Evil Video Games Great At Detecting Early Dementia In People

We cover a fair amount of video game news here, with much of it revolving around either intellectual property concerns or the common claims that video games are responsible for all the world’s ills. The latter posts can be separated into two categories: one in which the violence in games is blamed for violence in the real world and one in which those who do not enjoy the medium blaming games for producing young people who those same people decide are deficient in some way.

It’s enough to make you think there are really only two camps. One camp thinks video games are evil in all of the possible ways. The other camp thinks video games are great in all of the possible ways. But this isn’t how the real world works. Like any other artistic medium, some products are good, some are not. Some are wholesome or thought-provoking, while others are empty calories. Even the notion that video games are solely an artistic or entertainment medium is a false premise, as demonstrated by a recent use of gaming to help identify Alzheimer’s Disease before serious symptoms show up.

Sea Hero Quest was built as a way to identify people who might be at risk of Alzheimer’s but who aren’t yet suffering any major symptoms of the disease and according to a study recently published in the journal PNAS, it seems the game is effective. In Sea Hero Quest, which is a VR game, players have to navigate and control a virtual boat. They are given a map and shown checkpoints, then the map is taken away and players must navigate to these checkpoints in the game world without the map.

According to researchers, every two minutes spent playing the game is equal to five hours of lab-based research. Because Sea Hero Quest has been out for a few years and downloaded and played by over three million players they’ve collected the equivalent of 1,700 years of research data on Alzheimer’s.

As the technology grows, perhaps particularly VR technology, applications like this will likely only grow along with it. And, while the equivalence figures sure sound like marketing material, it’s also likely true that there is indeed an efficiency in using the game in this way versus traditional research methods. That kind of boon in gathering statistical information, not to mention the ability to use it to alert those who would potentially suffer from the disease en masse, is the kind of thing digital technology is built for.

The question becomes where those who decry the gaming industry would come down on this. I’m certain they would argue that these types of games used for these types of things are just fine. Except that we would never have gotten here if not for the gaming industry existing as a whole. That is the very reason that generalizing an entire medium, or an entire technology, as inherently bad is never a smart look. There will always be examples such as this, in which that “bad” tech is used for a noble purpose.

And the validity of the output in using this games appears to be fairly strong.

“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,” said Professor Michael Hornberger, a member of the team.

Using data gathered from thousands of players who downloaded and played Sea Hero Quest, researchers were able to create a baseline that their test results could be compared to. In the future, the team hopes this data and the game will help identify people who need treatment for dementia before they begin suffering from some of the worse later stage symptoms.

At the very least, this should be an indicator to the “get off my lawn” crowd that it might be time to take a breath.

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