Who doesn’t enjoy estimating the square footage of a cube? Does it get any sweeter than the Scholastic Aptitude Test? AP or bust, bitch! You can have your ‘games’ and ‘drugs’ and ‘cheap hookers’ - for my money, there’s no better form of entertainment than a good mathematical word problem. Can I get an amen… leaving Boston at 4:35 while traveling at 45 mph?
Okay, so maybe not from anyone in Berkeley, but I think I hear a murmur coming out of Japan, the land of the rising IQ. 'Brain' games have inexplicably taken the Japanese gaming market by storm, probably because the Japanese are rumored to have brains up to seven times the size of our tiny American ones. I mean, they thought of this before we did, so they’ve got to be smarter, right?
Well, not if their love of Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day is any indication. The first of several IQ tests disguised as games to arrive on our stupid shores, this odd piece of DS code claims that by spending a few minutes every day trying to solve a variety of puzzling mini-games, you’ll actually get smarter. That may or may not be true, but even if playing Brain Age indeed tightens those synapses and greases up those neurons, that doesn’t make it much fun.
It begins with three initial tests to determine your ‘Brain Age,’ a rough estimate of your brain’s overall health. The lower the score, the better, with 20 being the ideal age, though if memory serves, I wasn’t exactly brilliant at 20. Or sober.
At any rate, each day you turn on your DS and engage in a smattering of brain-bending activities, which purportedly activate different cortexes in your gray matter. This is explained to you by the disembodied head of Professor Ryuta Kawashima, the real-life scientist behind the theory (and best-selling book) on which this game is based and a thoroughly irritating guide. He constantly repeats instructions and uninteresting tidbits about the game. Must be early onset Alzheimer’s.
The “games” themselves are quite simple. You’ll be asked to solve basic math calculations, memorize and regurgitate lists of words, count syllables, keep track of people entering and exiting a house, and even read aloud. There are only ten in all, though clearly they’re not meant to be played more than once a day or so. On each test, you’re given a score based on time and errors, which is then saved to the DS memory. Over time, you can watch as you better your performance and, theoretically, strengthen your cerebellum. At any point you can re-take the Brain Age Check, and with increased play, that number should eventually lower, thereby proving to the world that indeed you are becoming smarter by playing a (sort of) video game.
Perhaps that’s true, because scores tend to get better each day, and that’s definitely satisfying. As Dr. Kawashima’s head praises your increased problem-solving speed, you’ll seriously think that your brain is growing.
Or maybe that’s just your ego. I don’t mean to piss on the parade here, but if practice makes perfect, it only makes sense that your times and errors would lower as you get better at, say, identifying that 9 x 9 = 81. Like in any game, the more you play it, the better you get. Over time, I managed to better my scores in most of the tests, but I’m not convinced that made me any smarter. For instance, I still drink too much. Where’s the test for that?
There’s also a weird disconnect between the games and the Brain Age Check. You can screw up the games and still get a great Brain Age score by performing well during the check itself. Perhaps your Brain Age should be determined by your overall performance in the games, not a random test. Have we learned nothing from standardized testing debates? Over about two weeks, my Brain Age fluctuated wildly, going from a moronic 58 to a bright 21, then mysteriously back up to 46, then zooming to 25, and then settling a kickass 20. I am now perfect.
I suspect the reason behind such a wild curve is that the game’s input recognition isn’t always accurate. Brain Age exclusively relies on the stylus and the microphone. Holding the DS on its side like a book, you simply scribble answers on the touch screen, which meets with mixed success. Apparently my fours look like nines, which screws up the occasional math problem. The biggest gripe comes from the Stroop Test, which shows you the names of different colors in different colors, like yellow. You need to say the color of the word, not the word itself, to proceed. That makes sense, but the game has a hard time understanding “blue,” forcing you to repeat it a few times and wasting precious seconds (and brain years).
Some of the games can be exploited easily, too. Reading Aloud, for instance, doesn’t even try to handle the voice recognition, instead just trusting you to actually read the sentences clearly before flipping pages. Speed Counting is equally inane since it asks you to be the judge of your own clarity. The discrepancy between these vague tests and the absolute ones is noticeable and can sway the scores.
Further, the Brain Age Check gives you two options – one if you’re in a quiet space and can speak (which usually includes the problematic Stroop Test), and one that only requires writing. Since the written word recognition is better than the voice recognition, you tend to score better on such a test, hence my incredible leap from 58 to 21 in a mere two days.
So the core functionality of Brain Age isn’t entirely accurate, but there’s not a great deal more here. Other than the Daily Training mode, you can engage any of the tests in Quick Play mode, compete against up to 16 others in the Calculation games, or send a short demo to another DS player. By far the weirdest addition is a collection of Sudoku boards, which have no connection to the rest of Brain Age. Unsurprisingly, they’re more engaging than the short brain tests and actually provide more than a few hours worth of fun, if you dig number matching games.
I suppose there’s something to be said for Brain Age as a sort of bridge between educational and entertainment software; parents could obviously do far worse than giving this to their tiny tots. Perhaps young children will appreciate the rapid-fire brain teasers and subsequent scoring more than older gamers who have no interest in going back to grade school.
Or maybe I’m too stupid to appreciate the joy of math. Maybe my brain is so tiny, I can’t understand why anyone would want to spend their DS time taking tests instead of playing, say, a video game. But this I know – if you’re looking for a way to make yourself smarter, start by saving your money for a better investment, like a book.