This mobile game has the best ending: helping solve dementia

Helping science while gaming

Sea Hero Quest

No matter what your mother told you, gaming isn't always a waste of time. But if she requires proof, show her the new mobile game Sea Hero Quest, which will help dementia researchers around the world tackle the disease.

In 2015, 49 million people around the world suffered from dementia. The Global Impact of Dementia (2013-2050) report believes the debilitating disease will grow to effect over 131.5 million people by the year 2050 - which is why this game was cooked up.

Sea Hero Quest is based around navigation - something the brain struggles terribly with when dementia sets in - and records the data you produce while you play the game.

Sea Hero Quest has been developed by London based studio Glitchers and follows a captain as he tries to recover his father's lost memories. You navigate the boat but there's no mini-map within the level, you're given all the locations to visit at the start of the game from a map.

Sea Hero Quest

From memory you then have to find your way to point a, point b and point c followed by heading back to the start.

The aim is for researchers to use the data from the way you play to find out how a healthy brain navigates. Scientists can then use the data to help understand the differences in those who suffer from dementia.

Hilary Evans, Chief Executive of Alzheimer's Research UK, told techradar that this new style of research is the next step in the fight against the condition: "[Dementia] is a disease – it's not an inevitable part of aging. Collectively we can bring groups of people together who can start to think of things differently within this space.

"We want to start funding this sort of research that we'll need to fight this disease."

Sea Hero Quest has been a joint project headed by German company Deutsche Telekom with the help of Alzheimer's Research UK, University College London and the University of East Anglia, and is designed to use the smartphone to solve problems that simply can't be helped with current methods.

Dr Hugo Spiers, researcher at UCL, said "You can't go to your GP and ask to be tested for dementia. This game might be that important stepping stone to go to your GP in the future and get tested.

"Maybe you live in a rural village in the mountains in China and you can't go to get tested – [using this game] you won't have to come to a testing place. It could be delivered on a mobile device."

Spiers is adamant that Sea Hero Quest isn't designed for diagnosis though and instead called it "an important stepping stone in the research."

A new generation of research

Sea Hero Quest isn't a brand new innovation in terms of what it's testing, as research of this type has been attempted before within test conditions. However, limitations have meant it's restricted to small sample groups.

Traditional experiments are time consuming and, perhaps more importantly, expensive. Within a mobile game, the sample can be opened up to millions of potential players, which equates to a dizzying amount of crucial data.

It's so useful that Spiers believes someone playing this game for two minutes is the equivalent to doing five hours of normal research.

Map
An example of how the results look after someone has played through a level.

Tim Parry from Alzheimer's Research UK said, Sea Hero Quest is "a positive and far more engaging way to get people involved in dementia research.

"What we know as a charity with research we've done of the public is there's still a huge amount of fatalism about dementia.

"[By playing this game] people can take part in dementia research sitting on the bus or on a train – wherever they might be and give data that makes a difference to our understanding of the condition."

Matthew Hyde from Glitchers, the developers of Sea Hero Quest, said, "Tonally [sea navigation] fitted well. This idea of being alone at sea on a boat has some similarities to being diagnosed with dementia.

"The story evolved from that. We didn't want to do any cliché metaphors. The story, I guess, was evolving in parallel to the science. Adhering to these scientific experiments that were designed within the levels was the headache.

"The experiment itself is just going this way and then that and asking where you come from."

Sea Hero Quest doesn't feature any in-app payments so you won't be stopped from helping the research by annoying paywalls. It means the research comes first.

Hyde said, "It's nice not to have to have [payments] as a thing. It's good not to have to have players buy a super compass, for example, when they're stuck."

Fighting the virtual fight

Even better news for tech fans keen to help scientific research: Glitchers doesn't want the game to stop at a mobile title. Both the developers I spoke to were keen to make a virtual reality version of Sea Hero Quest.

Hyde said, "It would give a real unique set of data results and we'd be able to see if there was collaboration to how people navigate in VR compared to on mobiles or tablets.

"We would understand more accurately what people are looking at and what decisions they're making because of their point-of-view. At the moment it's based upon a grid system and we know what the landmarks are and where those are.

"Especially if we adapted in eye tracking stuff we could do some really accurate testing."

Gameplay

Over the past few years mobile gaming has been hard to get excited about, but Sea Hero Quest is an interesting take on an otherwise stale industry. Knowing you're helping scientific research gives you an even bigger boost when you finally complete that difficult level.

Dementia is not only a horrible disease for sufferers, it also impacts everyone around them and it's likely you know someone who is affected by the disease. Knowing that just sitting on the sofa and playing on my phone can help those 49 million plus suffers is a wonderful feeling.

If you can spare five minutes, be sure to play one or two rounds of Sea Hero Quest and know you've done your bit.

You can download Sea Hero Quest now on the Google Play Store and Apple App Store.

Article continues below