New Video Games for Older Adults Play on Fear of Losing Mental Sharpness

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YORK, Pa. ( -- Nintendo’s newest video game is a workout for your brain. And baby boomers will snap it up.

At least that’s what Nintendo hopes will happen this spring with the U.S. video-game release of “Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day” in April and “Big Brain Academy” in May. Judging by booming sales in Japan and enthusiastic previews by European and U.S. reviewers, Nintendo likely won’t be disappointed -- though it does face a challenge marketing to a demographic that defines games as Monopoly and Scrabble.

Popular Japanese neuroscientist
Both the Japanese and U.S. Brain Age games are based on the work of popular Japanese neuroscientist and author Ryuta Kawashima, whose studies show that certain reading and math exercises help stimulate the brain. He and some other researchers touted by Nintendo contend mental sharpness can be strengthened with brain exercises.

In Brain Age, players try to quickly complete exercises including simple math equations, reading aloud, drawing pictures and memorizing numbers. The game then scores the results on an age scale of 20-70 to reveal the user’s “brain age.” Big Brain Academy is similar but allows for up to eight competitors. Both are played on the Nintendo DS system, which is dual screen writeable device, and both will be priced around $20.

New challenges
“Americans can do a great deal to maintain and even improve their mental abilities,” Dr. Elizabeth Zelinski, a University of Southern California gerontology professor, attests in Nintendo press materials. “Aging is about taking on new challenges for our minds. Nintendo’s Brain Age is a great way to do that.”

On the market less than a year in Japan, Big Brain Academy, Brain Age and Brain Age 2 have all sold more than 1 million copies each with Brain Age and Brain Age 2 approaching 2 million each, according to market researcher Media Create. More than two-thirds of those sales have been to people over the age of 25.

The trend is also spurring sales of Nintendo DS hardware. The coveted box is almost impossible to get in Japan, having sold some 6 million units already there, and more than 13 million worldwide, since its launch in late fall 2004. Nintendo President Satoru Iwata told attendees at the Tokyo Game Show in September that six out of 10 people purchased Brain Training games at the same time they purchased DS hardware.

Baby boomers, who as a group begin turning 60 this year, currently make up the smallest group of video gamers. Nineteen percent of people over the age of 50 say they play video games, vs. 35% of those under age 18 and 43% of 18- to 49-year-olds, according to research from the Entertainment Software Association. The promise of video games to sharpen mental acumen could create great appeal for a group facing longer physically healthy lives with the worry of less-than-promising mental health.

Alzheimer’s disease
Ben Sawyer, co-founder of the Games for Health Project, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, said, “If you could push the incidence of Alzheimer’s back an average of five years, it would cut the overall incidence of Alzheimer’s in half.” According to the Alzheimer’s Association, 4.5 million Americans have the disease, and the incidence has doubled since 1980.

Leo Burnett USA is working on a marketing campaign for the brain-game launches, but a Nintendo spokesman said the company is not ready to discuss details yet. The marketing challenge is in reaching a nongaming audience with a gaming product.

Reaching nongamers
“Either they’ll have to get the gamers in the household to buy them for the non-gamers or they’ll have to get the word out in a marketing campaign in the nontraditional gaming [media],” said P.J. McNealy, analyst at American Technology Research.

The question for Nintendo is whether it can recreate the Brain Age phenomenon in the U.S. After all, the game is based on the research and a successful book on Mr. Kawashima that was already a cultural hit in Japan (it had already sold 2 million copies) before the game hit the market.

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