Games and Alzheimer’s: It’s Complicated

The opening minutes of the recent Firewatch tell a beautifully affecting and genuinely surprising story of a relatively young couple being challenged by the wife suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s at age 41. While dementia and Alzheimer’s impact the lives of millions, it’s a relatively rare subject in the escapist fantasy worlds of video games. Not surprising. Who wants to be reminded of a disease that has no known cure and that robs people of their memories and identities? An estimated 44.4 million people have dementia worldwide and that number is expected to increase to 75.6 million by 2030. Someone in the U.S. develops Alzheimer’s every 67 seconds, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

A couple of notable indie games have tried to shed some light on Alzheimer’s, focusing on what it’s like to suffer from it from inside. Forget-Me-Knot (2015) began as a student project by Scottish developer Alexander Tarvet. Forget-Me-Knot takes the world of everyday objects and comforting spaces and portrays them through the lens of someone being unraveled by dementia. “Alzheimer’s disease is a devastating condition for everyone affected and their loved ones, and through playing Forget-Me-Knot the player gets an immediate sense of the confusion the character feels,” Tarvet says.

White Paper Games’
Ether One (2104, PC and PS4) is a Myst-like adventure game in which the player character, a “restorer,” has to reconstruct the memories of a 69-year-old woman suffering from dementia. The game was described in the New Yorker, “as a player, you’re never sure what’s important and what isn’t, so the system encourages you to take everything. This hoarding is repaid with periodic puzzles […] As the game progresses, these puzzles increase in complexity, as does the array of random objects filling the shelves. The collection gradually overwhelms the player’s ability to remember just where all of these things came from and why they seemed important enough to retrieve. Why did I bring this plate all the way back here? Whose hat is this supposed to be again? It’s a tidy simulation of the cognitive degradation of dementia.” In general, dementia or even mental illness have not made their way into games in a serious way. Elude is a game about depression, and Papo and Yo is an allegory about alcoholism.

What’s even more interesting than the way games have portrayed dementia and Alzheimer’s is the conflicting reports of the disease and game playing itself. One Canadian study suggested that playing games causes a reduction in gray matter in the hippocampus area of the brain, the long term impact being a greater risk for “neurological and psychological disorders including Alzheimer’s, dementia and depression.” In May of 2015, there were several news reports suggesting that boys who play Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed would eventually have a higher risk of developing dementia.

At the same time, a larger number of studies have suggested that puzzle-solving and other brain-challenging activities (like video games) keep the brain agile and
less prone to dementia and that patients already suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia can and should be exposed to brain-stimulating games as long as possible. While playing games cannot cure the disease, they can possibly slow its progression.