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
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.
For example, Wired 15.5, May 2007, pp. 41-44.
For more on this, see Stephen Totilo’s review of the game on MTV