Embracing Feedback: Sea Hero Quest

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A mobile research game is helping to diagnosis dementia.

One of the challenges that many academic researchers face is finding a large enough sample of participants to build a comprehensive data set. 

Convincing the public to engage in research projects isn’t always easy, especially when experiments are invasive or time-consuming. A group of scientists in the UK has found a new way to encourage people to participate in an academic experiment in order to collect invaluable data to help with early dementia diagnoses. They’re doing it through a wildly popular video game called Sea Hero Quest. 

Sea Hero Quest gameplay.

Sea Hero Quest was developed by a multidisciplinary team at the University of East Anglia in Norwich and University College London in 2016 as a way to measure players’ spatial navigation. On the surface, Sea Hero Quest looks like a recreational video game where players take on the role of a son attempting to recover his father’s lost memories by adventuring through an ocean environment. It’s designed to be fun, while also measuring navigation and orientation skills. 

For the first phase of their research, the team behind Sea Hero Quest released the game to the general public through traditional app platforms so that they could collect information from people who were not necessarily at a higher-than-normal risk of developing dementia.

The researchers were hoping to capture data from 100,000 participants but ended up attracting more than four million players from around the world over the course of six months, making it the world’s largest study of spatial navigation. Players were told upfront that they were participating in a research project and were also provided with some educational information about dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. 

"Having people do a scientific task can be boring for them, so we came up with the idea of doing a game."

Michael Hornberger

“We wanted to reach as many people as possible,” says the University of East Anglia’s Michael Hornberger, who developed the original idea for the game.

Michael Hornberger, Sea Hero Quest game developer

“We realized very quickly that having people do a scientific task can be boring for them, so we came up with the idea of doing a game. Gaming has a lot of spatial navigation and the ability to move through different levels. That was the premise for starting Sea Hero Quest and it really went beyond our expectations.” 

Sea Hero Quest came about as a unique collaboration between dementia and cognition researchers as well as tech and gaming experts. The team from the University of East Anglia in Norwich and University College London worked with web developers BoldLight and the GLITCHERS game developers to come up with a game that would be both appealing and scientifically valuable. In all, the game came together in a short nine months.

After collecting that initial data from the general public, Hornberger and his colleagues removed the game from the app platforms to put together the data set.

"We know now that some lifestyle changes can reduce the risk of dementia, and that’s a key aspect of this research."

Michael Hornberger

In 2018, the game re-emerged as a tool specifically for researchers to study healthy players and those at risk of Alzheimer’s disease and is now hosted by Alzheimer’s Research UK.

Sea Hero Quest gameplay.

With such a large data set from the game’s consumer run, researchers can compare the performance of their at-risk participants with players from the general population of the same age, gender and geographical location. 

Spatial navigation is often affected by Alzheimer’s disease before memory loss can be detected, so having a better way to detect subtle deterioration through a tool like Sea Hero Quest could be a game-changer in early diagnoses. While Hornberger acknowledges that there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, diagnosing the disease in its earliest stages can mean that the progression can be potentially slowed through emerging interventions. 

“People often ask why they would want to know if they have Alzheimer’s this early because there’s no treatment for it. That’s a valid point,” he says. “But we know now that some lifestyle changes can reduce the risk of dementia, and that’s a key aspect of this research.”

Hornberger says that he doesn’t expect to see patients playing Sea Hero Quest on their phones in their doctors’ offices, but he does believe that the studies using Sea Hero Quest will result in diagnostic tools for early dementia detection.

He’s also pleased that his work has proven that thinking outside of the confines of traditional scientific research has resulted in something that can help his fellow researchers for years to come. 

“It’s very unusual for researchers to do a game like this,” Hornberger says. “Lots of researchers gamify their research, but very few people have developed a proper game like we did. For a long time, many people in the research community said that what we were doing was just a game and not proper science. But once we started publishing our data, people realized it can generate valid information. Now, with more and more findings, people are getting very excited about it.”


Learn more about Sea Hero Quest.

Read other articles about how technology can help with dementia diagnoses and care.