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‘Treadmills for the mind’

Despite the fact that video games have long been blamed for slowing brain development and encouraging inactivity, many students remain active gamers. But the new game Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day for the Nintendo DS handheld gaming system allows people to engage in gameplay while still sharpening their mental skills and maintaining precision and alertness.

With this latest release, the gaming giant attempts to broaden its core audience by changing the perception that video games provide no educational benefits to the brain.

According to Scripps Howard News Service, Ryuta Kawashima, who published a study asserting video games are detrimental to mental and social development, collaborated with Nintendo to create these “brain games.” Kawashima claims that although existing games do not exercise the brain’s frontal lobe, Nintendo’s new products specifically target this area in order to promote brain power.

The frontal lobe is responsible for memory, learning, emotion and other vital functions. Most video games only access parts of the brain devoted to vision and movement.

Brain Age, the first in a series of games, is essentially a collection of 14 activities designed to incite mental training. It also includes several side games as well as the popular puzzle craze, Sudoku. Scripps Howard reports the game incorporates basic mathematics, memory tests and other brain teasers and is intended to be played daily. Players are given a “brain age” at the end of initial gameplay. The goal is to decrease this in ensuing sessions.

Unlike typical video games on the market, these “brain games” are marketed toward an older audience. Nintendo’s aim is to provide an easy and fun opportunity to maintain optimum brain power. Already released in Nintendo’s native Japan, Brain Age and its sequels have become a massive success. Selling more than five million units, the games especially struck a chord with middle-aged consumers.

“This is the dawning of a new time in which there are games for everyone,” said Scott Ritchey, a bilingual product specialist for Nintendo, according to Scripps Howard.

However, despite Nintendo’s claims that the games promote mental health, professionals in the field remain skeptical whether they have any actual benefits.

“With younger people, I suspect that Brain Age has a relatively small effect on mental agility, especially if they regularly receive at least some intellectual stimulation at school,” said Doug Rohrer, associate professor of psychology.

Ken Malmberg, assistant professor of psychology agrees.

“This sounds like mental ‘plastic surgery’ to me,” he said. “We need to see their data and experimental designs to evaluate their claims.”

Although some preliminary studies suggest such activities can aid in mental health, no conclusive evidence exists to prove the validity of any of Nintendo’s claims.

With the second game, Big Brain Academy, slated for release June 5, the company seems confident the games will connect with U.S. consumers. It is still unknown, however, how Americans will respond to this new concept. Although mental health concerns apply to older consumers, they do not typically follow the video game market and thus might be unaware the games exist, dismissing it as a medium strictly for kids. That leaves the chief purchasers of video games: young adults.

Although Rohrer believes “students would benefit more if they devoted their free time to games that exercised their bodies,” he feels Brain Age is a welcome change of pace from most releases.

“If I was a parent, I would prefer that my child play an electronic game like Brain Age instead of one with guns and gore,” he said.

However, if the young people who play video games are primarily interested in the medium as a mode of escapism, they too may not show interest in this type of game.

“I don’t think it will achieve the hysterical level of popularity here that it has in Japan,” said William Klerk, a computer science and engineering major. “But it will generate a decent amount of curiosity, particularly if they market it to the parents.”

Klerk went on to explain that although support for this type of game is increasing,

he prefers more complex mental workouts.

“I personally better enjoy video games that disguise the fact that you are exercising your mind by mixing in violence, action or storyline,” Klerk said. “That’s where the art in video games lies for me – how well the game is able to hide the fact that you are repeating the same thing over and over again.”

On the other hand, engineering student Andrew Stella-Vega believes Brain Age is a breath of fresh air in an industry devoid of originality.

“I think these types of games would be a nice change of pace from your standard first-person shooter or role-playing type games,” he said. “One of the reasons I have sort of shied away from gaming lately is that most games seem to be variations on the same theme.”

Stella-Vega believes players “should feel mentally tired when playing these games,” and he hopes these “mental workout games” signal a new trend in the world of gaming.

Although these products have been lucrative in Japan, Nintendo may have difficulty finding an audience in the United States. Unless interested consumers seek out this product, Brain Age may get lost in the shuffle, qualifying it as one of Nintendo’s most revolutionary U.S. failures.