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Gaming in support of dementia research

Northumbria University researchers used their expertise in spatial complexity to co-develop an award-winning mobile game that tests navigation and spatial awareness. The data collected through the game is helping the team to establish a benchmark for the normal range of navigation behaviour and develop a first-of-its-kind early-warning diagnostic tool for dementia. To date it has been played by over 4 million people – bolstering awareness of the disease, as well as revealing extraordinary insights into navigation behaviour.


The number of people living with dementia is rapidly climbing – globally the condition affects around 50 million but by 2050 this figure is expected to jump to 152 million. Existing treatments can help with the symptoms of dementia and in some cases temporarily halt the progression of the disease. Early detection is vital as it can help people access treatment and support, as well as plan for future care.


An early sign of dementia is a decline in navigation skills, but it is one of the most difficult to detect due to the variation in people’s abilities. Professor Ruth Dalton at Northumbria University, joined a team of researchers to create a mobile/virtual reality game that could assist in understanding these early signs of dementia. The project was led by dementia expert Professor Michael Hornberger and neuroscientist Professor Hugo Spiers and funded by Deutsche Telecom, with support from Alzheimer’s Research UK. The aim was to establish a benchmark for the normal range of wayfinding and navigation behaviour, and once understood, to develop a diagnostic tool (similar to the game) that could be played to identify a decrease in navigational ability.


Applying her expertise in spatial complexity and large-scale graph theoretic techniques, Professor Dalton worked with game designers, Glitchers, to create Sea Hero Quest, a free game consisting of 75 levels in five different environments. Players navigate a boat around buoys, icebergs and waterways – data including the path taken, age, gender and nationality are freely donated to the project. Once researchers understand how navigational skill changes over time they may be able to detect dementia early on.


More than 4 million people have played Sea Hero Quest, making it the largest spatial navigation study to date – the next biggest included just under 600 participants. About 50 academics at Northumbria University and worldwide are currently analysing the first datasets from more than 2 million participants and this is being used to set the range of normal navigation ability. The team, led by Professors Hornberger and Spiers, are currently using this information to create a diagnostic tool to identify early signs of dementia.


This research is having a major impact on public awareness of dementia worldwide and may also be influencing people to seek dementia diagnoses. The game itself continues to raise awareness of the disease, as does the publicity surrounding it – during the release of Sea Hero Quest, Professor Dalton’s interview on BBC Breakfast reached an audience of 172,500, and the two articles she published in The Conversation had a combined readership of 93,000. The team is currently investigating the potential impact of Sea Hero Quest on the number of people requesting dementia diagnoses or tests.

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