We fell for Pokémon. We fell for the Power Rangers. And many people are now falling for Sudoku. Will America's next Japanese love turn out to be a video game that makes them smarter?
The question will be answered this spring with the release of "Brain Age," a new program for the two-screen handheld Nintendo DS that might be better described as a "daily IQ test" than a video game. Reggie Fils-Aime, Nintendo of America's vice president of sales and marketing, has described the program as a "treadmill for the mind."
Released in Japan last spring as "Ryuta Kawashima's Work Your Brain for Adults: Brain Training," the game was a surprise hit. Most top games in the country sell best at launch, quickly satisfying demand and tapering off, but "Brain Training" played the tortoise and has gradually racked up more than a million copies sold, as has its two spinoffs (see "With Video Games Slumping, Japan Flexes Its 'Brain' Power").
Along with the DS' "Nintendogs," the brain games made the top of the Japanese sales charts a hit list of games that had nothing to do with winning and losing. The big story in gaming in Japan last year was, in fact, that so-called non-games were a force to be reckoned with.
So what got people hooked, and how well will they play here?
"Brain Age" defies convention from the start, requiring players to hold the clamshell DS on its side like a book, with the system's touch screen used as a PDA-like notepad and the non-touch-screen functioning as a reading panel. Its graphics are primarily black and white, with an emphasis on text and numbers that make screenshots of the game look nearly indistinguishable from the pages of a test-prep book.
The program includes 15 challenges, many of which will indeed remind users of standardized tests. One challenge rapidly displays basic math problems in the viewing screen and requires the user to handwrite the answers on the other panel. Another flashes words for colors in different-colored typefaces and asks users to say what color the typeface is by registering each reply through the DS' built-in microphone. One brain-stressing challenge shows a simple house and requires the user to count the number of small digital people who file in and out and to report the final number hidden in the residence when the timer runs out. A reading challenge puts players on the honors system, asking them to log the length of time it takes them to read aloud passages from literary classics like "Robinson Crusoe" embedded in "Brain Age."
The game records the speed and accuracy of the user's performance, and the goal is to keep the user's brain as youthfully dynamic and nimble as possible. Each challenge takes just a couple of minutes and offers a sometimes-humiliating assessment of the user's performance: calculating one's "brain age" as that of a 40-year-old even though the player was in his 20s, or clocking the player's best quick-thinking at "car speed" — better than "crawling" but far worse than "rocket speed."
"Brain Age" is designed to encourage daily play sessions so that improvements can be chronicled in the user's performance as if they were pounds being dropped at Weight Watchers. It also includes 100 Sudoku puzzles for the program's most gamelike aside.
The whole routine is the brainchild of Ryuta Kawashima, a Japanese author and scientist who just five years ago was criticizing video games' inferiority to math and reading to challenge and improve the mind. Since then, however, Kawashima has teamed with Sega and Nintendo to produce new types of video games that can do just that. (Late last year Sega published its own brain-training game for Sony's PlayStation Portable.)
The theory behind "Brain Age" was also espoused by Kawashima in a bestselling series of books in Japan that encouraged readers to keep their brains fresh with regular drills for the mind. Kawashima's book was released in the U.S. last year as "Train Your Brain: 60 Days to a Better Brain."
Such books tend to sell in the self-help section of bookstores, and it's no mistake that, like those books, "Brain Age" will not be marketed to the average player of "Halo." Nintendo of Japan proudly hosted videos of a white-bearded man's experience playing "Brain Training" for a month and being enraptured by the experience. Nintendo of America teases the idea of similar marketing by asking in Monday's (January 30) "Brain Age" announcement to ponder the prospect of "Baby Boomers picking up a video game system?"
Pitching to the older crowd may ensure that gamers trade multiplayer first-person shooter death matches for wireless "Brain Age" DS math contests. But then again, if Kawashima's science is right, the program could be just the thing to get the younger crowd ready for a test. Or maybe at least convince their moms why the family needs a new game system.
"Brain Age" will be released in America on April 17 (at the lower-than-usual DS price of $19.99). One of the spinoffs, brought here as "Big Brain Academy," is designed with a younger audience in mind and will be in stores on May 30 — just in time to get ready for finals.
If "Brain Age" continues its successful ways, video games might not be just for improving hand-eye coordination after all.