Walt Mossberg

Survived the ’60s? You May Want to Try This Nintendo Game

There’s nothing aging baby boomers worry about more than losing their mental sharpness in their 40s and 50s. As names, faces and phone numbers become harder to remember, many boomers try to find ways to halt or even reverse the process.

Now, Nintendo, the Japanese game giant, is hoping to cash in on this trend. It aims to get American boomers to start doing brain workouts on its popular $130 Nintendo DS hand-held game machine, which is more likely to be seen in the hands of teenagers.

On April 17, the company will bring to the U.S. a $20 game, for the DS player, called Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day!

It claims to be able to assign anyone’s brain an “age,” and then to reduce that age through a bevy of digital training exercises. These mainly involve rapid-fire math problems, reading drills and language challenges. A second title, Big Brain Academy, will be released May 30.

Both games have been big hits for Nintendo in Japan. They are based on the theories of a Japanese brain researcher named Ryuta Kawashima, whose animated face adorns the program.

As an aging boomer myself, I thought I’d give Brain Age a try, and have been using it for five days. I found the mental exercises in the game to be fun and stimulating, though they have a serious flaw I’ll describe later. After less than a day of “training,” I was able to reduce my so-called brain age dramatically. But between the actual exercises, Brain Age is peppered with corny and patronizing messages.

Before I describe Brain Age in detail, a major disclaimer is in order. This is not the health column, and I am no expert on brains or mental health. I have no idea whether the concept of a brain age is valid, or whether this game can actually improve your memory or mental skills. Nor do I know if it’s better, or even as good, for you as simply doing a crossword puzzle or sudoku game on paper regularly.

Brain Age doesn’t require manual dexterity. It doesn’t even use the usual game-control buttons. You carry out the brain exercises by writing answers on a screen with a stylus, or by speaking into the built-in microphone.

brain age

The program has numerous features, including a Quick Play module to show off the basics of the exercises; a Graph module that displays results; a Sudoku module with 100 sudoku puzzles; and a Download module for playing wirelessly against other Nintendo DS users.

The heart of the game is divided into two parts: Brain Age Check and Training. You start by checking your brain’s “age” by completing as many as three tests. In one, you must write the answers to 20 simple math problems. In a second, you must memorize and then write a long list of words. In the third, a well-known puzzler called the Stroop Test, you must say aloud the color in which a word is written, rather than the word itself.

All three require you to answer as rapidly as possible, as speed is of the essence in the Brain Age program.

My favorite of these was the Stroop Test. In rapid succession, it puts up the names of colors — “blue,” “red,” “yellow” and “black” — but these names are written in colors different from what the name signifies. For example, the word “yellow” might be written in blue type. You’re inclined to simply read the name of the color, but you’re supposed to say the color of the typeface.

On my first brain age check, the program assigned my brain a pathetic age 11 years older than my chronological age — something I suspect is deliberate, to scare players. After a few hours of training drills, I knocked that brain age down 26 years, to a number 15 years younger than my chronological age. By the end of the day, I was given a brain age of 20, the youngest possible. This didn’t inspire confidence in the program’s scientific accuracy, but it sure was fun.

Next, you’re supposed to do training exercises daily, and there are a wide variety of these. New ones are added as you go along. They include a math-calculation race, counting and reading out loud; a number-and-letter maze, a game where you count the syllables in phrases; and another where you have to keep track of a rapidly changing group of people moving in and out of a house.

The big flaw in Brain Age is its reliance on speech recognition and handwriting recognition. In each exercise, I lost points and time because, in a few instances, although I wrote or spoke the correct answer, the DS misinterpreted it as a wrong response, or else couldn’t decipher it at all.

Then there are those patronizing messages, accompanied by a creepy bobbing image of Dr. Kawashima’s head. He makes lame jokes about the weather, advises you to eat lots of carbohydrates and tells you that “your brain is rippling with raw brainy power.” At one point, he lets me know that “the setting sun sure does put spots in my eyes.” Huh?

Brain Age is fun and invigorating. I’m just not sure it’ll return the brains of boomers to the pristine condition they exhibited before all that sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.

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