Do brain games make you smarter?

Since Nintendo’s Brain Age was released to years ago people have become obsessed with brain-training games. Today, so-called brain games or mind games are an extremely popular subset of casual games all over the world– they are not just on Nintendo or PC– they can be played as iPhone or Facebook apps too. For example, “Who Has The Biggest Brain?” has been played by more than 15 million people since it was launched on Facebook in 2007. The app lets you play some mini games, and tells you how big your brain, and you can compare the size of your brain with your friends.

But let us not get into the issue of whether size matters. The true question is: are these brain games really useful for your brain? Do they make you smarter or prevent you from getting dumber? These questions are still up in the air. Whether or not they really are effective for the brain is a huge controversy, even among academics. For instance:

* David J. Miller and Derek P. Robertson of the University of Dundee in Scotland published last year that brain games increase accuracy and speed of calculation as well as self-esteem. These results were based on an experiment involving three groups of children: group 1 played the Nintendo “Brain Training” game for 20 minutes each day on a DS console; group 2 did Brain Gym, a physical exercise that is supposed to stimulate the brain; group 3 did not receive any training (poor things).

The children took a test on a number challenge before and after a period of brain training (group 3, of course, did not receive training). The test results showed that children who played Brain Training had signficantly higher scores after playing the game; group 2 (Brain Gym) did not show any change and group 3 showed slightly higher scores, but group 1’s increase in scores was double that of group 3. Of course, these tests were done on a small group of children, so we can’t really generalize the results, but they were enough to inspire the Scottish Education Secretary to support brain-training games in school.

*Another study led by Lennart E. Nacke of the Blekinge Institute of Technology in Sweden compared brain-training games versus paper and pencil learning methods. The results were a “boo” for video games because paper and pencil were found to be more effective in terms of completion time, error rate, etc. However, the game was a more arousing experience for the gamers. Also, logic problem–solving challenges within digital games were associated with positive feelings for the elderly but with negative feelings for the young. Thus, the researchers suggest that computer logic-training games may provide a positive playing experience for elderly people.

If both of these studies are true, let’s go out on a limb and say that brain games do improve your brain because it’s the training that is important not the media. If you’re solving math problems, regardless of whether you’re doing it on paper or on a DS Lite, you’re still getting the effect of doing it in the first place. So perhaps it is stupid to ask if brain games improve the brain. Unless you are doing other “offline” brain games (such as sitting down at your desk and working algebra problem), yes, brain games will help your brain. So BOOYAH to people who say that games are no good; at least we know that brain games are lowering the threshold for “studying” and getting people engaged in brain exercises without having to force them to. I guess, then, the real question we should be asking is: do non-brain games improve the brain? I’d like to see academics tackle that question.

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