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Screenshot/Sea Hero Quest
Play for science.
CITIZEN SCIENCE

You can play a free video game to help scientists understand how our brains age

By Katherine Ellen Foley

Video games are hardly just for fun anymore: Science has shown that some games can be tools that improve learning abilities (paywall) and problem solving (pdf). Now, researchers from the University College London and Alzheimers Research UK have created a game that collects data about players’ cognitive abilities. They hope this will lead to a better understanding of dementia, an umbrella term for general cognitive decline that includes diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Sea Hero Quest—a mobile game available for free for both Apple and Andriod phones—was developed by gaming company Glitchers (who have also developed a game designed to improve time management).

The game tests players’ ability to navigate, make decisions, and estimate orientation, all of which are measures of cognitive ability. All player data is collected anonymously, and researchers hope that by studying variations of these abilities across different demographics, they can better understand dementia, for which there currently is no cure.

Spiers and his team estimate that every two minutes players engage with the game is equivalent to about five hours’ worth of lab testing of cognitive abilities; with 100,000 players logging at least that long, they could generate five years of research.

The plot is relevant to the game’s research goal: Years ago, a man and his son explored the sea and documented all of the creatures they found in a sketchbook. Now the son has reached adulthood, his elderly father no longer remembers their adventures. Players help the son navigate the same ship as a captain to bring the memories of the monsters back to his father.

“We’re hoping to learn from the data how well people do at different ages, across men and women, and different places in the world and that will give us this really wonderful database,” Hugo Spiers, a neuroscientist at the University College London and one of the project’s creators, told Gizmodo.