The Brain Age Daily Grind, Day One
Can Nintendo's mind-bending DS game really whip our flabby brains into shape? Join us on our exploratory mission to find out.
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Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day is the upcoming Nintendo DS game based on the work of Touhoku University professor Ryuuta Kawashima, who collaborated with Nintendo to create this unique mental exercise. Brain Age features minigames derived from Kawashima's research, which revolves around the belief that certain types of thought-intensive activities stimulate and sharpen the human brain. After you've completed some of the included exercises, an in-game tracking system lets you see how your brain is taking to the workout.
Over the years, we've seen many games purport to teach players valuable lessons--whether it's been Mortal Kombat's spine-ripping lessons, Street Fighter's fireball-throwing techniques, or Resident Evil's zombie killing--but they just haven't been that effective at enhancing day-to-day living (unless you live in Outworld, a fighting pit, or near a secret scientific facility with leaky pipes). To see if Brain Age falls into a similarly ineffectual category or does, in fact, train your brain, we decided to conduct our own focus test on one GameSpot editor, and we encouraged him to keep a daily account of the experience.
Last weekend can't have been good for my cognitive capacity. What with a blowout 30th birthday party for one GameSpot staffer Friday night, then a 25th birthday party for a friend Saturday night, I was so thoroughly in my cups over the course of the weekend that maybe I felt a tad slower than usual come 9 a.m. Monday morning. OK, no "maybe" about it.
Firing up Brain Age for the first time, then, was sort of a humbling experience. As soon as you start a new game, you're assaulted with rapid-fire simple arithmetic problems intended to gauge your "brain age," which apparently is an arbitrary rating of your mental acuity. I rated a 29. Um, the ideal is 20...so is 29 supposed to be good? No time to ponder that question; after the initial round of number crunching, Professor Kawashima wants me to do even more math problems. A hundred of them, in fact, and while we're only talking simple addition, subtraction, and multiplication, when you're racing the clock it can get stressful.
OK, finished that in a little over two minutes. The handwriting recognition is pretty good, considering you never have to calibrate it, but it still makes some dumb mistakes occasionally. Now I'm in the full-on "daily training" mode, wherein you can find not only this calculation game, but one that challenges you to read aloud from classic literature as fast as you can and another that makes you memorize patterns of numbers in just a few seconds and then tap those numbers out in order on a grid. I must say, my performance has been a little modest with these games so far. Kawashima's always squawking about how these games will "activate my prefrontal cortex," though, and honestly the more I play, the better I seem to be doing. So Brain Age does seem to achieve its intended purpose, at least in the short term.
I have to admit: This thing is seriously addictive. I've been doing math problems, reading to myself, and memorizing number patterns all morning. The most annoying thing about Brain Age, so far, is that you can't regard it as a video game. I was tempted to keep playing each minigame repeatedly to get a higher score, but they're intent on gauging your raw performance by taking only your first score per day. What's worse, while there are a ton of games to play overall, you have access to only the first handful of them, and you have to wait until the next day to get another one. I could always cheat by going to the DS's menu and incrementing the internal clock, but for the purposes of this oh-so-scientific study, I'll play by the rules for now.
This game has a ton of personality so far. Kawashima will take you to task if you don't play often enough or if you spend too much time on one game. But he's also quite congratulatory when you start to do better. You can even speak some key words to him just to make him do goofy things, although I'll leave those for you prospective Mensa members to discover for yourselves.
I'll be continuing with the "brain training" for the foreseeable future, so keep checking back to find out if this thing is actually making me smarter (Kawashima has his work cut out for him, I assure you). So far, he's only mentioned my prefrontal cortex, so I have to wonder if any of the yet-to-be-unlocked minigames will supposedly access different parts of the brain or not. In any event, stay tuned for my progress in the coming days.