Math problems, speed reading, and mental focus puzzles. No I'm not talking about the SAT's or your days in high school. I'm talking about the hand held game phenomena, BrainAge for the Nintendo DS. Why is this game doing as well as it is? It wasn't this much fun the first time I did it when I was in high school. For me there are a few simple things that this game does that captures my attention as a gamer and one really cool thing that captures my attention as a human. Let me explain.
BrainAge presents very simple logic puzzles with very simple graphics, that get progressively harder over time. The game encourages you to play briefly, but often. The game also rewards you every time you play by keeping track of your progress and by giving you a stamp on a calender. The game could easily stamp the calender for you, but it allows you to do it. There is something very gratifying about putting a stamp on your calender and watching it fill up. Its a similar feeling to crossing off a task on a long list of chores. It reinforces the feeling that you are making progress. This game also rewards you by unlocking new content based on the number of times you play the game. For example, if you do your "Daily Training" 5 days in a row, the game will grant you the ability to play a new logic puzzle. The next time, it may take 10 days to unlock new content, and so on. That's exciting! Unlocking new content is fun, even if the game that you unlock is just another simple logic puzzle. There is no reason why the folks over at Nintendo couldn't give you all of the content up front. They just decided to hand out that content as a reward. As they say up here in New England, "That's wicked smart!" Another thing that the game does well is allow you to see your progress over time with a line graph. I know that sounds crazy, but it's cool! I can look at how I have improved on a month to month basis and I can also compare my results to others that have been playing, but the greatest thing about BrainAge is how it interacts with you with the little floating head of that Neuroscientist, Dr Kawashima.
When I boot up my DS to play BrainAge, the game knows what the actual time is and that floating head of the Doctor says something brief to me like..."Oh, It's nice to see you again," or "It's been a week since the last time I saw you." If I boot up the game at 6am he will say something like "Boy it's nice to see you this morning," and if I play at 2am he might say "Don't you think it's a little late?" The Doc will also give me praise after if I have improved my ranking within a certain puzzle or give me words of encouragement if I did poorly on any puzzle. I have a theory that if I boot up the game on my birthday, that floating head Doctor will wish me a happy birthday. My point is, that even though I know his comments and reactions are all programmed in, it feels good for this little floating head to recognize my achievements and encourages me if I have an off day. I feel it is this design feature that really taps into a basic human desire. It's always important to feel like you are making progress in a game so it's extra gratifying if the game you are playing recognizes your achievements and makes comments about it. For example, if were playing an MMO and I went into a dungeon and saved Gretchen the fruit stand girl from monsters, it would be great to have the blacksmith in Gretchen's village say something like..."Hey Mike, I heard you saved Gretchen from those goblins. Because of your heroism, I'll give you a discount on the price of my swords." Not only does the game recognize my achievements, but I'm rewarded for completing this quest. It also reinforces the fact that I have an effect on this game world. Over time, based on the quests that I have accomplished, it could have an accumulative effect on the NPC's in the game world. Some of the effects could be positive while others could be negative depending on your actions.
The main point I'm trying to make is that when a game acknowledges what you are doing and reacts it feels much more interactive and more memorable. Without that floating head of Doctor Kawashima reacting to you, praising your achievements or guilting you into practicing more frequently, I don't believe this game would have done as well. While typing this entry, I got out my copy of Brain Age to refresh my thoughts and feelings about this game. I had put it down for a month or so to get caught up on Mario. The first thing Doc Kawashima said to me was..."Ummm....WHO ARE YOU AGAIN???