Game apps are viewed by many as one of the greatest scourges of the modern world.
Once the hours played on these relentless time thieves are added together I doubt whether any of us, man woman or child, could swear that we hadn’t ‘squandered’ at least a few weeks of each of our lives in catapulting irate avian cartoon characters, or slicing brightly coloured fruit, or maintaining a virtual farm/shop/city in the inherently pointless pursuit of in-game approbation.
For some of us there are the even more seductive arenas of the MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games) where time spent in the game is essential to the success and standing of your character within the fantasy world of your choosing.
I happen to believe that all of these pursuits, so long as a degree of moderation and proportion are applied to the allocation of time, have a genuinely therapeutic value to their players.
That value springs not just from the pleasure they bring but from the creation of a space to which the conscious mind can retreat and, for a time at least, take a break from the normal stresses of everyday life that we all face.
The important thing is not to turn respite into avoidance. We all need to come back from holiday at some time.
Whatever view you take of the current crop of games a wholly new concept combining our use of personal ‘downtime’ with vital medical research has been developed by teams from the University of East Anglia and University College London.
Sea Hero Quest is, on the face of it, a very playable adventure game in which the player chooses ways in which to sail around the world seeking new experiences and finding exotic marine animals to record in their personal log.
What makes this app so different is its built in ability to capture and process data from how you play and feed that into an ambitious research programme which aims to use the information on the way players make in-game decisions to better understand how the brain navigates three dimensional environments.
The loss or degradation of these skills is one of the first signs of dementia but, as far as our current understanding of the function of the brain is concerned, there is no benchmark or standard against which to measure this as a cognitive function and differentiate actual impairment from what might be expected as a loss of performance due to general ageing.
To properly assess a verifiable pattern and defined spectrum of abilities in a laboratory would take many hundreds of thousands of hours of hundreds of different test subjects. Using data from the app will provide the same quality of information in a fraction of the time.
The scientists estimate that just two minutes of play on the app would provide the equivalent of five hours of lab-based research.
The initiative is backed by Alzheimer’s Research UK who want as many people of all ages and types to participate as possible. They point out that the current largest special navigation study involved only 600 volunteers, they hope Sea Hero Quest will dwarf this figure.
To reassure players of their privacy the research is also sponsored and backed by Deutsche Telekom who will be responsible for capturing and storing the data in Germany where it will be subject to the strictest protection laws in Europe.
All data will be anonymised and once collated will be made available to the research community as Open Source material allowing the widest possible perspective to be taken by any number of dementia research groups and, importantly, nobody is going to make any profit from the hours you donate to the project.
With such an ambitious scale and breadth of purpose the teams hope that the information it provides will make this research the key to advancing our understanding of how early dementia begins to impact on regular brain functions to a whole new level.
I for one will be making Sea Hero Quest my time waster of choice from now on.
Get more information and download the game at the Sea Hero Quest website.
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