Brain Fitness Games - You're at work, introducing a new employee to a co-worker, and you momentarily forget their name. Or you go to the grocery store to pick up something "urgent", and you aimlessly wander the isles trying to remember why you're there. Sound familiar? As we age, we generally find our brains feeling less and less reliable in our daily lives, and at some point, perhaps we cross a threshold and momentarily worry that this might be a trend. But the real question is: What can we do to keep our brains sharp?
Brain fitness games have a strong foundation in science, and offer a varied and complex workout across multiple areas of the brain. Although these games rely on science in order to be effective, for them to gain mainstream acceptance, they must also be delivered in an entertaining and engaging manner. Casual gaming principles are a perfect fit, as they are designed to be fun and accessible to diverse audiences, including those that are new to gaming. The engagement and polish of a well-designed brain game not only has the potential to interest a large demographic, but can also help players find motivation to exercise their brains on a regular basis.
Brain Fitness and Casual Gaming
The explosive growth of gaming continues to bring a great deal of diversity into the industry, including new genres, distribution models, platforms and input devices. As a result, the demographic continues to expand, creating more opportunities in areas that were previously considered too small or niche to reach the mainstream. With genre-creating titles like The Brain Age, Wii Fit and Guitar Hero enjoying blockbuster sales, more and more people that haven't traditionally considered themselves to be "gamers" are getting actively involved in games on a regular basis, which isn't just great for the existing industry, but also for new companies and business models that push the boundaries of what we currently refer to as "games".
There is a large segment of the casual audience, generally in the baby boomer demographic, who enjoy casual game content but didn't grow up with games, and as a result don't necessarily feel that games offer enough value to be a regular part of their daily lives. However, the recent surge of health-oriented games has generated new interest, bringing more people into games and shifting the perception that games offer only entertainment.
Brain fitness games in particular are a great fit for these truly casual audiences, as the 30+ crowd that makes up the core casual demographic, is also more likely to consider the importance of keeping the mind sharp, for their everyday lives, as well as their future. The online space, with its ease of access to so many people, is the perfect place for people to play fun, healthy games that stimulate the brain, and even feel that it's a valuable use of their time.
Strengthening the Mind by Increasing "Brain Reserve"
One of the essential concepts at the core of brain fitness is the concept of "brain reserve", also related to the concept of brain plasticity, which can be strengthened at nearly any point of person's life by doing tasks that are novel and complex, and stimulate a balanced variety of areas within the brain.
Brain reserve relates to the brain's ability to physically reorganize itself in response to the demands placed upon it. A brain with a strong reserve is one that has formed many cellular connections and is rich in brain cell density. A strong reserve is generally believed to have the ability to delay the onset of mental deterioration, such as Alzheimer's Disease (AD). Simply put, mental diseases must work longer and harder to manifest in a brain that has built up strong reserve.
A healthy brain should look like a lush and vibrant jungle, rather than an island with a single palm tree. A jungle-like brain is representative of a healthy brain, because it is full of cellular connections that are very dense, and therefore indicate a very strong brain reserve. If you think of mental disease like AD as a weed-whacker, it invades the brain and begins to do its damage by destroying brain cells. However, it takes AD a long time to show any impact, if it has to destroy a jungle's worth of brain cell connections. In contrast, AD can manifest fairly quickly after infiltrating the brain if it simply needs to destroy only a relatively few cellular connections, like an island with a single palm tree.
Casual brain fitness games offer people a variety of well-rounded, scientifically based activities wrapped within a fun and engaging experience that is accessible to even first-time gamers. By offering stimulation across the spectrum of the brain, and ramping the difficulty in a way that increases the complexity of the tasks, brain games can offer people an effective way of increasing their brain reserve, and yet still have the appeal of casual gaming entertainment.
Balancing and Maintaining the Brain
Although organizations in the brain fitness industry sometimes use differing terminology, and may conceptually organize brain fitness into different categories, there is a general consensus regarding the major areas of the brain. At Fit Brains (www.fitbrains.com), we divide our games into five major categories: Memory, Concentration, Language, Visuospatial and Executive Functions. In addition to these primary areas of the brain, each area is further subdivided into sub-measures that are reflected within game activities and progression metrics. These areas are not distinctly separate; they work together in conjunction, like different instruments in an orchestra, and can be blended with one another to achieve a fuller measure of brain stimulation.
The Fit Brains platform represents brain balance and brain reserve as the Fit Brains Index (FBi) and as Brain Points. If your FBi is in the "Healthy" range or higher, that is a positive indicator that you are regularly engaging in brain fitness exercise on the site. Brain Points, on the other hand, are an indication of your cumulative brain fitness efforts across all games since you first joined the site. It is valuable for players to be aware that both the FBi and Brain Points benefit the most from regular, balanced activity across the five major cognitive areas.
At Fit Brains, we designed our casual brain game platform on a foundation of existing cognitive training research, such as the ACTIVE study, that continues to emerge from the fields of cognitive psychology and neuroscience. The scientific aspects of the platform are designed by a prominent neuroscientist, Dr. Paul Nussbaum, one of the leading brain health doctors in the US, and recent winner of the 2007 American Society on Aging "Gloria Cavanaugh Award" for his excellence in training and education in the field of aging.
The ACTIVE study, funded by NIH, demonstrated that adults are able to improve brain functions with proper training. The brain is healthiest when it is active and regularly challenged. With frequent brain training, the brain performs optimally and is able to maintain its abilities through the years. In addition to brain fitness games, the other important aspects of a healthy brain lifestyle include physical fitness, nutrition, socialization and meditation/spirituality.
The Right Motivation: Brain Fitness or Entertainment
In order to offer the benefits of brain fitness games to the widest possible audiences, it is important to consider the motivations and interests of the potential demographics. Some people are looking for something to help them exercise their brain, while others are merely looking for entertainment, but will also likely appreciate the added value of brain fitness. An effective, mainstream brain fitness experience allows users to choose their own motivations, while providing them with opportunities to expand their horizons, and either learn more about their brains, or be encouraged to challenge themselves with more entertainment-based accomplishments.
On the brain fitness side of the equation, Fit Brains offers a suite of tools that track a wide spectrum of player-progression metrics across the various activities. This includes balance between each of the major brain areas, as well as targeted recommendations based on more fine-tuned metrics related to each of the cognitive sub-measures. To round out the offering, there are also a series of brain circuit trainers that guide players through a balanced brain workout over a specified period of time, ranging from 3 to 30 days.
For those who are more motivated by the entertainment aspects of the site, there are also a collection of meta-game incentives designed to encourage players to visit on a regular basis and play a wide variety of brain games. These features include Brain Points, Trophies, Achievements, Leaderboards and Social/Community Gaming. They are each intended to encourage a more "sticky" brain fitness experience, by inviting players to return to the games frequently and extend their experiences, or earn special rewards that go beyond the games themselves.
Ultimately Casual Experience
One of the most important goals of brain fitness games, as well as casual gaming in general, is to be accessible to the largest variety of audiences. As the market expands and brings in more people that are new to games, this becomes even more difficult. One of the biggest challenges is to find the right level of game difficulty that can accommodate a wide range of both experienced gamers, as well as those playing games for their first time. Some games offer user-chosen difficulty settings that can be intimidating or confusing to new users, and often don't accommodate the complete spectrum of player abilities; other games have only a single level of difficulty progression designed to fit everyone.
At Fit Brains, our casual brain-fitness games are designed to accommodate the fact that many of our site members are often new to video games. In order to minimize issues with "user-chosen" or "one-size-fits-all" difficulty settings, we have developed an adaptive database system that allows us to offer personalized gameplay experiences through a variety of progression-charting and peer-clustering mechanisms. This technology allows us to gather valuable user metrics from various components within each game in order to set baselines that are relevant to each user and that are contrasted with statistical patterns derived from the broader site user population.
This data is displayed to the end user in the form of brain fitness metrics, which also includes brain exercise recommendations and brain training circuits. The data is also used to personalize each user session, by adapting each of the games to a variety of trackable parameters, including: scoring, play time, content accessibility, cognitive difficulty, and more. Over time, the database continues to adapt to each player and provide personally-tuned, casual brain fitness gaming experiences for everyone. By utilizing a self-tuning backend system, users of any level can join the experience and find both challenge and reward on a personal level. This focus on personalization allows the brain fitness experience to be effective and also accessible to the widest audiences possible.
In order for brain fitness games to resonate successfully with mainstream audiences, it is important that they provide the right balance between science and entertainment. The science extends the game beyond a mere "brain theme" into an effective tool for personal growth. The entertainment helps people to maintain the motivation to participate in healthy activity on a regular basis. Brain fitness games may share many of the same opportunities and challenges found within the casual games industry, but the health-oriented focus has the potential to resonate more deeply with players, which in turn helps the industry expand and draw in wider audiences that may be even more casual than the existing ones.
Mark Baxter is the Co-Founder and VP Product at Fit Brains (www.fitbrains.com). H has been in the Games and New Media industry for more than eight years, in a variety of roles including: Officer, Producer and Creative Director. He was the President and Founder of Gnosis Games, an independent games studio that developed multiple #1 Casual Games, including "Paparazzi" and "Private Eye". In 2005, Gnosis was nominated as the Canada New Media Award's "Most Promising New Company of the Year".
In 2006, Gnosis was sold to Threewave Software, a AAA game development studio focused on producing top-tier online content for PCs and consoles. As a Senior Manager of Threewave, Mark lead the Gnosis Casual Games division and worked closely with top brands and clients including: Disney, Electronic Arts, Real Arcade, Shockwave and Big Fish Games.
Mark has a background in Psychology, and is actively involved in a variety of educational and "Serious Gaming" initiatives (games that educate through entertainment), including SAGE for Learning (Simulation and Advanced Gaming Environments). Mark was also a Speaker/Moderator at the 2007 Casual Games Conference, and is an active member of the New Media BC Program Advisory Committee.