Where's My Flying Car?

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

Erin Hoffman | 9 Jan 2007 07:03
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"We do think the eventual audience is nearly everyone, but for a start we're focusing on people in the Baby Boom generation. Boomers are largely computer-literate, affluent and increasingly concerned about staying sharp as they age. Well, as we age - this is one of the first times in my career I've been creating a game aimed specifically at people my age and older, since when I started I was a 20-something making games that mostly teens played, and as the gaming audience aged and expanded into older markets, I was always a bit ahead of the curve. It's nice to be back in the target age range again."

Strain Your Brain
But it ain't all ginseng and rainbows. Particularly with the rise in popularity of Nintendo's brain training games, the medical community shows consistent skepticism, verging on disdain, for games that claim to make you smarter. The concept of transference is a major concern in cognitive training: There is no doubt that Brain Age's exercises can make your basic math skills improve, but do they really make you smarter? The game's mechanics are addictive and fun, so the thought that this exercise could actually be good for you gives brain training games a distinct commercial advantage. But how much of that is smoke and mirrors? Is, as some medical professionals have asserted, Nintendo's Brain Age a fancy crossword puzzle? Can a videogame share an ethical ranking with diet pills?

"I think the biggest unique hurdle is just natural skepticism that our games - or any games - will actually help people sustain mental acuity. It's a chicken and egg problem: Until you make the game and have large numbers of people using it over time, you can't prove it's helping - and some people don't want to fund you unless they have that proof in hand. Luckily, Brain Age came along while we were in the midst of our initial fundraising, and I think that helped show people that the basic principle is sound for business. Perhaps soon we'll get some hard scientific evidence from Brain Age and its sequels, which would make the market better for everyone."

Asked about the medical community's specific skepticism, Falstein said, "I think it's understandable - I have a lot of respect for the scientific method. But I don't think you can make any advance without trying and being willing to risk failure. Luckily, I don't think anyone is claiming that sorting words or deciphering text is bad for you in any way - and I'm confident time will show it's very good for you."

It seems likely that, with time and deliberation, the medical community at large will come around. Brain Age's own spokesperson, Dr. Ryuta Kawashima, notably spoke against games as a waste of time prior to his involvement with Nintendo. If such a prominent brain researcher can make the conversion, it speaks well for the inspiration of future scientists.

For Falstein, Brain Age's presence on the shelves, and its commercial success, provided market proof, and despite Kawashima's earlier skepticism, Falstein has hope for Brain Age's long term results:

"The more data points out there, the better for all of us."

Erin Hoffman is a professional game designer, freelance writer, and hobbyist troublemaker. She moderates Gamewatch.org and fights crime on the streets by night.

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