"Outstanding! Your brain is rippling with raw brainy power!" – The Professor
Everyone knows playing video games will rot our brains. Our parents told us that playing too much Pac-Man would make us stupid. Our teachers demanded that we stop listening to those blips and beeps and focus on our homework. Now our spouses and significant others warn us that spending hours in a Molten Core raid will make us anti-social, maybe even set a bad example for the children. We can't catch a break: just like sugar, sex, or Scotch, too much gaming is bad for us.
So what if there's a game that's good for us to play? What if there is a game that has positive effects on us, like maybe a game that could make us smarter? Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day! claims to be just such a game. Does it work? And more importantly, is it fun? Read on to find out.
Brain Age is Nintendo's first foray into educational games for adults. Based on research by prominent Japanese neuroscientist Professor RyÅ«ta Kawashima, the game uses simple exercises like quick calculations, reading literature passages out loud, counting syllables in sentences, and memory-based puzzles to train your mind to function with the speed and reliability of a 20-year-old. Based on all the 20-year-olds I know, that would mean the software wants to make me forget to pay my cell phone bill and make bongs out of potatoes, but according to the Professor a 20-year-old mind is a mind at its peak.
The Professor, by the way, is a disembodied polygonal head who monitors your progress through its virtual spectacles, offering nonsensical insight and the occasional random tip as you finish each exercise and brain age check. His presence is by far the strangest part of the experience. Given that Brain Age is a title for adults, having a child-like floating Japanese head in the game seems almost counter-productive. Having said that, I've found myself turning on the DS for my morning brain training and almost welcoming the sight of the Professor's floating zombie head, offering strange greetings, asking me what I had for dinner the night before, or going emo if I missed the day before.
Each day, you load the game and progress through your training exercises. Most involve writing on the touch screen, employing handwriting recognition technology that works pretty well. Some other exercises, however, employ the built-in microphone and somewhat-buggy voice recognition software. The biggest culprit is the Stroop test, where colored words will appear on the screen, such as [color=red]Black[/color]. Your goal is to say the color of the word, not the word itself, and if this wasn't tricky enough (yes, it can be tricky), often the voice recognition won't recognize the word you're saying. I haven't had too much of a problem so far, but my girlfriend absolutely cannot get Brain Age to recognize her saying blue. Thankfully, the voice-related tests are optional, and you can use the software just as easily in areas where yelling at your handheld would earn you strange looks from coworkers or fellow metro passengers.
Is all this brain training fun? Not really. While some of them are mildly entertaining (I find stick figures running into an out of a house oddly amusing), the point of each exercise is to stimulate your cerebral cortex, and most of the exercises feel like, well, exercises. Thankfully, Nintendo also included sudoku, the number logic puzzle phenomena that's currently all the rage. Sudoku is played by placing numbers into 3x3 grids in the correct order, and the DS, with its touch screen and stylus interface, is perfect for the task. Using the handwriting recognition to write in numbers is intuitive, and with over 100 puzzles on three difficulty levels, there's plenty to keep you busy after your daily training is done.
As to the question of Brain Age making someone smarter, the jury's still out. I've spent two weeks with the software, more often than not feeling dumber than when I started. The Professor's comments indicate that he feels I'm not working to my potential, and while I may be putting too much stock in the opinion of a creepy floating head, I'm willing to double my commitment to the program. It doesn't help that I can compare my results with other users on the same DS, watching their brain ages drop to the low 20's while mine stays in the high 40's. If things don't improve in the next two weeks I'm willing to chalk the whole experience up to a mental diet fad.
So is Brain Age going to make anyone smarter? It's possible. Does the game bring the fun? With the inclusion of sudoku, the answer is absolutely. In fact, the number puzzles may be worth the price of admission alone. But is it the positive gaming experience our parents, teachers, and loved ones have all been waiting for? Well, it's definitely a step in the right direction. With any luck games like Brain Age will prove to our peers and superiors that our intentions are purer than just wasting brain cells. The next time we're criticized for spending time with our hobby of choice, at least we can point to Brain Age and say we're trying.