Learning The Gaming Way

Shawn Williams | 22 Aug 2006 08:00
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We asked Dr. Salama what he thought of this. "The brain is like any other organ," he told us. "There is some evidence to support that mental exercises can help it, but nothing definitive."

We didn't need definitive. We began looking into any sort of therapy that showed benefits to cognitive abilities. We read up on diets, vitamin supplements, every color of tea you could imagine - Becky even tried such radical treatments as reading books.

Chatting with one of our online friends, they talked about a study in the New England Journal of Medicine that pointed out potential protection from dementia by "engaging in regular cognitive activities such as reading and crossword puzzles." We went back and forth on whether protecting someone from dementia is the same as helping them with cognitive dysfunction, but when you're desperate, you'll grab at any possibility, no matter how tenuous it might appear.

Videogames As A Treatment?
When I first heard of Dr. Kawashima's Brain Age, I wrote it off as a clever marketing ploy. I mean, come on - a videogame that helps your brain do anything other than plot violent rampages in schools? Ridiculous. We all know that videogames were created to subvert children.

I wanted to ignore it, but I kept hearing about it on news sites - and not just the gaming news: It seemed while titles like Grand Theft Auto were being dragged before the sacrificial altar of the U.S. Congress, Brain Age was quietly earning attention as a game that was proving helpful to people worried about cognitive function. And when you read a quote from the National Executive Director of Alzheimer's Australia espousing the value of playing Brain Age, it's hard to simply dust off his opinion as "uninformed."

I didn't expect to buy Brain Age for Becky and find her miraculously cured. In fact, I didn't expect to buy it for her, period. I thought maybe I'd show it to her the next time we were at our local gaming store. I'd tell her about it, possibly get her to try the demo, see if it were something she'd want to try. But the idea of my wife, a woman that refused to hunt with me in most MMOGs because I didn't spend enough time killing things, interested in a game that didn't involve stabbing or shooting people? No way.

I went into the experiment not worried in the slightest. Maybe it would help, after all. And even if it didn't, it wasn't going to do her any harm. Spending some time every day working out her gray matter? What could possibly go wrong?

Not A Treatment So Much As An Addiction
At first glance, Brain Age is a simple game: A few very simple exercises you can do every day to train your brain, and a test to measure the "age" of your brain that is supposed to show the health of your brain by comparing your chronological age with the mental age of your brain.

On the surface, it sounded completely innocent. The games, as simple as they are, are actually a lot of fun. But I expected Becky to play it for a little while and become bored fairly quickly - we both have a large collection of games that we've had for years and still haven't managed to make much progress through, so I thought this would get added to that pile.

Instead, it became her constant companion.

A casual gamer in the past, she became die-hard almost overnight. And if the scores in Brain Age are to be believed, it was having a strong impact on her brain. Within a week, she had knocked off a decade. After a month, her brain age was approaching her chronological age.

Her cognitive skills began to demonstrate an improvement as well. She was having an easier time reading, she was able to concentrate better and, worst of all, she had started double-checking my entries in the checkbook and pointing out mistakes.

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