientific research.”
The game has accrued many awards including a nomination for the British Academy Games awards. Sea Hero Quest is free to download from the iTunes app store and Google Play.