You may have played it in 2016. Fit, Search for the hero of the sea it has nothing to do with medical software. Released on the Apple Store and Google Play, it is presented to the general public as an application for smartphones and tablets with the appearance of a classic mobile video game. The hero is in search of his explorer grandfather, lost in the limbo of the game universe, and to find him, players board a boat to navigate mysterious seas populated by various creatures. Monsters that needed to be photographed to feed his travelogue.
But, before each of these esoteric encounters, the player had to pass three levels. Three levels that were as many challenges to the player’s sense of orientation and his ability to orient himself in space using his memory. Because Search for the hero of the sea it is not a game like any other, it is above all an excellent tool for collecting data. At the time, the goal was simple: to allow scientists to help in the early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.
As many data as in 17,600 years
Launched in 2016 by London-based mobile video game studio Glitchers, the application was developed in collaboration with CNRS, University College London, University of East Anglia and Alzheimer’s Research UK. Today, the game has been withdrawn from online stores, having largely served its purpose.
Antoine Coutrot, CNRS researcher (formerly at the Nantes Digital Science Laboratory and now in a Lyon laboratory), joined the project in December 2016. He was then the only French researcher to participate in the analysis of game data.
“ Our main goal was to gather information from players around the world and of all ages in order to develop a tool for the early detection of mental illnesses such as Alzheimer’s. ” In fact, the sense of orientation – which was the cognitive capacity mobilized to succeed in the game – is an important factor in the progression of the disease. “ Thanks to the scientific literature, we know that spatial orientation is one of the first factors in Alzheimer’s disease, before memory loss or behavioral alteration. “, Explains Antoine Coutrot.
With nearly 4.3 million players – who have spent more than 117 cumulative years playing – the game has collected as much data as a laboratory equipped with traditional experimental tools in 17,600 years. Indeed, two minutes of play Search for the hero of the sea corresponds to nearly five hours in the context of a laboratory study.
Quantify the performance gaps between players
Once all this data was collected – with the player’s consent, as the player was notified as soon as the game was launched for scientific purposes – Antoine Coutrot and his counterparts were able to immerse themselves in their analysis.
“In particular, we have confirmed that from the age of 18, the ability to navigate in space begins to decline. Of course, some mental exercises allow us to maintain this ability, but our results show that the older our players were, the more complicated the navigation in the game and the achievement of objectives were “, explains the CNRS researcher.
The research also revealed differences in navigational skills between genders and countries. Therefore, the data show that men generally perform better, but that the gap is narrowing in countries where gender equality is greatest. “There is a real correlation between what is called the Gender Gap Index, or the international index that quantifies the gender gap, and the countries where women are close to the performance of the men’s game. The gap is small in the Scandinavian countries, but much wider in Saudi Arabia, for example. “
Virtual and real orientation are linked
However, researchers know that one flaw can call all of their studies into question. How can we be sure that the success of the players depends on their ability to orient themselves in space and not on their ability to use the mobile phone or their habit of playing video games?
“We had anticipated these criticisms, so we have prepared an experimental protocol with the volunteers. Men and women of all ages had to play, then try to replicate the experience in the real world, or look at a map, try to memorize it and look for points of interest in the streets of London or Paris “, explains Antoine Coutrot. The results of this full-size test are definitive. Published in a scientific article on the Plos One website, they confirm that virtual and real orientation performance are strongly correlated.
Better yet: by genotyping 150 players aged 50 to 75, the researchers achieved their goals. In a study they published, they claim that players with the 4 allele of the APOE-gene have much more difficulty completing game goals than those without. “However, the presence of this allele is known as a risk factor for the development of Alzheimer’s: its presence exposes four times more to the risk of developing the disease. “
That’s it, it’s done: play Search for the hero of the sea It can be a fun way to detect early signs of Alzheimer’s development when comparing a patient’s performance to that of the huge database of 4.3 million players.
Twenty research teams around the world
But the scientific adventure of Search for the hero of the sea don’t stop there. Today, any lab can request access to the performance of players around the world, which researchers have made available on a free server. Yes, even people can then download this impressive file, if they think they can detect something in it. About twenty teams have already arrived from all over the world, each with their own hypotheses to verify. “The sense of direction is involved in many diseases or disorders: epilepsy, post-traumatic syndrome …”, assures Antoine Coutrot. Among the axes currently studied: the link between orientation and sleep, why we choose one trajectory rather than another, etc.
For his part, Antoine Coutrot would now like to combine new laboratory play sessions with eye tracking to analyze which visual signals (lighthouse, trees, reliefs, etc.) attract the eye the most and are destined to be decisive in orientation.
The environment affects our brain structure
The latest important discovery to date, the one that earned Antoine Coutrot and his teams the publication in the prestigious scientific journal Nature : the environment in which we grow up influences our ability to orient ourselves, and consequently our brain structure, especially in the hippocampus, the seat of memory. The researchers again determined this through Search for the hero of the sea. Indeed, depending on the country and the architecture of the city centers, the performance at stake differs. “We calculated a value by estimating the complexity of a city structure. American cities, with their large straight streets and right-angled intersections, are for example far less complex than our European cities full of intersections and shaped by history. Result: European city dwellers perform better in games than their American counterparts, because they have to mobilize their memory more to move. “
More generally, while there are few differences in France between urban actors and their rural counterparts, the differences are much greater in other countries such as Argentina, Australia, the United States or Africa from the south.
The “magic” of such a large database
But it’s not just our close environment that affects our cognitive abilities. “This is the magic of such a large database. It doesn’t happen every day to have such great statistical power. We can really go into the details: standard of living, education, right or left handed influence, even self-confidence! The analysis parameters are innumerable “, Antoine Coutrot is enthusiastic. Give the perfect example: “In 1972, the public authorities in England approved a reform that raises the minimum age for leaving school from 15 to 16. You can see the impact of this reform on game performance. “
Open science symbol, Search for the hero of the sea it has not yet finished revealing the influence of our daily life on our brains. Antoine Coutrot estimates that he will still be able to continue his research work on gaming data for at least six years.
But above all he congratulates himself: ” Search for the hero of the sea, it is an opening to the world. The video game has allowed us to have access to populations from all over the world that are normally never studied: those who do not live next to a laboratory. This alone is revolutionary. “