Gaming Supports Memory Health
Written by: Tarrah Sargeant
Edited by: Huimin Zhou & Shania Kuo
When has playing around benefited your health? Video games have been seen as recreation rather than therapy or rehabilitation. Now scientists are using games to track and support memory health, and researchers found certain game skills can prevent brain-deteriorating diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. This groundbreaking evolution started with the game Sea Quest Hero. Deutsche Telecom, Glitchers, and Alzheimer’s Research UK teamed up to gather international data. The game is no longer available because the researchers collected the data they needed (Occulus, 2019). However, its impact has altered the perception and potential uses of video games.
Sea Hero Quest assesses skills negatively affected by dementia and Alzheimer’s. Loss of orientation and spatial reasoning are symptoms of the two mentioned conditions. The game has adapted three experiments into gameplay:
Checkpoint experiment: to assess spatial awareness via wayfinding based on a map
Flare experiment: to assess spatial awareness by challenging the player to determine the direction from which they have come from
Morris Water Maze: to assess spatial memory and learning (Glitchers, 2021)
These three activities test the different aspects of orientation and spatial reasoning that are used in other games. Memorizing the best places to camp or where to farm resources uses mapping skills which are crucial for adventure games like Minecraft. Aiming flares or launching projectiles is in many tactical games such as CoD and Battlefield, and spatial skills come in handy when playing simulators such as Sims and Tycoon series. Many games require these skills, but this game is the first to test for them.
Using a video game to measure brain health is changing the game. The on-site participants took the assessments at East Anglia University, and the results were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The University of East Anglia (2019) stated, “every two minutes spent playing the game is equal to five hours of lab-based research.” At that rate, this experiment collected data 150x faster than previous clinical studies. According to the developers at Glitchers (2021), “The game has been installed onto over 100,000 devices and the equivalent of 230 years of similar lab-based research has...been generated.” It is shocking that a few years of gameplay is worth 230 years of research!
The trials did not include participants with Alzheimer’s or dementia because the researchers felt there were already enough tests to confirm the diseases, so they focused on identifying symptoms before the disease diagnosis. The laboratory participants were men and women from the United Kingdom, aged 50-75. Coughlan et al. (2019) mentioned in their discussion that there is not much research nor treatment for people who genetically test positive for Alzheimer’s and the brain shows signs of deterioration before being diagnosed with the disease. Before the trials, researchers tested the participants for the gene that indicates people genetically at risk for Alzheimer’s Disease (Coughlan et al., 2019) with 31 testing positive and 29 testing negative (University of East Anglia, 2019). Those who tested positive had lower performances in navigation and chose longer routes than those who tested negative and chose the shorter, more efficient routes (University of East Anglia). These results suggested that those who test positive for the gene show signs correlating with Alzheimer’s before having an official diagnosis.
Although the Sea Hero Quest study was cutting-edge, it has some limitations. The goal of the international benchmark was to send it to the masses and gather data. Therefore, the 60 lab participants were in controlled spaces, while the benchmark participants played from the comforts of their own spaces. While it is convenient, it presents issues with consistency and replication. Varying factors may include the following: the environment in which participants played, the physical and/or mental abilities of the participants, and the devices and wifi connection strengths used to play the game. Another limitation was the age range of the players. Further studies can be done to see how much sooner do people show early signs of having Alzheimer’s before being medically diagnosed. The follow-up could include younger age groups up to 50 to close the gap from this study.
THE SCIENCE BEHIND IT
Scientists are finding video games are beneficial for cognition and memory health. They found playing video games is a mental exercise, helping keep the brain in shape. Lee (2020) affirms that long gaming sessions work out the brain, especially since it’s technically a muscle. It may sound like a weird flex, but you can say you’re working out when you’re playing video games. Unlike intended mental exercises, video games work the same cognitive skills but usually for recreation. According to Raouafi and Entidele (2017), “Video games prove to be more and more adapted for this [cognitive performance]....” Playing in an immersive world makes decision-making more authentic than answering questions for a test. Toril’s 2014 intervention study in which healthy individuals were trained through video games. The results “showed post-training improvements in visuospatial working memory, and in short-term memory and episodic memory….” with some retaining the progress up to three months (Lee, 2020). These results support that gameplay has long-lasting benefits on brain health at all ranges of memory.
WHICH GAMES TRAIN THE BRAIN THE BEST
One system is not better than the other when it comes to brain training; however, studies suggest one game genre can be the most beneficial. The University of Kent (2019) found that no matter the device, action games are the best for mental exercise because “[t]he visual environment is enriched with special effects and kinematics continuously stimulating the visual system and attention,....” This stimulating genre is known to emphasize obstacles requiring swift decision-making and hand-eye coordination. Examples of this genre include Ghost Recon, Fortnite, and Dark Souls. These games keep players’ heads on a swivel and make them think fast on their toes. You can see why the level of intensity and excitement would be the most vigorous mental workout.
No matter if players are on their phone, console, or computer, the variety gives them options for memory health exercises. Having video games available on multiple platforms provides more accessibility. Some may not be able to spend hundreds of dollars on a console or computer, but many people have smart mobile devices which can be purchased for under $300 for entry-level android phones or tablets. According to the University of Kent, “...popular mobile games can provide an effective measure of brain function to spot changes in motor abilities which are commonly seen in patients with Alzheimer's Disease, stroke, traumatic brain injury, schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive-disorder.” This can be seen with the previously mentioned Sea Hero Quest experiments for mobile and VR players and can be applied to alternative treatments for other mental disorders. The Pew Research Center (2021) found that 85% of Americans own a smartphone, demonstrating how available and accessible mobile games are to the general population. Additionally, the University of Kent (2019) investigated if the tapping and swiping of mobile games improve thinking, and they found “that the speed, length and intensity of these motions correlate with brain function.” Other mobile games that rate accuracy and spatial reasoning are the famed Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja. These games do not measure mental capability, but they do record and track the player’s stats and progress over the levels. Imagine if games were intentionally designed to assess brain function alongside KD ratio, assists, and streaks, then they could help players track their stats and health consciously. Even though mobile gaming is perceived as casual gaming, it is intense enough to test and exercise cognitive skills.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE FUTURE?
There are several games available on both the Google Play Store and Apple’s App Store designed to help improve cognition and memory health, like the app Luminosity. Searching “memory” or “brain training” will show how significant brain health has become since Sea Hero Quest. This game’s benchmark results enforce the idea of using video games for brain assessment and practice. Raouafi and Etindele’s 2017 study, using the Nintendo DS Mario Kart, concluded video games easily grab players’ attention and simultaneously improve brain health. They insisted that video games will become a part of therapy and cognitive assessment: “Video games can potentially be used as therapy for patients with mental disorders causing a reduction or alteration of certain parts of the brain….” which “...force the player to simultaneously use almost all cognitive functions” (Raouafi & Etindele, 2017). Gameplay is blossoming as a holistic approach to maintaining and strengthening brain function and detecting signs of brain deterioration earlier. Games intentionally designed to monitor and assess cognitive function could be implemented as a useful and accessible tool during therapy sessions and doctor visits. Even if the games are not designed for assessment, players can see their favorite games as fun ways to exercise their minds.
Let us know which games you’re using to exercise your brain!
Coughlan, G., Antoine Coutrot, A., Khondokera, M., Minihanea, A. M., Spiersc, H., & Hornberger, M. (2019). Toward personalized cognitive diagnostics of at-genetic-risk Alzheimer’s disease. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(19).