When someone mentions “educational gaming,” it used to be the only games we could discuss were games like Mario Teaches Typing or Number Munchers. They were games meant to teach you measurable skills in hard-wired subjects like math, English or – if you were lucky enough to sport a high-end Apple II in your classroom – you could fire up Oregon Trail and learn how to make your entire family die of cholera.

In our enlightened, modern era, it’s become more obvious that sometimes the “education” you can receive from games extends beyond adding and subtracting. While many games can teach valuable skills like complex problem solving and how to manage a budget, there are some games that have educational benefits that go beyond what you learn in a classroom.

Oftentimes, the trick lies in identifying exactly what it is you want to learn.

Identifying A Problem
As in any marriage, mine is divided into various roles, which my wife and I then carefully sort according to our talents. Striking a blow for feminists everywhere, my wife Becky banished me to the kitchen to cook dinner while she balanced the checkbook.

On occasion, I would consult the checkbook while I browsed the Alienware website and drooled over the latest gaming rigs. Looking through our many debits and few deposits, I would dream about ignoring such unimportant bills as rent, groceries and car payments in order to save up for the ultimate laptop.

It was during one of these daydreams I noticed an error. It was a game-related charge, of course. When I spotted an extra monthly fee being charged to our checking account in our checkbook, my initial thought was Becky had rolled a night elf character in World of Warcraft – an act so downright vile and inexcusable that apparently she had bought another account in the hopes I wouldn’t find out and descend upon her in all my Horde fury. When I noticed the fee was being charged to my bank card, I thought she was really being devious – but then I noticed other discrepancies: Mundane charges being entered twice, checks being recorded for the wrong amounts. The sort of mistakes Becky just didn’t make.

When I pointed out the errors to her, she turned to me with shame in her eyes and asked if I could take over doing the checkbook for her. The simple task of balancing the checkbook had become too difficult for her.

You’ve Got Cog In My Nitive
Becky was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in April of 2000. Multiple sclerosis is a chronic, often disabling disease of the central nervous system. It attacks the myelin sheath surrounding nerve cells, causing them to misfire and damaging the nerves themselves. The symptoms are varied and extremely numerous, but one of the most common is cognitive dysfunction.

Becky has a wonderful neurologist that she regularly works with, Dr. Hany Salama. He’s a handsome, intelligent, young doctor that could have walked out of the set of a medical drama on TV. He always makes time to talk to us and is very receptive to trying out new suggestions and therapies that might help. But when we approached him about treatment for the cognitive problems Becky was having, he could only offer a few aides: Making use of a notebook or PDA, using a calculator, etc. There just aren’t that many treatments; most rehabilitation centers don’t have any programs in place for cognitive therapy and instead focus on “work-arounds,” ways to compensate for loss of ability and tools to use in place of relying upon your memory.

As we researched possible therapies and read up on various treatments that had proven effective for some of our friends in the MS community, many of them talked about the benefits of simple puzzles and mind-games, like Sudoku and crossword puzzles.

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.

I started playing not so much out of enjoyment, but rather in self-defense. If I was going to be trapped with some sort of developing super-genius, I wasn’t going to go into this unarmed. I’ve seen Akira; I know how this ends.

Unfortunately, with two of us wanting to play and only one DS between us, I quickly learned that she was being taught other subjects beyond those needed for Brain Age.

Every time I sat down to take the Brain Age test, she would suddenly think of some chore I had forgotten. If she couldn’t get me off the DS, she’d make a game of interrupting my gameplay. She’d ask me something about bananas so I’d keep thinking “yellow” and screw up my test. Sometimes she’d hide the cartridge. Once, she even put in Barbie Horse Adventures and insisted it was a new level I’d achieved.

I made it all the way to the Blue Ribbon round before realizing I’d been outsmarted.

Broadening Her Horizons
It wasn’t just Brain Age helping Becky anymore. She joined me in Puzzle Pirates, and quickly surpassed me at sword-fighting and drinking. (In the game, I mean – in the real world she’s always been better at sword-fighting and drinking.)

Pirates was a perfect fit for her, because it was full of the sorts of games she loved – and they were all games at which I am terrible. Plus, she got to yell obscenities at me with a pirate accent; if there’s a better selling point for a game, I’ve yet to see it.

She wasn’t just improving at playing the games. She began scheming – coming up with elaborate plans to deprive me of my possessions in the games. When I finally managed to get my hands on some doubloons in Puzzle Pirates, she came up with a devious plan to swindle me out of them. I won’t go into details out of shame, but it involved a sword-fight, a pint of Ben & Jerry’s and a ghost costume.

She began to be interested in other aspects of games, as well. She spent several days last week designing an elaborate quest in the Ryzom Ring expansion for Saga of Ryzom. The goal of the quest? You go from NPC to NPC, gathering a number of materials. Each time you turn in one of them, the NPC tells you some new embarrassing fact about me. Imagine my pride as a group of adventurers defeated a horde of evil Kitin and turned in a jewel they guarded, only to be rewarded with the knowledge that I wear homemade Zach Braff Underoos.

Finding Solutions
Sometimes, what we have to learn is simply that we can learn. Games will always entertain; that is their purpose. But when they give us more than entertainment, when they teach about ourselves, that’s when they move into an entirely new realm.

Becky isn’t ready to start debating Stephen Hawking, but from where she was just a few months ago, it’s a drastic improvement. I’m not even sure the game was really doing anything – it could have been simply that seeing her score increase gave her the confidence to try harder and work through her difficulties. The result was the same – she was showing improvement. The game taught her that all her hard work would pay off, that she wasn’t helpless.

And that’s a lesson we could all stand to learn.

Shawn “Kwip” Williams is the founder of N3 (NeenerNeener.Net), where he toils away documenting his adventures as the worst MMOG and pen-and-paper RPG player in recorded history.

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