Advertising meets scientific research in new Deutsche Telekom game Sea Hero Quest

Deutsche Telekom and Saatchi & Saatchi have created Sea Hero Quest, a new mobile and online game, which is designed to provide scientific data every time it is played. This data will be used directly to aid research into dementia.

Created in collaboration with Alzheimer’s UK, UCL, the University of East Anglia, and Glitchers game developers, Sea Hero Quest is inspired by the insight that Deutsche Telekom’s 200 million users worldwide spend 3 billion hours weekly playing online and mobile games. The brand and Saatchi & Saatchi wondered if some of this time could be spent ‘gaming for good’ – where players could spend time playing a game they enjoyed but at the same time contribute useful research information.

Sea Hero Quest is designed specifically to help advance the understanding of spatial navigation, and therefore understand one of the first symptoms of dementia. Creating a global benchmark for how we navigate is widely acknowledged as one of the key steps towards developing new diagnostic tests for the diseases that cause dementia. All data collected from the game will be made freely available to scientists worldwide and will also be used by UCL: one of the world’s leading dementia research faculties, to develop new diagnostic tests for dementia.

And along with doing good, the game is also super fun to play. Designed by Glitchers and featuring imagery inspired by animator Bibo Bergeron (director of Shark Tale and A Monster in Paris) – who has provided a short film to introduce the game’s back story – it is a multi-level adventure game in which players take on the role of a sea explorer’s son travelling over the seas, looking for and collecting the lost pieces of his father’s ocean journal. Here’s Bergeron’s film:

Character design for the game
Character design for the game
Early boat designs for the game
Early boat designs for the game

For Deutsche Telekom, the project links into the brand’s wider ‘life is for sharing’ ethos, and also offers a way to distinguish the brand and its message in a crowded market. “Deutsche Telekom believe in the power of sharing,” says Hans-Christian Schwingen, chief brand officer. “We knew that there must be a way of empowering everyone to share their time to help to move us one step closer to a breakthrough in the field of dementia. At the same time, we realised that if we wanted achieve real scale and truly make a difference, we needed to make it fun for everyone involved.

“If we want to be seen as a different service provider in people’s lives, then we can’t just focus on access and the normal stuff, there needs to be something more,” Schwingen continues. “It’s not just providing society with infrastructure. There’s always a higher purpose behind, there must be, otherwise people won’t fall in love with you…. We consider ourselves a long-life partner/companion in people’s lives based on the digital products and services we can provide.”

It is easy to be cynical about projects like this when they come out of brands, especially with corporate social responsibility increasingly being used for PR purposes of late. But with Sea Hero Quest, Deutsche Telekom has clearly committed a great deal to make sure the game delivers its aims. As well as backing the design and build of the game, the brand is also providing funding for a scientist at UCL to analyse the data that arises from it for two years.

Promotion for the game
Promotion for the game

‘Citizen science’ projects are becoming an increasingly popular way for researchers to access data from the wider public, though the UCL’s Dr Hugo Spiers believes this project is on a different scale to others he has seen, particularly in its emphasis on engaging audiences. “The big aim of this project is to understand how the world’s population, across as many people as we can get, navigate in this particular game: every little moment you’re in the game has been carefully crafted for the science,” he explains.

“This project I think is unique, in that when I see those citizen science projects they are very well-intentioned, and they’re funded by great charitable funding … but what they don’t tend to do, in my opinion, is think about ‘how do we reach out to people’, how do we connect,” he continues. Spiers believes that the design of the game will be crucial to its success, as people will actively want to participate and play it, regardless of the purpose behind it. “To develop a test of navigation is not trivial at all, you have to immerse in a believable world in which they can move through. There’s been a number of attempts but nothing on this scale.

“It doesn’t feel like you’re doing science,” he continues. “That’s good for the science: if you want to do good science, if you want to find out how people navigate, the best you can possibly do is have them feel like they are doing what they naturally do in their everyday life.”

Maps that sit behind the game
Maps that sit behind the game
Science visual that sits behind the game
Science visual that sits behind the game

One of the biggest difficulties for Glitchers, the game designers, was how to bring scientific rigour to the game, without losing the enjoyment. The team worked closely with the scientists to ensure that the game would deliver the data required. “The biggest challenge for us was to create a compelling game, a casual mobile game, that was easy to play and appealed to a really broad age range; that was fun but also had all the science experiments going on in the background,” says Glitchers’ Matthew Hyde. “As a game developer you rely on certain game mechanics, like having lives, power ups and these kind of things. We really had to think hard about what we could use because a lot of the stuff, if we were to use it, would influence the science data.”

There were other challenges too: Glitchers worked closely with Deutsche Telekom’s security team to ensure the data provided within the game couldn’t be hacked, plus significant thought was put into how much information the game requests from users at the outset. Unlike many games which insist you log in with Facebook or provide personal information as a prerequisite, Sea Hero Quest allows you to dive straight in and asks you if you want to give information after some time of playing. There is a constant reminder of the good you are doing while playing the game via pop-up messages, but the usual fun social gaming aspects are here too: you can see friends who are playing if you and they are logged in via Facebook, and there are of course scoreboards so people can compare their success.

Screengrabs from Sea Quest Hero
Screengrabs from Sea Quest Hero

The aim of the project is for it to provide 100,000 ‘relevant’ data sets by the end of this year, which, considering Spiers says that the largest research pool in this area previously has had just 600 participants, will mean vast amounts of information for the scientists to work with. Spiers is excited about the project and the premise of brands and designers bringing all their various skills together to aid scientific research in general. “It’s a radically different approach,” he says. “Hopefully it’s the future.”

Sea Hero Quest is available globally for iOS and Android devices and can be downloaded now for free from the App Store and Google Play. For more information, visit www.seaheroquest.com.

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