Gaming for Science

September 2023

Mike Falkner spends up to 10 hours a day behind a screen. What can't possibly be healthy, actually improves memory and fine motor skills. But first things first...….

How does a native New Zealander who studied game design and worked in the film industry for several years end up being part of research teams at the ARTORG Center for Biomedical Engineering Research of the University of Bern and the Bern University Psychiatric Services (UPD)? "Video games have this hook on society. But they are mainly used for fun. I want to use this to do something useful for society," says the 32-year-old," says the 32-year-old.

When I first meet Mike in his office at Murtenstrasse 50, he is surrounded by a fair number of smaller and larger screens. But he doesn't strike me as a stereotypically introverted nerd. Proudly, he presents me with a small dragon avatar that serves as navigation through different levels of a motor skills game on a tablet. For another application, he has developed 16 different memory trainings for semantic, spatial, episodic, and working memory.

I like to create video games that are not only fun, but also do something useful.

Unlike many memory training apps already available today claiming to improve brain health, the large cognitive game set I am privileged to try is based on solid neuroscience research. "There are a few really high-quality games on the market that detect biomarkers for Alzheimer's, for example, and thus contribute to the fight against this disease. But most games have commercial backgrounds."

"It's awesome to do game development from a scientific point of view!" reveals Mike, who developed the memory games together with Esther Brill, a PhD student at UPD's geriatric psychiatry department. Currently he is working on five game design projects, most of them in the field of cognitive training: "Three for tablets, one for the computer and one for smartphones."

Together with Esther Brill, doctoral student in geriatric psychiatry at the Bern University Psychiatry Services, UPD, Mike Falkner has developed 16 different memory trainings for semantic, spatial, episodic, and working memory on a tablet. (© CAIM, University of Bern)

From C as in 'controller' to Z as in 'zoo'

Sitting at the neighboring table is Nic Krummenacher, who is writing his dissertation at the ARTORG Center's 'Gerontechnology and Rehabilitation' research group. Mike is working with him on a smartphone app to improve fine motor skills in Parkinson's patients. The games are operated using a specially developed silicone egg ('Smart Egg') into which Nic has built tiny pressure sensors. "In the current version of the egg, which serves as a controller, four sensors are built in," says Nic. "With this we hope to ultimately be able to determine exactly which fingers are giving a patient the most trouble."

With Nic Krummenacher, he works on hand movement training games on the smartphone, combined with a sensor egg as controller. (© CAIM, University of Bern)

I am invited to test the prototype of the motor skills training app and quickly discover: In three of the four games, it only takes very small movements from the wrist for my geometric shape to land in the right orientation in 'Tetris' or for my ball in the maze not to instantly disappear into one of the many holes in the floor. "We deliberately chose this sensitive navigation, because with the onset of Parkinson's, large movements usually still work well, but small targeted ones are no longer well controlled," explains Nic.

After more or less successful attempts in the motor skills app, I turn back to brain training on the iPad. It's not easy to get bored here, because users can choose whether they prefer to go shopping, on safari or on a treasure hunt, take part in a quiz show with others, solve crossword puzzles or find their way around a rotating matrix. With all the animals, the games remind me of a visit to the zoo, I think as I hunt for rabbits in the garden and photograph bears in the forest.

Game overview for the memory games. (© ARTORG Center, University of Bern)

The daily challenge

Why all this makes great cognitive sense is explained to me by Esther Brill: "We have developed these trainings for older adults who are at risk of dementia or who have already been diagnosed with it. Our goal is to delay or mitigate cognitive decline as much as possible with these serious games.”

If recent surveys are to be believed, computer games are becoming increasingly popular among those over 50. And they're no longer just Sudoku, Mahjong or Solitaire. For many, having small achievable daily game goals, together with the entertainment factor, are good incentives to keep playing. Naturally, the games themselves also have mechanisms to keep users engaged, Mike knows: "During my studies, I learned the tools for these so-called game mechanics.These are found in every video game and are important to the gaming experience."

Orientation game where users have to remember locations and find keys. (© ARTORG Center, University of Bern)

Anything that can help to improve cognitive, or motor skills should be included in your routines and habits.

And apparently Mike uses these mechanics cleverly for his games: "We have had a lot of positive feedback from the clinical trial, which I am quite proud of. Patients would often ask if they could download the games and continue playing." Adherence throughout the trial was exceptional and everyone played for 24 minutes a day without us having to remind them." "During and after the training for several months, patients also frequently report that they feel an improvement in their cognition and quality of life," adds Esther.

From 'Middle Earth' to the Aare and out into the world?

Outside research, Mike has settled in well in his new adopted home of Bern. For his 'Digital Wellbeing', he likes to ride his mountain bike through Bremgarten. "I had heard about developing games with a health benefit before, but never dreamed that you could work full time in this profession. I like the academic environment. I like the idea that we can play around – that we can explore and test things," says Mike, who came across the job advertisement at ARTORG through a tip from a friend.

Meanwhile, Mike's games have also attracted attention outside Bern. He collaborates in research projects with ETH Zurich and universities in England and France, some of which are planning to use the games for their research and some having their own game ideas they would like to implement.

So, will the Bernese game collection become an export hit? That would certainly be in Mike's interest and in the interest of the intended users: "I’d love to see these games exit the lab and be something useful. Anything that can help to improve cognitive, or motor skills should be included in your routines and habits.”

For now, I am a little disappointed to have to hand back the tablet with the 16 games. Even though I'm (hopefully) not showing any early signs of dementia, I wouldn´t mind gaming for just a bit longer.

Mike Falkner studied software engineering with a focus on video games and graduated from a media design school in his native New Zealand. After his studied he worked in the film industry for several years, accompanied by contract designs for company event movies and gaming technology reels, as well as projects with CGI real-time graphics.

With his background in software engineering, game development, and the film industry, Mike now has a keen interest in discovering new ways to bridge the gap between fun and helpful with serious games and game engine technology. His current work focuses on cognitive training games (to combat early dementia), but also games applicable to multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's Disease.