Are Brain-Training Video Games Effective? The Japanese Think So

“Brain Age” and its recently released sequel are hugely popular video games in Japan and the US. What’s unusual about this is that the games are made for and marketed to “older people” (which in video game language means “anyone over 25”) as a way to improve your mental acuity by keeping your cognitive skills at peak levels. Does any of it work, or is it just a self-help fad for the 21st century? interviews Go Hirano, a Japanese entrepreneur (their description, not ours) who provides a general overview of the current state of “brain training” and its borderline-scientific underpinnings.

In the US, the Nintendo “brain training” games are presented as a sort of anti-aging tonic for the 30+ set that grew up on Atari and NES, but in Japan, “brain training” is an entire industry that’s been around for years. Most of the scientific studies either for or against the concept, however, have been poorly structured and unverifiable—which makes it a prime marketing opportunity for any population hell-bent on self-improvement. Says Hirano, “In any bookstore, there always is a section for brain books, [and] adult consumers keep devouring such games. Dentsu, the biggest advertising agency announced the No.1 Consumer-chosen Choice of the Product 2006 was game software and books for brain training.”

But despite the criticism that the currently popular games don’t do much, Sharpbrains insists that the concept as a whole is valid, even if current implementations are not. A study published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that “reasoning training” helped stave off a decline in brain functions in older brains, and “cognitive training” improved performance in the area being trained for approximately five years after the training occurred. It may be a while, though, before any sound medical proof arrives that your “old person video game” is doing anything more than helping you while away the days until senescence.

“Brain Training and ‘Brain-ism’ in Japan” [SharpBrains]
“11 Neuroscientists Debunk a Common Myth About Brain Training” [SharpBrains]

“Long-term Effects of Cognitive Training on Everyday Functional Outcomes in Older Adults” [JAMA]


Edit Your Comment

  1. whitespider says:

    I can’t see this as anything other than sophisticated children of crossword puzzles or blanket self evaluation tests. They seem great and who doesn’t like to improve their basic cognative abilities, or refresh them, every now and again? It’s like the veggies of the day; somehow satisfying to some to get a few in.

  2. The Stork says:

    I don’t know how effective it is at exercising your brain (though I’m sure playing them is better than not, even if not by much,) but I know that both Brain Age DS games are fun if nothing else. To me that alone makes them worth the $20 – and thinking outside the box like this is one of the reasons Nintendo is killing their competition.

  3. CoffeeAddict says:

    Brain Age is a great game, and I do admit that it does seem to help keep you sharper. My favorite thing to do is a good old crossword which seems to excersize my brain muscle much more.

  4. jerub says:

    I barely fit into the “older people” category, as I was given a Nintendo DS for my 25th birthday just over a month ago. I was also given a gift certificate to go get a game of my choice.

    I decided to get “Brain Age 2: More Brain Training”. I play the game to and from work on the train every day. I still don’t have any other games for the DS.

    Regardless of if “Brain Training” is a fad with no scientific merit – I continue to find it engaging and fun.

    My gripe about the game is how each time you play it, every time you switch between modes (every 2-5 minutes) you have to sit through another little spiel by the animated head of the games creator who tells you a different ”fact” about why Brain Training is good for you.

  5. Plorry says:

    No, no, no. Let me set the record straight: Doing these simple exercises is a great way to exercise your prefrontal cortex, and an active prefrontal cortex is a happy prefrontal cortex. The doctor in the game told me that. See? The game educates. The game educates you on how good the game is.

  6. tadowguy says:

    The Japanese also believe that blood type is a great way to find a bf/gf.

  7. suburbancowboy says:

    My father suffered a stroke a few years back, and there are the type of exercises they recommended he do to stay sharp.

  8. spinachdip says:

    @pstork: Somewhere along the way, video game makers forgot that games are supposed to be fun, and just started making stuff for gamers. With the exception of Dance Dance Revolution and the Guitar Hero series, there haven’t been a lot of accessible games for the non-gamer market (and both games require extra components).

    Granted, the gamer market is lucrative, focused and responsive market, but most consumers aren’t hard core gamers. They don’t really care about graphics or processor speed, and just want to have fun.

    Remember back when Sony was considered the hip, innovative company that understood consumers better than the consumers themselves?

  9. LatherRinseRepeat says:

    I think playing Brain Age stimulates your mind more than sitting on your couch watching tv. So what’s the harm here? If videogames aren’t your thing, you can take a class at a community college and learn something new. Basically, anything that helps you break out of your daily routine will help “train” your brain.

  10. shiftless says:

    The Brain Age games are backed up by actual research that shows that doing rapid calculations in succession causes a huge amount of your brain matter to be used. Other brain games seem to be okay with trivia and puzzles but don’t exercise your mind in the same way. The Brain Age games do indeed activate portions of your brain that may otherwise have gone unused, which seems like a good thing.

  11. amoeba says:

    I’m 2 years apart to step into my 30s. So, I decided to buy a Brain Age for my Nintendo DS and a similar one for my wii called Big Brain Academy. I always been pretty bad for math and crosswords; since I’ve been playing such games, I am an ace for math and puzzles. I wish these game were made for the old Nintendo back in high school :-( It helps you to improve your thinking and to be alert. I would recommend.

  12. synergy says:

    I think it’s been known for years that remaining active, not just playing games, staves off senescence and declining physical health. Finding interests and interacting with people or animals does it for free (aside from the kibble for animals).

  13. randomizer9 says:

    I have both Big Brain Academy and Brain Age 2, and they’re both fun games that don’t require a massive time investment. You fire one up, play a quick 5 minutes, and get back to your day. Are they effective? Who knows? Are they fun? Heck yeah!

  14. Raziya says:

    I’m not very good at math, never have been…even kinda basic stuff gets me confused some times…playing Brain Age every day and doing the 100 math problems actually really helped me. =) At least now I can be a little faster when trying to think out math in my head! Who knows if they really do have an effect in helping stave off senility, but I’d like to think they are at least worthwhile in some way.

  15. joeblevins says:

    I got the DS on my 37th birthday. We had Brain Age 1 and loved it. My mom even plays it. She has now bought Big Brain Academy and Brain Age 2. She will call up and compare scores.

    If nothing else, it gives my wife, mom and myself something to talk about.

    Heck, its fun.

  16. Mary says:

    I bought the limited edition DS with Brain Age 2 because I wanted the color scheme (oooh, black and red). And I know that the game has forced me to do math more readily and quickly, and it’s something I typically avoid.

    So it’s helping me get my math skills back up to par, since I’d spent ten years avoiding as much math as possible. I’m actually finding out I’m not as bad at is as I thought I was.

    Here’s something I was wondering about: would it help somebody with a learning disability learn to compensate for it better?

  17. kelbear says:

    It probably won’t enable critical thinking skills, but I believe the simple language and math recall skills can be trained.

    Word recall and math calculation speeds clearly increase with use. Think of it like muscle memory, you don’t think about positioning all 4 fingers on the guitar at high speeds. You just do it.

  18. Instigator says:

    If Baby Boomers want to keep their mental skills sharp, why don’t they just play video games like normal people?

  19. etinterrapax says:

    I don’t really care if there’s scientific merit to it; the thing’s fun. And I’m amused by it just because when I was a cashier at WM a decade ago, I used to keep from dying of boredom by calculating people’s change in my head (this is one of the training modules). I actually just got my DS and Brain Age 2 a couple of weeks ago, and I use it every day. Also: Virus Buster, aka Dr. Mario! Highly addictive. I’ve also got Tetris and the classic Mario games. Couldn’t be happier.

    Evidence that crossword puzzles and other brain exercises can reduce risk for Alzheimer’s and other forms of senescence has been around for a long time, though. This is just a high-tech form of brain exercise.

  20. jaredgood1 says:

    @spinachdip: Actually, I’d consider Brain Age a pretty fun game. Not in the same way that Doom, Mario or GTA are fun, but absolutely in the same way crosswords, Jeopardy and sudoku are fun.

  21. wring says:

    hated this game.

  22. spinachdip says:

    @jaredgood1: Oh, I don’t disagree.

    I see how it got kinda lost in my rant, but my point was that Nintendo is making games that are fun, as opposed to the rest of the gaming industry that’s making games strictly for gamers.

    BTW, the Wii just took over first place in the console war. Imagine that, marketing to a wider audience gets you a bigger piece of the pie.

  23. Onouris says:

    These games look good. Everyone always says and has always thought that using your brain is better than not using it. Using your brain to work things out in a fun way? Go for it.

    Talking of fun, I finally got a Wii and Twilight Princess. I don’t care if you can’t see Link’s sweat, that’s a bloody fun game.