new challenger

I make games. I also play them. I talk about both activities here.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Game I Won't be Playing Anymore - Brain Age Edition

I had intended to write this article about how games are made by a very specific group of people, thus they tend to attract people who share the sensibilities of that specific group. You see, while we’re all here scratching our heads on how to break through to mega sales and capture all of these untapped segments of the population, we’re all approaching the problem with the same mindset and logic. Thus, we tend to reach very similar, yet perhaps misleading conclusions. It’s exemplified by this Buddhist quote I got from 21st Century Game Design, bar none of the best game design book I’ve ever read:

“Six wise, blind elephants were discussing what humans were like. Failing to agree, they decided to determine what humans were like by direct experience.

The first wise, blind elephant felt the human, and declared, ‘Humans are flat.’

The other wise, blind elephants, after similarly feeling the human, agreed.”

So, I was all set to get preachy and philosophical about the whole issue.

But then I bought Brain Age.

This "game" and its sequel are something of a phenomenon in Japan at the moment. That's what they call games when they sell 2 million copies in a country of 125 million. This product is marketed as a tool that will help you hone your brain to a razor's edge, bringing you back from the brink of dim-wittedness, I guess. I consider myself a pretty smart guy, and I thought it would be a fun endeavor to put this to the test. So I fired Brain Age up and went into the Quick Play. My first impressions were not favorable.

Words! Pages of instructions on how to "play the game" (“use the tool” is probably a more accurate characterization) had me a little wary. This really isn’t a game in the traditional sense at all. No biggie, I’m all for new and interesting experiences. The Quick Play mini-game is this test where words are displayed in various colors. Brain Age asks that you simply call out the color of the text. The challenge is that the words displayed are all colors too – Blue, Red, Yellow, Black – but never the same name of as the color of the text. The brain oftentimes has a tendency to read the word rather than say the color. It’s kind of cool in concept, and I was eager to find out my Brain Age. The instructions warn that this voice recognition system works best with native English speakers. Originating from Midwestern America, I come equipped with a deliciously neutral accent. Perfect! So I began the test. The variously colored words began to appear on screen, and I started in, calling out the colors.

“Blue.”

“Black.”

“Yellow.”

“Red…Red…Red…Red…RED...RED.”

“Yellow.”

“Blue.”

“Red…RED…RED…RED.”

My Brain Age ended up being 80. The god-damned game wouldn’t recognize my voice! I couldn’t have been more annoyed at the whole thing, and I turned the game off in disgust. My girlfriend, having become something of a game aficionado since the advent of the Nintendo DS, picked up the game shortly after I dropped it, and also immediately selected the Quick Play. I listened to her test with interest.

“Red.”

“Yellow.”

“Black.”

“Blue…Blue…Blue…Blue…BLUE…BLUE…BLUE.”

“Yellow.”

“Blue…BLUE…BLUE…BLUE…BLUE…”

Click. Brain Age turned off.

Later that evening, my girlfriend gave Brain Age another try. There’s another Quick Play option that’s basically a math test. It asks you to write the answers down to a streaming set of simple math problems. Apparently this test went over for her much better than the first one, as she excitedly asked me to try it. For the sake of science, I gave the game the old college try.

11 – 6 = 5.

4 x 3 = 12.

7 + 8 = 15.

6 x 7 = 42. 42. 42. 42. 42. 42.

The test said my brain speed was that of a car or something. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but the thought of the results being tainted by shitty writing recognition is just too much for me. I can say with a fair amount of certainty that I will never play Brain Age again. In gaming conventions, the controls just suck. As a counterbalance to my steadfast revulsion, my girlfriend continues to play the thing – she’s got her age down from somewhere in the late 50s to somewhere in the late 30s, and she appears to be enjoying it. I’m not going to tell people not to buy Brain Age, because that might be akin to swimming upstream – Brain Age could very well end up being a cultural phenomenon here in the States like it is in Japan. I will say that the game has gotten surprisingly tepid responses from the American videogame press – probably because a lot of them are blind elephants just like me and can’t tolerate the natural shortcomings that come from voice and handwriting recognition. Ah ha! Bet you guys didn’t see me wrapping that up all full circle-like like that, did ya?

Thanks for reading.

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