Posts tagged ‘affective games’

Channel 4 sponsors Dare to Be Digital… Introduces education as a theme

Channel 4 has announced sponsorshop of the Dare to Be Digital summer game development competition. Announced here.

As part of their sponsorship (which apparently is for a significant sum of money to support the competition), a brief to develop games with an educational or serious ‘twist’ has also been provided.

Author: Daniel Livingstone, Learning Games Blog, 4th April 2008

Full article available here.

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April 5, 2008 at 10:57 am Leave a comment

Playing Computer Games – impact on health (part 2)

Mental Health

Photosensitivity

A well established negative consequence of computer game play in epileptic individuals is the risk of seizures in those who are photosensitive. Seizures are more likely to occur at times of high-intensity flickering images and scene changes, however, these seizures were a chance occurrence in the studies undertaken. Goldstein (2003) dismisses this affect as it is non-attributable to everyone but those who are photosensitive.

Computer games are not the only things that have a risk factor for photosensitive individuals. Some TV shows like MTV’s animations have flashing images and lights, so do most action movies and even mood beams (plastic characters which emit coloured lights) come with warnings for epileptics.

Brain Activity

Evidence has shown a change in brain activity while playing computer games which suggests a positive affect. The hormone and neurotransmitter, dopamine, has been found to be released in humans during computer game play through ‘goal-directed motor’ tasks in Koepp et al. (1998).

‘It has been suggested that such dopaminergic neurotransmission is involved in learning, reinforcement of behaviour, attention and sensorimotor integration, which is known as effective learning’ (Underwood et al. 2007)

This is an area which requires further exploration as it is relatively new in medical research.

In Japan, scientists and the university in Tohoku, in 2001 made claims that computer games stimulate areas of the brain which do not help in the development of the frontal lobe, which controls behaviour, memory, emotion and learning. Instead they stimulate areas which are devoted to movement and vision, which are not as crucial in a child’s development as the frontal lobe.

Researchers are concerned by this, including Professor Ryuta Kawashima who believes:

‘… children must be encouraged to practice basic mathematics, as well as learning reading and writing which also boost the frontal lobe. He is convinced that children who play video games excessively will not develop their frontal lobes and will consequently be more prone to violent acts, as they will be less able to control their behaviour.’ (ZDNet.co.uk 2001)

Later in Japan in 2004, Brain Training for the DS was launched, a game based upon Kawashima’s research which targets the frontal lobe of the brain, the area of crucial importance in human development.

Research into the brain over the last quarter of a century has uncovered an important characteristic of the brain termed neuroplasticity. This is the ability of the brain to regenerate brain cells and effectively reorganise itself. A common metaphor for this is ‘rewiring’ but this does not accurately portray the brain’s malleability. The brain regenerates and reorganises itself dependant on the stimuli it receives.

This leads us onto the research of social psychologists who show that people from different cultures actually think differently. The environment we live in does affect how our brain develops. Steven Johnson (2005) picks up on this and discusses the digital divide between generations who have been brought up with technology and those who have not. The ‘digital natives’ simply think differently, they have been exposed to digital technology at a very young age and their brains have developed accordingly. This is a much debated topic in current talks between researchers from many fields.

Mental Health Games

Biofeedback and affective games are increasingly emerging in the market, which promote mental health in their players. Games such as Luminosity, Brain Training and Journey to Wild Divine encourage mental health through stimulating certain parts of the brain. Some promote learning and literacy, some cognitive ability and others help to control emotions and stress.

Other games are now being developed to promote mental health in teens and children who suffer from emotional issues like depression. Earthquake in Zipland is one such game which helps children to deal with their parents divorcing.

Violence & Aggression

Violent ad aggressive behaviour was mentioned previously in the physical health section of this text, however, the origin of this behaviour is mental health. Discussed above in brain activity is the affect a person’s environment has on the brain and subsequently behaviour development.

This involves not only the person’s daily activities but also their social experiences with family and friends and of course their childhood experiences.

There is much debate about violent and aggressive behaviour in children and it is easy for people to blame computer games, especially shooters. On the positive side, however, the point of catharsis has been mentioned. This point argues that computer games actually dispense of aggression and violence in the form of pent up energy, decreasing the need for people to act out in their behaviour.

Most children do understand the difference between games and real life, and violent behaviour is only developed in those with more vulnerable personalities. There is evidence in the US that the rate of violent crimes has actually decreased in the same duration of time that computer game playing has increased.

A lot of the assertions that computer games promote violent and aggressive behaviour are not based on empirical evidence, but the issue is more and more reflected upon as computer games are developing more realistic violent representations. There is currently an idea afloat on ‘backward causation’ which suggests that children who show aggressive behaviour may be more attracted to play computer games which simulate violent behaviour. Any evidence linking computer game play to the cause of aggressive behaviour is tainted by this backward causation notion. Additionally, most research is based upon fantasy or virtual violent behaviour and not real life behaviour, which nullifies the claim that games promote aggressive behaviour and supports the catharsis hypothesis.

Attention Spans

A common opinion of young adults today is that they are rude and have very short attention spans. They lose interest and patience easily when it comes to traditional teaching. When it comes to activities that do interest them, such as playing computer games, communicating on the internet or listening to music, they become completely engaged and can spend hours doing these activities. Prensky (2001) brings up a good point:

‘Is it that they can’t pay attention or that they don’t? … Traditional training and schooling just doesn’t engage them. It isn’t that they can’t pay attention, they just choose not to.’

While on the subject of attention spans, within the recent decade, two syndromes have emerged; attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which was known previously as hyperactivity. Both of these disorders are diagnosed in a vast number of young children and many are prescribed medication for treatment. The diagnosis of many children is not always correct as symptoms can be confused with current digital native behaviour, for example, multitasking, doing a lot of things at one time may seem like the child can not concentrate on one thing at a time for a prolonged period.

‘Determining whether a child’s attention deficit is a result of illness or of boredom is not always easy, and we don’t always get it right. But even when we do, interestingly enough, it is video games – the holders of even these children’s attention – that are increasingly used to retrain children’s brains and help them concentrate…’ (Prensky 2001)

Therapy

Prensky in the previous quote picks up on the fact that computer games are now more and more being used for therapy of disorders which are thought to be initially related to the play of computer games. There are games which promote focus and concentration skills in children, just like there are games for all kinds of health, physical and mental, issues.

Computer games can not only be used as a therapeutic activity, but it is becoming increasingly known of their use within therapy sessions with children. For example, they can be used as a form of ice-breaker between therapist and patient, as they create a social plane on which the two can communicate. They can also make it easier for therapists to receive cooperative behaviour from patients, as the child is more likely to accept the therapist, thinking they are ‘cool’ and ‘with’ the technology trends. Not only can computer games be used in these ways, as an ‘ice-breaker and rapport-builder’, but they can also create a situation which enables the therapist to deduce the child’s cognitive and behavioural performance, including; problem solving abilities, their ability to predict consequences and their actions prior to them, the ways in which they release aggressive energies, their level of control, they way they deal with winning or losing, their enjoyment of cognitive activities, their visual working memory and their hand-eye coordination, and also the ways in which they organise and strategise their objectives.

Conclusion

When it comes to assessing the effects of computer game play on health, both physical and mental, one must be aware that this is a relatively new field which is being researched by people from many different industries. A lot of studies carried out are not based on empirical evidence and it is difficult to deduce anything for certain without concrete evidence. Press bias further distorts from the reality and the emergence of new types of computer games nullifies previous claims, as these were made on traditional game genres.

Of course it is given that when health is concerned, a balanced lifestyle is the way forward. Parents should be encouraging their children to take part in physical activities outside, just like everyone is encouraged to exercise and engage with the outdoors. However, just because people spend some time of the day indoors playing computer games, does not necessarily mean they are doing something detrimental to their health.

The director general of Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association (ELSPA), Roger Bennett, commented in an interview against claims of computer games causing brain damage, back in 2001:

“For too long now, our industry has been the target of ill-informed criticism and scaremongering… We want to help those who weren’t brought up on computer games to understand this exciting new medium and the part that it can play in a healthy balance of learning and leisure activities for all age groups.”

Communities have been forming over the past couple of decades, as this topic has been increasingly discussed, and groups such as the Serious Games Initiative and the Games for Health conferences have been providing insight into this area, with research, development projects and services.

Author: Alexandra Matthews, Gaming & Learning

Copyright Gaming & Learning 2008

February 22, 2008 at 4:41 pm 2 comments

Playing Computer Games – impact on health (part 1)

The effects of computer game play on health is a vast and highly debated area. More so now that studies have uncovered more positives than before. One point worth mentioning here is the reluctance of the press to report on studies of nil findings which may cause bias towards papers of findings of negative effects. One must not trust everything one reads as there exists the natural urge of the press to write with the aim to shock or intrigue their readers.

Again, this text hopes to simplify the areas of discussion, as they do overlap and relate to one another. This post will first look into the physical health effects of computer game play and the issues discussed surrounding it. This will include addiction, violence and aggression, as although these are also mental issues, they have simultaneous effects on physical health. After the physical health aspects are unravelled, the text will move on to the examination of debated mental health matters.

Physical Health

Addiction

Marc Prensky in his book Don’t Bother Me Mom I’m Learning (2006) brings up Dr. David Walsh’s ideas around computer games and addiction:

‘Walsh uses the term “addiction” incessantly, never mentioning that there may be other factors than games, such as co-addictions or addictive personalities, which lie at the root of many people’s problems… he doesn’t mention or explain that a number of other pastimes, such as competitive sports, produce the same effects.’

Walsh shares his views with many other critics, however, more recently, issues have emerged which nullify the accusation that computer games promote addictive behaviour. For example, Prensky above says that Walsh fails to mention the number of other activities which have the same effect and that addictive behaviour is more likely to result in people who already suffer from addictive personalities. These people are susceptible to all types of addiction. Computer games do not promote addiction in those who are not susceptible.

Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome

A British Medical Journal, published in early 2002, included a letter about a 15 year old boy who developed an injury know as hand-arm vibration syndrome. This injury is commonly associated with people who use handheld vibrating tools excessively, such as pneumatic drills. According to the publication, the boy developed the symptoms of the syndrome after playing up to 7 hours a day on his PlayStation controller with the rumble option enabled.

Sony responded by saying that consumers must adhere to manufacturer’s recommendations and stress to take breaks after every hour of play. Sony thoroughly test their products, however, this is the first time they have encountered a case like this one.

Many controllers incorporate force feedback technology and all are optional, as it can be disabled and enabled with ease. As with any product, manufacturers do provide recommendations for the use of their products. With excessive use, as reported in the mentioned publication, it is inevitable that there will be consequences.

Death

A few cases of death have been reported in the press, all linked to excessive play of computer games. In 2002 a man was found dead in the toilets of a cybercafé in Kwanju, South Korea, where he was said to be previously glued to a computer, deprived of proper nutrition and sleep. Earlier in the same year, a mother in Louisiana sued Nintendo who allegedly caused her son, a 30 year old, to suffer seizures and consequently death. He was said to play an average of 48 hours a week.

Violence and Aggression

Violent and aggressive behaviour not only negatively affects the lives of the people who act out the behaviour, but also the people around them.

Dr Craig Anderson is one man who believes:

‘… violence in media causes violence in people who use those media. While most of his evidence is based on studies of TV, some involve games.’ (Prensky 2006)

It is not surprising that children who are exposed to a lot of violence in their lives are more likely to show violent and aggressive behaviour. This reflects the ‘nature or nurture’ debate and all boils down to parental responsibility. It is argued that parents have the responsibility of regulating the types of media content available to their children. As is the same with movies, computer games come with age and content notifications.

However, it does not all remain on the parents’ shoulders, as each and every child is different. Many understand that computer games are fictional and that such behaviour in the real world is unacceptable. Others, who are more susceptible to the influence, much like addictive behaviour, may have different reactions.

A point that is made by Prensky (2006) is that research studies, like Anderson’s, only measure the effects of computer games on violent and aggressive thoughts and behaviour, in the short term. Whether these behaviours are caused in the long term is still highly disputed, and of course, other activities show the same effects, such as rugby or football.

Emes 1997 cited in Prensky 2006 provides evidence of computer game playing being a ‘beneficial coping strategy’ as the activity encourages the release of aggressive energy.

Serious Games & off-the-shelf Games

In the 90s, along with the increased ability of games to provide more realistic graphic scenarios and the failure of edutainment to demonstrate profitability, a re-examination of the idea of games for non-entertainment purposes occurred. These games were later coined a ‘serious games’ by the development of the Serious Games Initiative in 2002.

Serious games have been used as tool to train personnel in a vast number of occupations, brought on by their ability to simulate real life situations. These games are incredibly popular within sectors which provide jobs of high risk, for example, the military. Employees become more skilled through practice in the virtual world.

Serious games have been used throughout healthcare to train staff, as therapy for patients or tools to enhance therapy.

Ben Sawyer from the Serious Games Initiative commented during an interview about the use of off-the-shelf computer games by surgeons and how the activity has improved results in healthcare.

‘Dr. James Rosser at Beth Israel Medical Center in NY is using games like Silent Scope and Super Monkey Ball as warm-up exercises before laparoscopic surgeons begin operating. The early results show this to be highly beneficial to their work.’ (Sawyer 2004)

Dr Rosser also found through study that surgeons who played computer games at a young age made on average 40% less mistakes during surgery. Games such as Silent Scope and Super Monkey Ball encourage steady and accurate balancing movements and help to warm–up and focus surgeons before performing intricate surgery.

Concerning children and health, exercise, obesity and nutrition are currently hot topics in the media. There are serious games available designed to educate and inform children on these subjects.

‘Depression and suicide? There are games for that too. Juvenile diabetes? Yep. Phobias? Smoking? Social adjustment? Safe sex and preventing socially transmitted diseases? Dealing with divorce? There are games for all of those.’
(Prensky 2006)

There is evidence supporting the benefits of playing health related serious games, such as the results of Debra Lieberman’s work, which show that:

‘Kids with chronic conditions who played the disease management games at home for six months reduced their urgent care and emergency visits by as much as 77 percent, while there was no change in clinical visits for kids who played non-health related entertainment video games at home for the same amount of time.’ (Prensky 2006)

Health and wellness is a much discussed area even within the game industry, with internationally renowned annual conferences such as Games for Health.

Exercise

Common opinion in the anti computer games camp is that they encourage laziness instead of physical activity. However, games have changed greatly, especially in the last decade, and we are now witnessing the emergence of games which actually promote physical and cardio-vascular exercise.

Games like Dance Dance Revolution, EyeToy and Yourself! Fitness. Wii Sports also encourages physical movement, especially boxing and tennis, and even more so with the new Wii Fit. There is even a Wii healthy website (www.wiihealthy.com) which introduces Wii Fit and also provides 10 week workout plans for weight loss with Wii Sports. Some schools in the UK have even incorporated the use of the Wii into their PE lessons to encourage those students who would normally skip the lessons, to get fit.

In a study carried out in 2007 by Liverpool John Moores University, researchers, lead by Professor Tim Cable, compared levels of activity in gamers using the active Wii controller compared to gamers using traditional seated and inactive joypad-controlled consoles. Results showed that more active gameplay, such as that of the Wii, increased energy expenditure high enough to help burn calories and increased heart rates to values of 130 bpm compared to the inactive controller’s result of 85bpm.

Optical Aptitude

A research group at the University of Rochester have carried out studies of visual stimuli in action games and the effects game play has on optical aptitude.

‘… people who played action video games for a few hours a day over the course of a month improved by about 20 percent in their ability to identify letters presented in clutter—a visual acuity test similar to ones used in regular ophthalmology clinics.’ (ScienceDaily 2007)

Computer games of the action genre improve bottom line standards of players on traditional eye charts, also improving both centre and peripheral vision. These results suggest that similar games can be made for those that suffer specific visual imparements, such as amblyopia, to increase their optical acuity.

Professor Daphne Bavelier, a member of the research group on brain and cognitive sciences stated:

‘These games push the human visual system to the limits and the brain adapts to it. That learning carries over into other activities and possibly everyday life.’ (2007)

Distraction

Handheld computer game consoles have shown to be incredibly effective distraction tasks for children who suffer from skin ailments and self-afflicted harm like neurodermatitis. An 8 year old boy was given a Gameboy as a distraction element to stop him picking at his face and causing more damage. It was a highly effective strategy and consoles, like the Gameboy, are now used increasingly for the same distraction purpose.

Nintendinitis

There have been many cases in medical literature on other negative effects of computer game play, including auditory hallucinations, enuresis, encopresis, wrist/neck/elbow pain, tenosynovitis (also called ‘Nintendinitis’) and peripheral neuropathy. Some of these effects are very rare and symptoms were treated by simply not playing the games which caused them.

(see part 2)

Author: Alexandra Matthews, Gaming & Learning

Copyright Gaming & Learning 2008

February 12, 2008 at 4:32 pm 1 comment

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

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.

Introduction

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?

Overview

brain-box-cover.jpgbrain_age.jpg699725_gs_l_f.jpg

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.

Gameplay

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.

usgamersage.jpg

‘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.

ukgamers.jpg

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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.
Commercial
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)

brainuse.jpg

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.

ds.jpg

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.

brainage78.jpg

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.

39_braintraining_nicolekidman.jpg

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)

Conclusion

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

nrsuksocialgrades.jpg

References

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Boyes, Emma (2007) Nintendo UK: We are inclusive, not exclusive [online] Available at
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Carless, Simon (2005)
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January 21, 2008 at 10:37 pm Leave a comment


About

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: info@gamingandlearning.co.uk / alex@gamingandlearning.co.uk

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