Brain Games

By Robert Hickson 14/03/2013


The Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at University College London has just released an app (available free for both Apple and Android devices) to collect information on brain functions. It is crowdsourcing in the form of a game – The Great Brain Experiment.

The researchers behind it are interested in four questions: “How good is your memory?”,“How impulsive are you?”, “What makes you happy?” and “How much can you see?”

Cancer Research UK are also developing a game to help speed up development of better treatments for cancers. Their intent is to get the public to help analyse genetic data. So these are just part of the trend for involving the public in research that started on desktop computers many years ago with Seti@home and Galaxy Zoo, but shifting to mobile devices.

These aren’t quite the full on “Gamefication” apps that I have written about previously – “mission oriented” complex games that can involve collaboration as well as competition. Nesta provides links to a range of games that attempt to address real world problems.  However, the gloss appears to be coming off the usefulness of such games, signalling the concept may have crested the maximal hype part of the hype cycle. The main criticism being that they can be poorly designed. 

It will be interesting to see which apps do generate useful research data. I’ve tried the Great Brain Experiment. It’s not as engaging or addictive as Angry Birds or Plants vs Zombies. But it does give you feedback on where your test scores sit compared with every other player, so can provide some conversational starters in the office or at parties.

Being an anonymous game means that it will be challenging for the researchers to break down the data into age and sex groupings (info they ask for at the start). How many people will answer honestly? (most probably, but what effect will a small proportion of dishonest responses have). And they can’t control for what folks have been smoking, drinking, ingesting, snorting etc. before or during the game. So not as controlled as in the lab, but more realistic of everyday life & activity.