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Mobile Games Provide Effective Measure of Cognitive Decline


Games on your smartphone could lead to cognitive insights.

candy crush

Could spending time playing Candy Crush Saga on your phone lead to health-related insights?

The answer: Yes, according to research presented last week at the 2019 ACM International Joint Conference on Pervasive and Ubiquitous Computing.

Popular games like Candy Crush Saga, Tetris and Fruit Ninja can lead to detection of cognitive decline and changes in motor abilities commonly seen in patients with Alzheimer’s disease, traumatic brain injury, stroke, schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder, researchers found.

Researchers recruited 21 healthy participants between the ages of 18 and 34 years old through email invitations for voluntary participation via University of Kent’s mail list. Participants received a $25 gift card. The research team did not included individuals who were critically ill, diagnosed with neurological or psychiatric disorders, diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease or arthritis.

All participants were right-handed and reported that they played mobile games at most two to three days a week. Slightly more than 71% said their averaging gaming time was less than one hour.

Participants completed two sessions over two days.

During the basic session, participants first completed a mood questionnaire and submitted a sleep diary. Participants then performed a set of cognitive measures — attention, memory, visuospatial ability, trail making test part A and B (visual search and processing) and response inhibition — and played the three games one after the other for 10 minutes each without breaks.

In the mental fatigue-inducing session, participants did the same things from the basic session, but they needed to perform a mental fatigue-inducing task for 30 minutes prior to taking a series of cognitive ability tests.

The cognitive task was a two-sided test. Participants were continually presented with a series of letters and instructed to respond as quickly and correctly as possible when the displayed letter was the same as the one that appeared two before.

The aim of the task was to induce a broader range of cognitive ability scores, the study authors noted, which could help highlight potential correlations more clearly.

The researchers selected Tetris, Fruit Ninja and Candy Crush Saga because they are easy to learn, highly engaging and involve intensive touch interactions. The research team developed their own version of the games in order to passively collect data on touch, sensor and gameplay.

Overall swipe speed features for Candy Crush Saga and Tetris were positively correlated with visual search and processing speed, while speed features in Fruit Ninja and Candy Crush Saga were positively coordinated with response inhibition. This shows that increases in speed were associated with decreases in performance on visual search, mental flexibility and response inhibition, the researchers said.

Individuals with worse cognitive abilities tended to demonstrate a higher degree of phone movement variability when playing the games. The researchers said those findings show potential in using such features for game-based cognitive assessment.

Researchers believe that mobile gameplay can be used to detect changes in cognitive performance among athletes who are exposed to traumatic brain injuries more quickly and easily than traditional assessments.

The researchers already collected data from patients who showed signs of brain damage and are currently working to design an algorithm to carry out automatic monitoring of an individual’s cognitive performance while playing such games.

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