Brain Health and Online Gaming

By Baxter, Mark | Generations, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview
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Brain Health and Online Gaming

Baxter, Mark, Generations

Now there is a world of 'serious' play-interactive games that are good for you and your brain. Brain fitness games with a foundation in science offer a varied, complex workout across different brain areas and aim to increase brain reserve, which is widely believed to delay mental deterioration.

Many of us have one or more areas in our lives that we would like to improve: we want to lose a few pounds, break our nicotine addiction, or be more focused at work and at home. We don't have to look far to find a seemingly limitless variety of options offering to solve nearly any problem. We can purchase self-help books, join the local gym, even hire a personal coach. Yet despite these "solutions," many of our issues are never fully resolved. The opportunities for change remain, but we eventually lose our drive to participate in them. Fortunately, there may be an effective alternative on the horizon: video games.

Video gaming-perhaps an unlikely and potentially powerful medium for selfimprovement- has been gaining a lot of attention recently. The media has frequently portrayed video games in a negative light, often highlighting the addictive nature of games or the influence of violent gaming on the development of children.

Recently, with blockbuster game franchises such as Nintendo's Brain Age and Wii Fit reaching new audiences with positive, family friendly experiences, more people are becoming aware that entertainment can be a motivational tool for healthy living. If games can help us to make important aspects of our daily routine more accessible and engaging, we are more likely to do things we are less motivated to do-especially when it comes to reaching long-term health goals that can be difficult to achieve and maintain.

The Rise of Online Gaming

The commercial release of video games began in the 1970s. These early games were simple experiences like Pong, a primitive table tennis game that originally sold around 19,000 units. Over the past four decades, video games have become more sophisticated and expanded into new mediums such as mobile phones and social networks, bringing in new audiences hungry for new experiences. As a result, the games industry has grown faster than any other entertainment sector and has recently surpassed global revenues of the music and film industries (Entertainment Retailers Association, 2010).

As high-speed Internet connections have gained widespread adoption, games have branched from boxed retail products into downloadable games and online browser-based games. This shift has given rise to new genres such as casual games, which can be played quickly and easily with little learning curve, and social games, which are integrated into platforms such as Facebook. These new genres further broaden the demographic of game players. As of 2010, 42 percent of game players are female, and 29 percent are older than 50 (Entertainment Software Association, 2010).

"Serious" Games: More than Entertainment

Interactive games are no longer the sole domain of the stereotypical male teenage gamer, and, as a result, the types of experiences being offered have also diversified. While nearly all games strive to deliver an entertaining experience, not all games have the primary purpose of entertainment. A genre that fits this description is "serious" games, which we define as interactive content that uses entertainment for the purpose of education and/or training. This genre encompasses a wide range of topics, such as health, education, and corporate training.

Serious games are a subset of the emerging genre known as lifestyle games, which, in contrast, are generally less academic and more focused on delivering top-tier gaming experiences that can improve a person's life. Wii Fit is an example of a successful lifestyle game that has resonated strongly with broad audiences, including avid gamers as well as those new to video games.

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