Nintendo’s Brain Training: smart move in a ‘gaming culture revolution’

January 21, 2008 at 10:37 pm Leave a comment

The following is a critique I wrote in November 2007 on the social impact of the Brain Training game on the DS (Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training: how old is your brain?). The paper gives a brief overview of the game and it’s gameplay and goes on to examine the social and cultural context, highlighting Nintendo’s foresight, emerging market trends and, Nintendo’s strategies and impact.


Nintendo have experienced an incredible comeback after reaching an all time low in profits in 2004. Nintendo in 2007, so far, has shown high growth compared to figures in 2006, mainly due to the success of their Wii and DS consoles. Some have argued that Nintendo have highlighted the potential in the so-called ‘non-gamer’ market, even more so with the release of Nintendogs and their Brain Training series for the DS.

‘… “non-gamers” is a huge market that the videogames industry will want to reach, not to mention the combined 11% of medium and light gamers overall who perhaps feel that the industry hasn’t provided enough titles to really hook them in.’
(Pratchett 2005: 25)

The named ‘non-gamers’ include everyone except those traditionally categorised as heavy gamers, young and male. The ‘non-gamer’ market segment has very much been underserved by the games industry as traditional games have taken similar forms to games such as Halo, Half-Life and Counter Strike. Recent research studies have shown that more females are now playing games, as are older people of 30 to 65 years of age. Nintendo seem to have grasped the potential of this recently emerging market segment before the other leading gaming corporations, and are now reaping the benefits.

The aim of this text is to examine Nintendo’s DS game, Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training: How old is your brain?, and to explore it’s social and cultural influence. This critique will investigate why Nintendo have experienced success with the game and identify the new demographics of the ‘non-gamer’ market. Is there further commercial value in reaching the emergent market of this demographic gaming revolution?

The Game – Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training: how old is your brain?



Nintendo first released Brain Training in December 2004 in Japan entitled ‘DS Training for Adults: Work your Brain’. Translation of the Japanese title directly is quite a mouthful but states the game’s purpose in a nutshell:

‘… “Whip your brain into shape under the supervision of Professor Ryuta Kawashima of Tohoku University’s Advanced Science and Technology Joint Research Center”.’
(Cook 2005)

Professor Ryuta Kawashima is indeed a real person and the game is based roughly on his neurological research. The scientific research is not in the scope of this text; however, more information on this is available on the Tohoku University website.

The game hit big with the Japanese and is still in the top 10 games since its launch. The game’s fans range all ages, especially the elderly, and was soon encouraged in hospitals to patients as a possible means of informal detection, prevention and therapy of dementia.

After its astounding success in Japan it was then released worldwide hitting Europe in the summer of 2006, entitled ‘Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training: how old is your brain?’. The game’s positive performance in Japan was then mirrored, reaching sales of more than 500,000 units in the first nine weeks of availability.


The two terms in gaming which cause the most confusion are ‘game mechanics’ and ‘gameplay’. This is due to the fact that gameplay is widely used as the dimension for rating how good a game is.

Game design incorporates both game mechanics and gameplay components. Game mechanics are based on the developers’ concepts of how the game is played and the rules that define this. Gameplay on the other hand involves the overall experience of the player while playing the game and is used when analysing a game’s performance.

Gameplay is a ‘player-centered perspective’ (Fabricatore no date) and in some respects, gameplay defines the intangible. It involves not only how the player interacts with the game but also the overall experience of the player and how they feel when playing it.

From the player’s perspective, Brain Training offers four main options: Brain age check, Training, Graph and Other Options. The latter being Sudoku puzzles, a Daily training schedule which records whether the user has completed their training for each day, and ‘Testing your Brain Age’ which involves stroop test, word memory and matching exercise. The Brain age check calculates the user’s brain age and the graph shows the player’s brain age plotted on a graph over time with some feedback from Kawashima’s virtual head. Training involves different exercises to test areas of cognitive ability which include: Calculation exercises, Reading aloud, Low to High, Head Count, Syllable Count, Triangle Maths, Time Lapse and Voice Calculations.

The player is graded on speed and accuracy of their exercise completion and the grades range from walking to rocket speed. The brain age is calculated from their performance and the lowest and best age is 20.

‘- The professor is a bobbing head that encourages you much like a real world teacher would.
– The DS is held sideways, much like a traditional notebook.
– All the ‘random buttons’ on the DS are ignored and the whole game is played through the touch screen and the microphone.
– There are a number of risk / reward schedules that are skinned to fit the metaphor. Training each day gets you a ‘good job’ stamp. If you do a good job, you are rewarded with additional lessons and exercises much like you would if you were taking a class.’
(Cook 2005)

The intangible gameplay includes theories and ideas of flow, motivation, narrative, immersion and aesthetics. However, this text will not go into detail on these theories, but instead will highlight the key features of the game’s gameplay which have an impact on the gaming society and culture.

The narrative of the game is based on a classroom experience with Kawashima as your teacher, encouraging your efforts. The aesthetics of the game mirror the narrative, as the DS is held open sideways like a book and the stylus is used for input much like a pen. Input by the player/learner is written and vocalised and feedback is provided from the teacher on performance.

The motivation comes from not only the positive affect on mental health, but also the reward of sharpening your brain gaining a younger brain age. The game also has:

‘… a multiplayer mode that lets you get into a calculation battle against up to 15 other players using a single copy of the game.’
(Gerstmann 2006)

This increases motivation with social competition. All of these assist in immersing the player.

‘Brain Training is a compulsive, strangely rewarding experience. As you progress, you unlock more exercises, keeping the experience varied. That said, if you don’t want to do your Daily Training, you can just use it to play that latest national obsession, sudoku.’
(Etherington 2006)

Social and Cultural Context

Nintendo’s Foresight

The traditional gaming market over the past few years has shown evidence of saturation and game corporations are all fighting for the same traditional gamer market. Nintendo has shown foresight, initiative and innovation many times throughout its reign as one of the leading games companies. To some extent this ensures first place in tapping into new markets, however, it has not always been successful.

Satoru Iwata, the fourth president and CEO of Nintendo, gave a presentation at the Tokyo Game Show in September at the Makuhari Messe in Tokyo, Japan. He commented in his speech:

‘… “For the future of video game business, we have to expand the market. We need to get back to the basics… Those who believe in the past success formula can just go ahead. However, Nintendo does not believe in that direction”.’
(Carless 2005)

Iwata explained the need to innovate to prevent the death of the market. Nintendo’s strategy comprises of three concepts:

‘… “…to re-engage people who have stopped playing, to actually attract new gamers, and to create new products that appeal to everyone.”…’
(Carless 2005)

Nintendo is the market leader on a global scale and certainly know what they are doing, acquiring 41.9% market share (August 7, 2007). They also won six out of fourteen BAFTA awards for Wii Sports at the British Academy Awards this year.

Emerging Market Trends

Recent studies on gamer demographics have produced astonishing results. A demographic revolution has taken hold of the gaming industry introducing more females, older generations and casual gamers.

‘…there are now more female owners of Nintendo’s handheld DS console in the UK than there are male (54% against 46%), says the research agency GameVision.’
(Kurs 2007)

Games Investor Consulting Ltd in 2005 published an article on gamer demographics which stated data from the US across all platforms:

– 43% of gamers are female
– 72% are 18+ and 19% are 50+
– online and on mobiles, married women in their 30s and 40s outnumber hardcore gamers

US figures from the ESA 2007 Sales, Demographic and Usage Data report, show that those 50+ gamers have increased to 24%, and the average gamer age is 33 years old.


‘If the industry fails to broaden the addressable market of console owners, growth rates of games software will not be sustainable, and investment in the industry will dry up. Over the next decade, recognising and exploiting these fundamental changes will become not just a critical success factor but possibly also a survival factor for every games company.’
(Games Investor Consulting Ltd 2005)

UK figures (from the BBC’s Gamers In The UK: Digital play, digital lifestyles report of 2005) show similar trends with 45% of gamers being female, a considerable percentage of gamers over 50 years of age and an average gamer age of 28.

‘• A quarter of UK game players are aged 36-50
• 18% (or 1.7 million gamers) are aged between 51- 65
• The average age of UK gamer is approximately 28
• 45% of all gamers are female
• 52% are ABC1 social grade, 48% are C2De social grade’
(Pratchett 2005) (see also Appendix A)

An interesting fact that stuck out in this report is that 41% of the UK’s population do not play games in any form at all, and are not only the elderly.



Despite evidence of these untapped market segments, they are still poorly served by the industry.

‘Depictions of stylised violence and large-breasted female characters dressed in leather handkerchiefs have, unsurprisingly, earned the industry something of a lad-mag image. But games are growing up. The industry is now worth £4.1 billion in Europe alone. Clearly, games publishers can no longer afford to rely solely on established core audiences.’
(Times Online 2003)

Parks Associates broadband and gaming director, Yuanzhe (Michael) Cai, highlights the potential of these emerging markets that companies are missing out on.

‘…“If game companies insist on chasing the mythical hardcore and casual gamer segments, they will miss out on more than half of the market…The market is not black and white anymore…”…’
(Jenkins, David 2006)

In order to engage these new gamers, ‘clear visuals, gentle learning curves, short play times and simple mechanics’ (Edge 2007: 2) seem to be the way to go when considering game design.

The Game’s Impact

Brain Training has experienced extraordinary success with the Japanese, as mentioned previously. In Europe there have been positive reviews, but flaws have been highlighted, mostly in relation to the voice and character recognition.

‘in the stroop test, there is a widespread problem of the game not picking up the word ‘blue’, with many players having to compensate by saying ‘broo’, which is a little silly. The handwriting recognition is better, but again works on picking up specific parts of an inscription (mainly shape), which proved problematic on 3’s in the number games, and some words in Word Memory. These are annoyances that you just have to put up with, which drags the game down a bit, but these problems seem to be widespread with anything that requires vocal recognition or optical character recognition.’
(Keller 2006)

GameSpot UK also pointed out the dodgy voice and character recognition but did give credit for the standard without calibration. Praise was also given to the addictiveness of gameplay. GameSpot’s reviewer, Jeff Gerstmann gives Brain Training a score of 7.2, while the average critic score from the GameSpot website was 7.8 and the user score, 8.1.

A post by Wesley Yin-Poole on the 30th October this year states Nintendo’s revealed figures:

‘…two thirds (66%) of adult DS users are female. Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training: How Old Is Your Brain? has sold over one million units in the UK, indicating one in four DS owners have the title.’
(Yin-Poole 2007)

An article by Edge online entitled The Nintendo Years informs on the pitfalls and rewards experienced by Nintendo. The DS and Brain Training outperformed expectations:

‘… 2005
The DS hits its stride in spectacular form, with Nintendogs and Brain Training… rewriting the rule books and proving that the right software can have a lifespan longer than the few weeks most big releases manage in the charts.
Profits rebound sharply ($777 million) thanks to the success of the DS, and Nintendo reveals the fruit of over two decades of survival in a famously volatile business when it announces total sales of over two billion games.’
(Edge 2007: 3)

A SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) has been compiled on Nintendo Co. Ltd by market analysis experts, Datamonitor, and was published in October 2007 with some excellent financial figures: revenue increase of 89.8% compared to 2006, operating profit $1,916 million during 2007 compared to $773 million in 2006, and net profit increase of 77.2% since 2006. (Datamonitor 2007)

Serious games, affective games and titles such as Brain Training have changed the way people think about games, meaning gamers are no longer categorised as time-wasters.

‘We’re finally getting close to being a real, transparent and adaptable medium, which runs the entire gamut from worthy to disposable, lavish to functional, fiction to documentary, entertainment to illumination.’
(Edge 2007)

Brain Training sales alone sum up the potential of the, until recently, untapped markets:

‘Over a year since its introduction throughout Japan and with sales passing 2.3 million units in that region alone, stories of Japanese pensioners queuing up around Akihibara to get the latest copy of Brain Training proves one thing, never question Nintendo.’
(Leyton 2006)

Why are so many people, of varied demographics, lapping up the DS and Brain Training? What is unique about the game? Why has it acted as an isotope in the gaming demographic revolution? The following discussion will focus on factors within this context including ageing gamers, serious gaming, hardware and interaction, gameplay and marketing.

One prominent factor is that the traditional gamers have now grown up, with their own families and new lifestyles. Their approach to gaming now is a more mature one, seeking relaxation and illumination. This is a far cry from their previous lives as young hardcore gamers.

‘… “…having a mortgage, kids, marriage — their focus falls on to their family. So, while gaming is still a part of their life, it is not consuming them, and they turn to games to relax and kill time.”…’
(Gaudiosi 2006)

The serious gaming element comes into play, contributing to the game’s success, as the mechanics are base on best selling scientifically founded research. Nintendo take advantage of human nature’s fear of ageing, as it has been scientifically proven that keeping an active mind helps combat dementia and other such brain related conditions. This is a great strategy for pulling in the elder generations of potential players, and those interested in individual wellbeing.

‘We use Brain Age like we might use an exercise video, or a bathroom book of phorisms, or a low-carb cookbook… it makes people feel as though they are improving their long term mental health. It satisfies a mundane need for personal upkeep.’
(Bogost 2007)


Another important point is the hardware and its accompanying interaction, in order to play the game. Use of the DS is very much a parallel to book and pen classroom activity. The DS is held sideways and open like a book, with the main instructions screen on the left and the touch screen on the right for input.


This theme of book and pen is universal and spans across all age groups. Players of all ages feel familiar with the interaction which is mainly through voice, character recognition and touch with the DS stylus. The players do not need to bother learning which of the many buttons does what, as the buttons are not used for this game. The console is also small and portable meaning the player can use it anytime, anywhere, to their heart’s content. Thus the interaction and theme caters for all ages, genders and types of player, and players do not need previous gaming experience.

The game mechanics are simple but affective, with mini quizzes similar to mental maths exercises at primary school. The gameplay further strengthens the school training narrative as the player is graded on their performance and Kawashima’s avatar responds with feedback and encouragement.


The puzzle/IQ test nature of the game creates the basis for intense competition between players and addictiveness, as players want to beat others’ scores. In this way the game creates social interaction and competition between players, may they be friends or family members, varying in demographics.

A clever move by Nintendo was to also incorporate Sudoku in the game which has proved to be one of the most popular puzzle games around. Thus Sudoku fans are kept happy and Brain Training feeds off of the puzzle’s addictiveness and universal appeal.


Nintendo are splashing out with their TV and print advertising, hiring stars to be the new face of their product. Such stars include NicoleKidman, Patrick Stewart, Julie Walters, Phillip Schofield, Fern Britton, Zoe Ball and Johnny Ball. They have been tactful with which stars they hire for their adverts, making sure they cater for the underserved segments.

These stars range widely in age, gender and our public perception of the individuals as game-players. By showing these famous icons playing the game they are encouraging people of similar demographics to play it also. Most of the time, adverts show the product being used by the key type of consumer they have been designed for. Hence, Nintendo have chosen the stars for planned reasons, attracting the right demographics and expanding their market.

Nintendo has once again proved themselves as forward thinking and innovative, stepping out of the mould and reaping the benefits. They demonstrate that:

‘- Targeting an underserved market can extend your selling period
– Real world risk / rewards schedules can supercharge the addictiveness of your game
– Interface is a learned language
– Game can be more than mere entertainment’
(Cook 2005)

‘Nintendo UK marketing director Dawn Paine said that Nintendo wanted to make games that didn’t replace real life, but instead became part of people’s daily lives and routines.’
(Boyes 2007)


Nintendo prevented low financial performance that would inevitably result from the saturation of the traditional gamer market. Their strategy was to widen their customer base by designing their products with universal appeal. Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training: how old is your brain? is one of these products, demonstrated by its aforementioned chart-topping success.

The game’s simple mechanics and gameplay supports the narrative theme of teacher-student mental training. Short arithmetic problems and cognitive tasks test the player’s mental age, which is recorded over time, and the avatar provides feedback. All of this contributes to key elements of immersion, good aesthetics and addictive gameplay.

They have designed the game to be played on the DS console where interaction is intuitive and player friendly, requiring no previous gaming or console knowledge. The scientific research on which the game is based on has made the game more appealing to non-traditional gamers, as it promotes and contributes to individual wellbeing. Even more appealing is their use of well known Hollywood and TV stars in their advertising.

Nintendo’s strategy, from the mouth of Satoru Iwata, is to re-engage ex-gamers, attract new gamers and appeal to everyone with their products. They seem to be achieving their strategy goals, diversifying the range of game titles and gamer markets, and receiving high growth in revenue and profits in the process.

‘Nintendo’s strategy of pursuing innovation benefits the entire industry.
It brings in new audiences and creates new genres that provide innovative and exciting experiences.’
(Cook 2005)

‘I hope to see many more titles like DS Training for Adults. Designers who pursue the goal of creating useful product will build entirely new fields of game design that expand well beyond the current pool of stagnant genres. I’ve said it before, but it is worth repeating. This is an exciting time to be a game designer.’
(Cook 2005)

We are experiencing a massive shift in gaming society and culture, and Nintendo have highlighted the new needs of the market and the potential to be gained from serving these needs. Much can be learned from industry leaders such as Nintendo, and their key concepts discussed here will inform the development of products to come.

Appendix A – NRS UK social grades



BAFTA (2007) Games Nominations 2007 [online] Available at: [date accessed: 11t h November 2007]

Bogost, Ian (2007) Persuasive Games: Why We Need More Boring Games [online] Available at: [date accessed: 11t h November 2007]

Boyes, Emma (2007) Nintendo UK: We are inclusive, not exclusive [online] Available at
: [date accessed: 11t h November 2007]

Carless, Simon (2005)
TGS: Iwata On Expanding The Entire Games Market [online] Available at: [date accessed: 11t h November 2007]

Cook, Daniel (2005) Game Design Review: DS Training for Adults [online] Available at: [date accessed: 11th November 2007]

Cook, Daniel (2005) Nintendo’s Genre Innovation Strategy: Thoughts on the Revolution’s new controller [online] Available at: [date accessed: 11t h November 2007]

Datamonitor (2007) Games Consoles: Global Industry Guide Market [online] Available at: [date accessed: 11t h November 2007]

Edge (2007) The Future of Gaming [online] Available at: [date accessed: 11t h November 2007]

Edge (2007) The Nintendo Years [online] Available at: [date accessed: 11t h November 2007]

ESA entertainment software association (2007) 2007 Sales, Demographic and Usage Data: Essential Facts About the Computer and Video Game Industry [online] Available at: [date accessed: 11t h November 2007]

Etherington, Daniel (2006) games: dr kawashima’s brain training, Brain food [online] Available at: [date accessed: 11th November 2007]

Fabricatore, Carlo (no date) Gameplay and Game Mechanics Design: A Key to Quality in Videogames [online] Available at: [date accessed: 11th November 2007]

Games Investor Consulting Ltd (2005) Gamer demographics: The times they are a-changing [online] Available at: [date accessed: 11t h November 2007]

Gaudiosi, John (2006) Online gaming attracts more women than men: Women playing games [online] Available at: [date accessed: 11t h November 2007]

Gerstmann, Jeff (2006) Brain Training [online] Available at:;review [date accessed: 11th November 2007]

Jenkins, David (2006) Report Suggests Diversifying Online Market [online] Available at: [date accessed: 11t h November 2007]

Keller, Matt (2006) Dr. Kawashima’s Brain Training Review: Blue. Blue. BLUE! [online] Available at: [date accessed: 11t h November 2007]

Kurs, Simon (2007) Girls get on top of the video game [online] Available at: [date accessed: 11t h November 2007]

Leyton, Chris (2006) Doctor Kawishima’s Brain Training: How Old is Your Brain Mini Review [online] Available at: [date accessed: 11t h November 2007]

Pratchett, Rhianna (2005) BBC GAMERS IN THE UK Digital play, digital lifestyles [online] Available at:
[date accessed: 11t h November 2007]

Times Online (2003) The games women play [online] Available at; [date accessed: 11t h November 2007]

Tohuko University School of Medicine (no date) Functional Brain Imaging, New Industry Hatchery Center [online] Available at: [date accessed: 11th November 2007]

Yin-Poole, Wesley (2007) DS tops 4 million sales in the UK [online] Available at: [date accessed: 11t h November 2007]


Entry filed under: Innovation, Interaction, Learning, Social Impact, Trends. Tags: , , , , , , , , .

Welcome to Gaming & Learning Are games useful for learning?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Trackback this post  |  Subscribe to the comments via RSS Feed


The purpose of this blog is to provide insight into the impact of computer games and pop culture, and effective ways of incorporating the positive surplus into learning experiences.

Please feel free to add comments and email me with any queries. I am also interested in relevant project collaboration.

Name: Alexandra Matthews
Location: UK

Email: /



%d bloggers like this: