One of my PBS stations is fundraising with an infomercial about brain plasticity and "brain exercise" software, and there was a story in yesterday's New York Times, Exercise Your Brain, or Else You’ll ... Uh ... Do these programs really work, or are they just another fad drummed up to sell more panaceas that will go unused after a few tries?
I run a member-supported casual game community. The median age of my members is around 68, and the oldest whose age I know is 96. I was dragged by circumstances into doing this, but I've learned wonderful things about the value of play for the ageing mind. I'll tell you more below the fold, but first I want to let you know ...
For 20+ years, I've been working in the world of interactive TV ("Next Big Thing, Real Soon Now"). WebTV came on the market in 1996, and we experimented with a lot of iTV content on the platform, including games, with the users who came to our site being our our focus group. In 2001, Microsoft abandoned "Microsoft TV Advanced" (WebTV in a cable box) and dumped it off to MSN. Now, the majority of the remaining WebTV and MSNTV users are seniors and/or disabled.
We cinched up our belts really tight, and chose games as the one area to concentrate our efforts while we waited for the next wave of iTV. We didn't really think of our games as having particular social value, other than a pleasant diversion. And then circumstances intervened, and I discovered the value of play for brain plasticity.
My dad had atypical Parkinsons, and his mental facilities had slowed so much that I could not use compound sentences with him. He knew who people were and could express what he wanted, but use a sentence of more than six words, or put an OR choice in the middle, and he would get confused and frustrated.
I was home visiting my parents, and was asked to mind my dad while my mom went to the store. I was developing a simple game using the commom mechanism of swapping pieces to form a line of 3 or more of the same piece to score (like Bejeweled or Diamond Mine). Since we really couldn't carry on a conversation, I turned the monitor to face him and said "come on, Dad, let's play this game. I'll do the moves, and you help me find the move to make."
For 10 minutes or so, our "play" was my asking him "shall I move this one?" But the pieces were bright and colorful and made a fun sound when they scored, and he was engaged and would agree "yes" when I asked him. After each move, I would say "now you find one," and would wait before I'd point out the next one.
Then, he pointed and said, "there's one..." Yes! I scored it and said "find me another!" "There's one ..." We went on like this, with him pointing at them and my scoring them for another 10 minutes or so, going faster and faster. Then he said "there's one." I pointed to the one I thought he had indicated: "This one here?" "No, the one on the next line, because you'll get 5 instead of 3." !!!!!
My jaw dropped. This was more than I had heard him say for at least a year, and the logic and numeracy involved was something that had been missing even longer! "Dad! That's fantastic! This is a breakthrough!" I exclaimed. He grinned at me and said, "this is fun. How do you make these games?" When my mom came home from the store, she was amazed -- my dad and I were having an animated discussion, and he was almost his old self!
I didn't know the term "brain plasticity" at the time, but I did realize that there had been some pathways blocked by the TIAs that he had been having, and that somehow, playing the game that required the same logical processes to be used over and over had broken the block or created a new pathway. Once it was open, a cascade of cognition flowed again.
Pathways, once built, seemed to remain. He would slip back somewhat every time he had a TIA, but with logical intellectual stimulation, he would come back. When he died 2-1/2 years later, it was because his body had given up, not his mind, and I really believe that the games made a major contribution to his quality of life in those remaining years.
That experience made me look at the games I was creating and think they might have more value than just entertainment. My dad and I both shared a love of trains, so after I came back home, I created a puzzle game for him about trains. Circumstances once again pushed me towards running a game service. When Train went up on our little focus group site, our traffic jumped to over 3 million pages per month, which was overwhelming to our T-1 and ancient web server. We either had to take everything down, or do a major upgrade with a business model to pay for it. We threw the "Hail Mary" pass and brought up our membership service at $5 a month.
That was four years ago this weekend. We've just closed a membership-wide survey, and I reported some interim demographic results a couple of weeks ago in my member blog. From the survey, in which about 40% of our members participated, I asked members to check whether or not they felt the games had therapeutic value: almost 80% cited relaxation and stress relief as a major therapeutic benefit of the games, and 66% cited general logic and cognitive skills (keeping the mind sharp). 57% reported they were using the games to sharpen their memory skills, 40% felt the helped with hand-eye coordination, and 20% with pattern recognition.
We've received thousands of emails, comments and cards from members attesting to the value to them individually. This weekend, one of our members wrote us "My Doc tells me that playing these games is keeping my brain active, compared to just watching TV. I set myself a standard - any day i can't win at least 2 of my games, I won't drive my car, 'cause I know I'm not as sharp as i should be." And over and over, we are hearing just "stress relief, takes my mind off my pain, gives me something to do other than worry when I can't sleep."
At the beginning of this diary, I asked if these things really worked, or if this was just another fad drummed up to sell "brain exercise programs." From what I have learned so far, I'd have to give a qualified "yes" to both questions.
The problem with most of the "brain exercise" software is that it is deadly boring. I'm not sure whether these folks feel like it has to "taste like medicine" to sell, or if they're just afraid that if they try to make it more fun, their customers will realize that they could use other games that they actually like. But I'm reminded that while I happily can ride my bike for hours when I'm going somewhere, I just hate the exercise bike. You can gain without pain, if what you're doing is so interesting that you don't notice all the exercise you're getting. So I actually think that casual games -- the kind that are on your cellphones -- have a lot more potential to keep people sharp than the "brain exercises."
We always have 3 free-to-play games at the top of our front page. But today and tomorrow, all are open to play and we'd love to have you drop by during our party. (And if you need someone to take care of your mom online, we're ad-free, privacy-oriented, and have gift certificates available for Mothers' Day).
Anyway, it's the same old pundits until the next primaries, so take a break this weekend and get a little enjoyable mental exercise.
Come visit Games4TV -- held together by Ducktape.