Where's My Flying Car?

Where's My Flying Car?
Shark Bone or Snake Oil?

Erin Hoffman | 9 Jan 2007 11:03
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While the idea of playing games to maintain mental health isn't necessarily new (the Alzheimer's Association itself recommends the use of games as part of a mental maintenance advisory package, and the effects of Tetris on brain chemistry have had senior citizens tapping away at the puzzle game for years), that idea is just now beginning to gain enough ground as a respected technique to break into medicine - and business. "Brain training" games thus reach into the heart of game design, and what they're finding pushes the game industry as a whole.

"In one sense, all games are cognitive training tools! But in the specific [sense] of games based on maintaining mental acuity, I see this as a vital, large subset of serious games. I hope that in the future, games like ours will also be increasingly used in research trials to enhance understanding of the brain's function. That would in turn benefit the game industry in general in many ways."

A Mental Workout
The intersection of third-party game development and mental exercise gaming is not unprecedented, but mental exercise games face a series of challenges: Either they're not challenging enough, not varied enough or just plain not fun. Researchers in the past have seen this last as a lesser concern, but as the games-for-health initiative develops, researchers are increasingly realizing that it may be the most important axis.

"I think the key aspect of games that makes them useful - not necessarily superior - is simple fun."

And "fun" harnesses that most elusive golden fruit coveted by prevention-focused medical professionals: patient motivation. Quixit, which was born when CEO Sheryle Bolton acquired licenses to the France-based Happy Neuron brain game panoply, approaches this challenge bidirectionally: from one angle using Falstein's design expertise to refine the research-based Happy Neuron games for an entertainment aesthetic, and from another angle creating an online community where hundreds of thousands of potential users can share experiences, engage in friendly competition and, very importantly for primary health practitioners who may only see their patients once or twice a year, track and monitor individual progress. "Quixit is a made-up word that hopefully implies Quiz, Quick and maybe even Quixotic," Falstein says, and the online service promises a sleek and fun experience already lauded by its visitors.

"My father died of Alzheimer's-related causes, so I've seen first hand how devastating the loss of mental faculties can be. I hope our games will prove to ameliorate, perhaps delay, some of the process of decline for even a few people. If we could achieve that, I think it would have a great impact on a lot of lives."

And if Quixit can, through methods that doctors agree assist in the prevention of cognitive atrophy, delay the onset of dementia, the Alzheimer's Association would agree that its contribution to the solution would be major; 50 percent of Alzheimer's patients, according to its estimates, could avoid the disease entirely if symptoms could be delayed by five years.

But reaching the right demographic can be difficult. "One problem as I understand it is a very human tendency to stay in your comfort zone, and as with physical exercise, it is important in mental exercise to keep trying new things, pushing yourself to excel a bit. Some people love crossword puzzles, and feel that doing them will keep them sharp. As you'd expect, in practice this means they do stay sharp - at doing crossword puzzles. It's important to cross-train and push different parts of your brain, and making it fun to do so is one way to encourage people to leave that comfort zone.

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