Can video games detect cognitive problems?

Video games that offer more than just mere entertainment are nowadays recognized in a wide range of areas. In a traditional sense, games are all about fun and amusement, and still, these are central aspects that more or less define what a game is. However, there is a huge interest in games that offer some additional benefits — commonly known as applied games or serious games.

game controller in a dark environment

Serious games are not just a small niche anymore — professionals rely more and more on gamified tools for various purposes — be it for education, training, research, or even in the military sector. To illustrate the impact such games can have, Sea Hero Quest is a good example. The game was created to support dementia research by mapping player’s spatial navigational skills. More than 4 million people have played the game, contributing to a better understanding of the disease. This success story shows how games can transform research in a creative way through an appealing and exciting method.

Especially where motivation and long-term engagement is crucial, video games can be the ideal tool. Gamification offers some valuable benefits compared to more traditional methods. Players can safely explore the game world, allowing them to be immersed in a stimulating environment. This can lead to enhanced mood and the experience of positive emotions, promote cognitive abilities, and even improve prosocial skills (Granic et al., 2014). And what’s more, video games are available on a variety of devices, so they can be played almost wherever and whenever players want.

One field of application where the benefits of gamification are recognized more and more, is the health sector. There are for instance games that help you include physical exercise in your daily schedule, games that promote healthy eating habits, games for rehabilitation purposes, or games that train cognitive abilities. Moreover, serious games have been successfully used for the diagnosis and treatment of mental illnesses, such as dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

It thus seems to be worthwhile to also explore the diagnostic potential of video games in other areas, such as in the cognitive domain. Cognitive decline is naturally occurring during ageing and affects most people at a certain point in their lives. In extreme cases like dementia, the impairments can be so severe that everyday functioning is significantly impaired, which can lead to a limited quality of life and reduced well-being. An early diagnosis of precursors of conditions like these can therefore be extremely important in mitigating the negative impacts through timely treatment.

And this is where games come into play. There has been some research on gamified applications that could potentially be used for cognitive assessment, such as the Whack-a-mole game, which measures inhibition skills, or the Shapebuilder game, which touches upon the visuo-spatial features of memory. These games have been promising in that they seem to be comparable to validated diagnostic tests used in clinics. However, one challenge still remains — designing games that are visually appealing and also reflecting the interests of the players — which in the case of cognitive decline are most of the time older individuals.

senior woman holding blue smarthpone

Generally, the number of individuals playing video games is much lower in older generations than in the younger age group. There is still widely the notion that older adults just don’t like video games, whereas in fact, they are quite open to it (De Schutter, 2011). What keeps them from playing are mostly usability or accessibility issues, but also the content of the game (McLaughlin et al., 2012). According to the latest report from the International Game Developers Association, most game developers are around the age of 30, and it only makes sense that the types of games often reflect their own interests. On that note, it is no surprise that older individuals play less video games than younger age groups.

Considering the benefits such games can have, especially for a player base whose interests and needs are underrepresented in the video game sector, there is a valuable hidden potential that is worthwhile exploring.

Written by Madeleine Frister