On Brain Training

As you read this, a fairly significant revolution in the videogame industry is taking place in Japan. A quirky "game" is gaussian-blurring the line between games and applications, old and young, fun and utility, gamer and non-gamer — and you might be surprised by the results.

It tells you a lot about both the game industry, and Japan itself.

The game? Nintendo's 東北大学未来科学技術共同研究センター川島隆太教授監修 脳を鍛える大人のDSトレーニング. That's right! "Touhokudai Gaku Mirai Kagakugijutsu Kyoudoukenkyuu Center: Kahashima Ryuuta Kyouju no Nou o Kitaeru Otono DS Training".


You can call it Brain Training.

Brain Training is, basically, an application — one you just happen to play on a handheld videogame system. In this case, the system is Nintendo's DS — a quirky, two-screen-with-touchscreen handheld system that's technically creakier than Sony's PSP, but which has lived up to its intended purpose of generating innovative new styles of games for a new generation of gamers.

And what does Brain Training do? Well, you hold your Nintendo DS like a book (with left and right screens), and you basically use the touchscreen to undergo a wide variety of simple, cleanly-designed, interesting exercises intended to make you smarter. Or, at least, keep your brain sharp and fresh and delicious. At the end of your "fun", the game eventually calculates and reports your "mental age" — often with painful/comedic effect — and tracks your progress over the weeks and months of self-education. And that's about it.

Sales Madness

It may sound painfully simple, but it's been unstoppable. From Dec 26th to January 1st, Brain Training 2 sold 414,556 copies. In one week. It has consistently been the number one videogame since its release, and — this is important to remember — it's not even a videogame. Has it driven hardware sales? In the same period, the Nintendo DS moved 390,181 units. That's more units sold than every other hardware system that week — combined. (Yes, that's two dramatic ItalicsFacts!)

Most importantly, though, Brain Training is doing what Nintendo said they would do but nobody really believed them on: opened gaming up to a whole new generation of players. Seeing grandmothers on the train holding their Nintendo DS like a book sends an instant signal — "brain training in progress".

How It All Came Together

I asked Nobuhiro "Noby" Hasegawa — President and CEO of the monolithic, sprawling Japanese entity known as Panic Japan — to elaborate on what makes it so successful.

Here's what I learned from him.

1. There's an existing brain-training boom in Japan.

Dr. Kawashima, the creator of Brain Training, is leading authority in Japan on brain medicine. His research shows that:

- The brain becomes weaker every year, just as the body becomes weaker every year
- Effective training is a way to regain body strength
- The brain can also be trained, and can be rejuvenated
- The brain doesn't need difficult training: even easy work is effective, like reading a book out loud, simple calculations, etc.

Freaky Polygon Dr.Kawashima
Hooking humans up to some presumably expensive and freakish brain-scanning equipment, Dr. Kawashima did some interesting tests. When a brain is simply "thinking", presumably about chocolate chips and where cat hair goes, it generates this much activity. When a very difficult expression is being worked out. looks something like this. Not a lot going on, really.

On the other hand, when very simple calculations are performed quickly, the brain lights up like a drunk at a drunk convention. It also shows lots of activity when sentences are simply read aloud.

With this research, Dr. Kawashima published a "training manual" for the brain, and it became incredibly popular. They were usually bought as presents from grandchildren and children for their parents and grandparents.

Is it junk science? Is there truth to it? I'd certainly love to know more, but it's already all the rage. To quote Noby: "People always want to remain young! Health and dieting are always interesting. Now, this is true with the brain as well."

2. The Japanese don't necessarily attach stigmas to "childrens" activities.

In America, most adults don't read comics, or play videogames. This is, of course, changing, presumably as my generation grows older and has kids (bring it, Jack Thompson!), but it's still basically true. Games aree children's activities — not for adults.

Of course, in Japan, manga is hugely popular, and the enduring image of a expensive-suited businessman reading a thick-as-a-baby's-arm comic book on the way to his desk job is as strong as ever.

Thus, as Noby said, "the sense of resistence of the Japanese adult to Nintendo DS's Brain Training was little."

3. It's priced really well.

It costs about 2,800 yen in Japan — $25 — the same price as two Brain Training textbooks. So, anyone considering a purchase of the books will likely consider the game.

4. Really, it's a fiendish trojan horse.

But, the parents will need a Nintendo DS to play, right? Will an adult buy one just for Brain Training? No, and they don't need to — their children already own one. And thus, the true genius of Nintendo's trojan-horse "Touch Generations" concept is revealed.

Many parents might be reluctant to pick up a game system for their children. Noby specifically uses the (somewhat sexist but contextually-correct) example of "Game System vs. Japanese Mom", which he puts this way: "A game system is obstructive for cleaning. The controller is complicated so Mom doesn't want to try it. It gets in the way of the child's studying. Etc." In order for the game machine to succeed in the household, it'll basically need the mother's approval.

The adult only needs to borrow the game system while, say, the child is at school, furiously Brain Training while the child is, presumably, learning themselves. Before you know it, the game system is something mom uses — every day.

Noby concluded, "I expect that Nintendo developed BRAIN TRAINING as a method for obtaining the video-gaming approval of parents. And, the attempt seems to have succeeded."

Nintendo wins, and the industry grows. Tricky!

What does it all mean?

The included "Relax Mode", a.k.a. Dr. Mario
So, the #1 game in Japan is a non-game. My (shocking) conclusion: there is a huge market for new styles of games and new game players, and the gap between "games" and "apps" is getting smaller.

At first it's hard to imagine something like Brain Training ever hitting the top of the USA video game charts. Virtually impossible, I'd wager.

But, if you had told me that "Deer Hunter" would've become the top-selling computer game a few years ago, I would have pulled the car over and laughed you out of it — and yet, it happened, stunning a whole generation of developers who were working on "Brown Devil Alien Guns III"-style games.

Both successes tell a valuable lesson: there are a lot of people who could play video games, but don't, because the right software isn't there.

This is also interesting to me because we've already watched applications slowly becoming more "fun" on the Mac, a testament to simplified design and strong UI. In fact, the whole iPhilosophy seems to be taking complex tasks and boiling them down to bare but highly enjoyable essentials, creating applications that — yes — anyone can use.

Even creating a DVD in iDVD is now just as much "work" as it is "fun": setting your goal, trying different themes, experimenting with music, dragging and connecting all of the pieces together, managing available disc space, testing it all out, etc. With a certain degree of ridiculousness, I'll say this: iDVD is basically a 2D strategy game without the historical setting.

Brain Training may be the very first app hiding out as a "game", and the lines, as mentioned, will only blur further. I like this.

But most importantly, I look forward to picking up Brain Training's US release. Even if it doesn't catch on like wildfire, I look forward to training the hell out of my brain. I secretly hope it will grow to kick other brain-asses.


You are a ridiculous human being.

Blogger Tim 1/23/2006 3:24 PM  
I feel smarter just having read this post.
Anonymous Will Cosgrove 1/23/2006 3:36 PM  
I was never interested in a DS until I read this. When is the supposed US release date?
Anonymous Ian 1/23/2006 3:38 PM  
Dammit, now I have to go buy another piece of consumer electronics.
Anonymous Peter 1/23/2006 3:59 PM  
Panic Japan doesn't have anything to do with your Panic, does it?
Anonymous Etan 1/23/2006 4:20 PM  
Great to read your thoughts. There seems to be a lot of purpose behind everything Nintendo has done in the last year, and it's all coming together for them as more of their strategy is revealed. I especially like how you tied it together with innovative UI design. Very insightful.

Now back to playing Mario Kart while I wait for my Xcode project to build...
Anonymous Manton Reece 1/23/2006 4:39 PM  
Etan: Panic Japan is, indeed, the one-man Japanese presence of Panic proper. Noby does all of our Japanese localization, support, and sales, as well as making ideas like the Katamari Project actually happen.
Blogger Cabel 1/23/2006 4:43 PM  
I have been really intrigued by this game. I've read a lot about it and have been keeping my fingers crossed that it'll be released in the US.

I think that with the experimental release (and success) of Electroplankton in the US, Nintendo may be more intrigued to bringing these "non-game" games.

I'll definitely be ordering this if and when it's available in the states.
Anonymous Mike M 1/23/2006 4:59 PM  
It's games like this, Nintendogs, Elektroplankton and others that really show how neat the DS is as a system. Sure there is Mario Kart DS, but the market isn't going to grow at all without innovative and demographic bending games. Good on you Nintendo.
Anonymous Mat 1/23/2006 5:55 PM  
Along the same line, they say that the most popular online games in the world currently are, in fact, not your Quakes and your Counter-Strikes, but Yahoo! Bingo or whatever. And it ain't 13 year olds singlehandedly driving the entire gaming market any more, but grandma too.

About time, I say!
Anonymous stevenf 1/23/2006 8:18 PM  
Man, the Japanese get all the cool box art and all the cool games! This was a fun read. I'd love to play games like this here in the States.
Anonymous Tony 1/23/2006 9:25 PM  
I reckon it would just be cool to have as you put it a "freaky polygon" version of yourself.
Anonymous Chris 1/24/2006 2:06 AM  
will the Bush administration let them import it?.., a smart populace is a dangerous one. :)
Anonymous Anonymous 1/25/2006 6:21 AM  
Sort of reminds me of the old 3-in-3 game on the Mac. Lots of fun number puzzles packaged up as a game with fun (at the time) graphics.
Anonymous Anonymous 1/25/2006 9:08 AM  
i'm going to tackle my jumbo crosswords right now!
Blogger Kuja 1/25/2006 9:09 AM  
Of course the Bush administration would - then more people would be conservative. Because with the things coming out of liberals' mouths, one MUST know they have brain damage. :D
Anonymous Eric 1/25/2006 9:22 AM  
Oh, man, I really want to play this now. :(
Blogger Mark 1/25/2006 9:38 AM  
google "serious games"
it's a new concept in gaming, using the concept of a "game" for various training purposes. the military has already developed an arsenal, as it were, of applications which are starting to trickle into mainstream use.
Anonymous Anonymous 1/25/2006 10:51 AM  
Man, this "game" should be called BRAIN WASHING.
Anonymous Anonymous 1/25/2006 2:47 PM  
3-in-3 was hard! Interesting game though, I should try it out again.
Anonymous Aet 1/25/2006 2:51 PM  
Where do I put my email address to be notified when this is available in US?
Blogger Jeremy Dunck 1/25/2006 2:58 PM  
i have the japanese release, and let my family all try it over the holidays (on games that didn't use language skills). everyone seemed to really enjoy it, always wanting to try again for a better score. I think if the gamers in each family introduce it to their own families, this game will spread very well via word-of-mouth.
Blogger walaber 1/25/2006 3:46 PM  
The expression "non-game" is misleading and false. What Brain Training realizes and which many games fail to realize is that a game is simply a pattern to be solved by your brain and is often wrapped up in some context like fighting or or jumping but sometimes with a high level of skill involved. Both context and skill are unnecessary to make a good game. These can add to a game's appeal but often make it less fun and less accessible.
Anonymous Anonymous 1/25/2006 4:00 PM  
I've played it a couple of times (in fact, my voice was one of the ones used to train the British English version...) and it's great fun - simple stuff like it shows you the name of a colour but with the text in a possibly different colour, so you have to say the colour of the text, not the name of it, or just doing simple single-digit sums as fast as possible.

My wife, who doesn't even play MineSweeper, would love to buy a DS and the game.
Anonymous Ken Y-N 1/25/2006 4:02 PM  
Anonymous Ivan Minic 1/25/2006 9:50 PM  
'Creating a DVD in iDVD is now just as much "work" as it is "fun."'

That's exactly what I thought when I finished my first DVD.
Anonymous Booga 1/26/2006 7:31 AM  
Nintendo has been pushing this game hard on Japanese TV, and along with the latest Mario release, it's resulted in a total lack of DS units in Japan's stores. You just can't find any. Plenty of stacks of unsold 360s, though.
Anonymous Durf 1/26/2006 7:35 AM  
Your "Touhokudai Gaku" should be "Touhoku Daigaku" — "Northeastern University".
"Otono" should be "Otona no" — "for adults".
Anonymous jetfuel 1/26/2006 11:22 AM  
If you're thinking of buying DS after this article, you should wait for the next "DS lite" version which is coming out in spring 2006 in Japan.
Anonymous Anonymous 1/27/2006 8:47 AM  
Go through all the previous posts and count how many times the word stupid appeared.
Anonymous Anonymous 1/27/2006 2:32 PM  
Check it out... We have some official dates for the US release of this game and other info!

Here's hoping that Dr. Kawashima is still within the game! :)
Anonymous mike m 1/30/2006 1:00 PM  
I loved your analogy of iDVD as a strategy game. I try to adopt that mindset while trying to avoid frustration with certain apps. With the exception, of course, of Panic products where the analogy of "falling off a log" seems more appropriate. Easy Breezy!
Blogger Joel Conrad Bechtolt 1/30/2006 2:06 PM  
Very cool.

You're on I blogged about this post on the Boston Globe Business Filter -
Blogger Molly 2/01/2006 8:30 AM  
There is no doubt that brain training works, if the learning activities are based on sound neuroscientific research. Our product, Fast ForWord by Scientific Learning ( is PC or Mac based and is based on over 30 years of research as to how the brain can literally change (brain plasticity) as a result of the right set of activities stimulating the appropriate areas of the brain. Over 450,000 students in the US, and students from over 20 countries, have benefited from Fast ForWord with increased language and reading abilities, and these are students with autism, dyslexia, ADD, ADHD, and various forms of delayed speech, as well as students who simply need the extra brain capacity to be better prepared for learning. One of the 4 world renowned founders of the company (all neuroscientists) is now applying many of the Fast ForWord concepts to new products for adults and senior citizens (Posit Science, I've been in educational technology for 28 years, and Fast ForWord is the best product I have ever worked with....It has literally changed lives, and if you don't believe me, there are over 100 research-based independent articles and studies that prove it. A Stanford University study showed that Fast ForWord not only improved the reading ability of young students with dyslexia, but fMRI brain scans showed significantly increased brain activity in key areas of cognitive processing. Check it out!
Peter Carabi
Anonymous Peter Carabi 2/07/2006 2:25 PM  
I remember when Kurushi came nout. Now i loved that game, and its the same brain training concept. But the west real.y didnt go for it in the end.
Anonymous Badger 2/23/2006 2:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous 2/23/2006 9:27 AM  
so cool i want!
Blogger hanna 2/28/2006 1:43 AM  
PositScience, a San Francisco neuroscience research company have a similar product that performs a similar function to the Brain Training. It's a software for Windows.
Anonymous nika 3/05/2006 12:08 AM  
RE:so cool i want!
Its not cool its greate, and i want it
Anonymous Online Dating Lord 5/16/2006 3:12 PM  
Well I have brain age on DS but now my whole family wants 1 and i believe there is a brain age for the computer! It is so intreging how these people make so scientific things.!!!!
Anonymous Anonymous 12/28/2006 5:55 PM  
you called this correctly. For good reasons, it will remain more popular in japan (nihon). I've run into another site recently which is pretty popular - cognitive labs, based in Mountain View, CA. It's a little bit chaotic but it grows on you
Anonymous Anonymous 2/11/2007 1:54 PM  
so the japanese are smarter then us? and we call them smart even when they are addicted to comic books? anyways i m not surprised that we are labed dumb...considering that all immagrants do all the smart work!
Anonymous Anonymous 7/17/2007 8:13 PM  
so people in britain don't even know there home phone numbers and they gave japan the brain game
Anonymous Anonymous 7/17/2007 8:16 PM  
Place a 200 pound barbell on your forehead.
Anonymous Anonymous 7/19/2007 3:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous 9/18/2007 10:05 AM  
Great to read your thoughts. Realy nice aerticle.
Anonymous vesti srbija 3/15/2010 7:04 AM  

Post a Comment


Name:Cabel Maxfield Sasser
Job:Co-Founder, Panic Inc.
Location:Portland, OR