Digging Deep: What a videogame reveals about our navigation abilities


A recent study by a team of cognition scientists in France, UK and Switzerland has found that the spatial environment one grows up in has a considerable impact in navigation abilities in adulthood.

Appearing in Nature this month, the study reports on a videogame that 0.39 million people (0.2 mn males and 0.1 females) from 38 countries were made to play. The videogame – Sea Hero Quest (SHQ) – had a cognitive task embedded within it, which involves testing people’s navigation skills. Previous studies have shown Sea Hero Quest to be an indicator of how the player navigates urban settlements.

Further, the authors computed a metric known as the average street network entropy (SNE) of the biggest cities in 38 countries; in that the more organised and well-planned a city is, the lower its entropy and the more chaotic a city is, the higher its SNE. Since measuring city complexity is a convoluted concept, the average SNE of the 10 biggest cities for each country were calculated (i e one SNE value per country). This made sense, as players of Sea Hero Quest only reported their countries.

When the wayfinding performance metric was assessed, it was found that (a) younger participants performed better than those over the age of 55, (b) males performed better than females, and (c) better educated players performed better. This is largely in step with findings of other similar studies. For instance, a trial on rats found that older rats took longer than younger ones in finding a destination and needed more number of trials before reaching a certain performance level. The difference between males and females is also more pronounced in older age groups than younger ones.

The study even found that participants who spent their growing-up years outside cities were better at navigating than city-dwellers – so much so that it even overcompensates for the lack in education. ‘Having a tertiary level of education while having grown up in a city is roughly equivalent to having a secondary level of education while having grown up outside cities in terms of wayfinding performance,’ says the study. In fact, the effect is more pronounced amongst individuals of low-SNE countries. In other words, simpler the street pattern of the country, the worse the spatial ability of the people who grew up in cities compared to their non-city counterparts. However, there exceptions observed. For some countries – such as India, Malaysia, Romania – having been raised outside cities offered no significant advantage in individual navigability.

So, why does growing up in a high SNE renders a better navigation ability? The study explores a few reasons. One, growing up in an irregularly planned city means that one has to frequently encounter varying street angles (i e angles that differ from 90o). Two, since our memory tends to optimise street names and turns, in order to minimise the amount of information we need to remember in an irregularly laid out city. Three, the individual neighbourhoods being more hierarchical in their planning, given their high density in an irregular city. All these put increased demands on one’s memory and orientation abilities, and are ‘likely to enhance the capacity of neural systems that underlie [these skills]’.

Quite predictably, it was found that participants who grew up in well-planned cities performed better at regular, less entropic, SHQ levels and those who grew up in more complex cities performed better at elaborate SHQ levels.

Additionally, researchers designed another game, City Hero Quest (CHQ), specifically for the purpose of this study. CHQ is similar to SHQ, except that the player has to drive a car around the city instead of hunting for a sea monster. Although all participants for CHQ were from the USA, the impact of environment on wayfinding was similar to that for SHQ. Importantly, the effect of the current environment on CHQ or SHQ was not significant. This suggests that ‘the childhood period is key to predicting future spatial ability,’ and also challenges the notion that spatial navigation is determined genetically.

The author is a research fellow at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, and a freelance science communicator. He tweets at @critvik 

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