But why is Brain Age a success of this kind? It’s certainly a very different kind of game from Halo or even Miyamoto’s own Zelda series, games that allow the player to inhabit complex fantasy worlds. Instead, much of Brain Age’s success seems to come precisely from the ordinariness of its demands.
It is a game of chores, really, not of challenges. Games like speed arithmetic and number tracing actually become maddeningly dull after only a short time, but many players persist because they want to have the sensation of keeping their minds sharp. We use Brain Age like we might use an exercise video, or a bathroom book of aphorisms, or a low-carb cookbook. Whether or not the game really contributes to long-term mental health is irrelevant; it makes people feel as though they are improving their long term mental health. It satisfies a mundane need for personal upkeep.
As a medium becomes more familiar, it also becomes less edgy and exciting. This is what Marc Ecko means when he refers to movies as demystified. Over time, media becomes domesticated, and domestication is a mixed blessing.
On the one hand, it allows broader reach and scale. It means that more people can understand and manipulate the medium. Grandma and grandpa understand what they are looking at when you send them a VHS tape of junior blowing out the candles. On the other hand, it makes once a exotic, wild medium tame. After all, how many of you actually watch those airplane safety videos? Would you play an airplane safety game on the seatback monitor? Would you play it after seeing it on every flight for the next ten years?
Some proponents of serious games have unfortunately suggested that such games are opposed to the commercial, entertainment games that have come to define popular opinion of the medium. If we think of the possibility space for games as a more complex, graduated one, in which many kinds of experiences could be touched by games, then many more kinds of innovation present themselves.
And if we think of every point along this design gradient as an opportunity to be exploited, then we should want games to be more boring. Not just some games, we should want many of them, maybe even most of them to be boring, so that the ones that are not can become the Casablancas of our future medium.
3 For more on this, see Stephen Totilo’s review of the game on MTV News: http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1504962/20050629/index.jhtml?headlines=true.