I recently had the pleasure of meeting Warren Buckleitner, the editor of the invaluable Children’s Technology Review. He gave a talk on toys and software and the process they go through at CTR to evaluate new products. He recommended that when you’re going to review something just lay out your own prejudices. We all have beliefs that shape the way we see the world. Those beliefs are important. He was speaking as someone with a Ph.D. in educational psychology, someone bound to have strong beliefs about the way children learn, construct mental models of the world around them, and the delicate relationship of educational software to that process. Excellent advice I thought. It’s important—you don’t want people to accuse you of hidden bias. I don’t want people saying, “Whoa there! It seems you have some hidden agenda biasing you against this wonderful piece of software that we all enjoy and exalt.” No, I want my readers to say, “Greg, young man, you are quite clearly prejudiced against this game, but you told us upfront. Well played, chap. Well played. As usual, you’re right. What would we do without you?” So I’ve decided to start this review by just laying out a core belief of mine, one that shapes the way I view the world, education, and interactive software: I believe in my heart of hearts that my brain age should be around 30 and not 64 as Brain Age currently claims.
Yes, I am upset because I suck at the game. Now, perhaps I should be mad at myself. Perhaps I should blame myself for taking over three minutes to run through 20 simple math problems. It might be possible that my ire would be more appropriately directed at myself when I can’t count the number of people entering and leaving a house. Perhaps the fact that I can only ever remember 10 words from a list of 30 after being given two minutes to commit them to memory is my bad and not Nintendo’s. Maybe if I kept at it I might be able to improve my ability to count syllables. It’s conceivable that if I had a bit more gumption, a bit more pick-myself-up-by-my-own-bootstrap dedication I might be able to train my brain to quickly recognize that the word “blue” shaded red is in fact still the word “blue”. But why would I? Because it’s a game, right? The goal of a game is to win. That would make the goal of Brain Age to whittle my age down to 20, the optimal age for your brain (according to the game, of course). And I suppose I would be okay with that. But here’s my beef: Brain Age bills itself less as a game and more as a mental exercise machine, a Stairmaster for the mind. But I’m just not convinced that I’m getting a very good workout.
Brain Age is inspired by the work of the Japanese neuroscientist Dr. Ryuta Kawashima. His research studied the impact of performing simple arithmetic and reading exercises on activity in different areas of the brain. Through advanced imaging techniques he found that an activity like answering a series of simple multiplication problems stimulated activity and could even help the cognitive rehabilitation of patients suffering from dementia. Intrigued, the designers at Nintendo actively pursued Dr. Kawashima, seeing the potential for a game to simulate the cognitive exercises. And in fact it’s a pretty good fit.
Each day the game allows you to measure your brain age by quickly working through a series of exercises. These range from simple arithmetic to reading aloud. Then your performance is judged based on speed and accuracy, and—voilà!—you’ve got your brain age. Like any good “scientific” tool, Brain Age keeps track of your score over time, plotting the ups and downs on a series of charts. (Beware when and in what state you play the game. Playing after a night of heavy drinking during a bored subway ride can vault you right back into your 70s.)
Interestingly, the game actually limits your ability to play. The idea is that your brain, like the muscles in your body, needs a constant workout to keep it in shape. But after those exercises are done, Brain Age cuts you off, refusing to track your score. You can do Quick Play, but, really, Brian Age is telling you that your workout is over. Now, I’m no neuroscientist (surprise!), but it’s not at all a bad premise. The theme is accessible and makes a lot of sense. Many people have argued the importance of regular mental exercise, especially for aging adults. And like all exercise, it should not be overdone. By limiting the amount of time you play, the folks from Nintendo are looking out for your best interest—and theirs. Controlling your progress through scores and forcing you to come back the next day increases the longevity of what is actually a very thin game. With Nintendogs, Animal Crossing, and now Brain Age Nintendo has pursued domination over not only your gaming time, but over real time as well. All three games incorporate real world time into their gameplay mechanics, tying the notion of progress in the game to progress through your life. Each involves simple, mundane daily routines. In a quite brilliant inversion they are making the boring exciting. Who would ever have thought people would buy games where they pick up virtual dog poop and provide the answer to 8 x 7 over and over—and like it?
With an extremely clean interface and clearly laid out info-style graphics, Brain Age is sparse but visually appealing. With excellent handwriting recognition, the game allows you to quickly scribble numbers as you blaze through math problems. And a wonderful interface for playing Sudoku puzzles actually makes what I previously found to be an inscrutably boring exercise appealing. The game requires you to hold the DS vertically, like a book, further dissipating the feeling that you are playing a game and strengthening the formal appeal.
And it seems to be working. The game is already in its third iteration in Japan where it has been massively popular, selling millions of copies. The pseudo-scientific thematic wrapper seems to make the game very appealing to an older audience outside of the traditional gamers. A full-page ad in this month’s Wired magazine solemnly asks, “Can you use a video game to rewire your brain?” It seems to be working here in the States too. My own exhaustive and very scientific survey has found Brain Age to be spreading like wildfire: it’s the only DS game I’ve actually encountered multiple strangers playing on the subway.
And yet, there’s something about Brain Age which I find not just unsatisfying, but kind of creepy. And it’s not just that I apparently suck as bad at reciting multiplication tables now as I did in middle school. It’s that I’m being asked to simply recite multiplication tables. It seems to me the game requires activity, not engagement. It rewards memory over cognition. When you ask someone to read three pages of The Scarlet Letter and time how fast they can read it, you are rewarding speed over understanding. The reader doesn’t have to stop to consider the moral and social plight of Hester Prynne; I suppose you have increased the flow of blood to a particular area of your frontal cortex, but you haven’t actually done any heavy lifting or learned anything.
Slips like these make you realize the severe limitations and narrow focus of Brain Age. The activities are relatively amusing. I actually find much more fun in hurtling through math problems than I thought possible. But the game never progresses; it never seems to encourage me to learn and progress. If the game wanted me to learn it would tell me the answer to the math problems when I get them wrong. Instead it just flashes a big X and moves on. If the program told me the answer I would know it, I would remember it, and my score would improve. But instead, Brain Age seems to assume that I will go look up the answer somewhere else in a multiplication table. It just encourages me to get faster without caring how I do that. I guess it sees any activity as good activity.
Brain Age is certainly clever. And for being the equivalent of skill and drill exercises, it’s actually quite fun. But there’s something wrong in the idea of how this piece of software is modeling brain activity and encouraging you to work your muscles. It’s not enough to simply work out in the gym, occasionally you have to find an application for your new strength. Otherwise the whole endeavor feels pointless. Without any sense of learning or understanding, chasing that brain age of 20 seems a bit narcissistic—like lifting weights just so you get really big muscles which you can cover in oil while you pose in a Speedo for an amateur Mr. Danbury, Connecticut contest. Or at least that’s how this 64-year-old feels about you young whippersnappers.