When trying to focus on work, I'm compelled to check my email, he says. That's true enough. When I find myself in a social situation without access to my phone, I often get fidgety and restless. Double true. This condition, says Dr. Kawashima, is known as Information Addiction. I'm not sure what happens after that, because I stopped focusing on Concentration Training in order to write this introduction.
This might not go very well.
Brain Age: Concentration Training centers around "Devilish Training," difficult exercises designed to help you focus and build your working memory. Essentially, working memory is information you simultaneously maintain and manipulate in your brain. In other words, your working memory governs your ability to focus on a given task or set of tasks. Each exercise in Concentration Training asks for five uninterrupted minutes of your time. And don't think you can close your 3DS in the middle of an exercise – Dr. Kawashima will know. If your work day is anything like mine, you might be surprised by how hard it is to find five minutes to do just one thing.
Exercise: Devilish Calculations
Before the exercise starts, I'm shown a simple math problem – let's say it's 5 + 3 – which soon disappears from the screen and is replaced by a second equation, we'll say 9 - 7. Now the exercise begins, and I have to write down the correct answer. The twist is that I have to answer the problem that displayed before the one currently on the screen. So, while 9 - 7 is displayed on screen, the problem I'm actually solving is 5 + 3. This method of solving the previous problem is called "1-Back."
It's easy enough at first, but the better I do, the harder it gets. Soon I graduate to 2-Back, which requires me to remember the previous two answers. The strain on my brain is palpable, and I feel like it's really being worked. Then I move up to 3-Back, tasking me with remembering the last three answers. My brain instantly breaks down.
At the end of my five minutes, Dr. Kawashima tells me my performance is commensurate with someone in their 30s or 40s. Considering I just celebrated my 30th birthday two months ago, I'm none too reassured. The feeling diminishes even further when I see that my current concentration grade is an "F."
I have, however, unlocked some new exercises and modes, including a Relaxation Mode designed to give my brain some rest. I play a simple match three puzzle game, recognizing that it's not really relaxation – it's merely thinking in disguise. Definitely easier on the ol' noggin than calculations, though.
As I flip open my 3DS, it occurs to me that I probably shouldn't be chewing gum.
I decide to check out some Supplemental Training before diving into today's concentration exercise. I nail 20 simple calculations in 24 seconds, which I'm told is "automobile speed," accompanied by a little car whizzing across the screen. I'm feeling good.
Exercise: Devilish Pairs
It's just like Memory! A small grid of cards is laid out on the touch screen, each with a numbered side facing down. All I have to do is flip over a card, remember the number, and find the matching card elsewhere. What separates this from traditional Memory is that flipping over the same card twice without correctly matching it garners a penalty.
I'm really good at this. I zoom to level 6 in no time. Then my wife says something to me and I lose concentration. I make many mistakes and shamefully descend back to level 5. Concentration Training asks you for five minutes, so make sure you actually have five minutes available. Anyway, my final pass gets me back to level 6, and I'm happy. Upon completion of the exercise, I'm promoted to concentration grade "E." Success.
To celebrate, I try the Concentration Challenge mode. It has rules similar to Devilish Calculations 2-Back, except instead of solving problems I have to remember how many blocks were displayed on the screen. The challenge ends after one mistake, and I last for 1:05. I'm informed that this is bicycle speed and that someone in their 30s taking the challenge for the first time should aim for 1:15. I'd like to blame this on the game's occasionally spotty writing recognition, but that seems petty.
Exercise: Devilish Mice
A four-by-four grid contains two mice, while the remaining spaces are filled with cats. Cards then cover the grid, masking the positions of the mice and cats, and the exercise begins. The cards change position for around 20 seconds or so, and my job is to keep track of where the mice are.
This one is pretty tough. I immediately fail to find either mouse and the game takes pity on me, lowering the difficulty to one lonely little mouse. I go up and down levels a few times, eventually working my way up to three mice, which promptly melts my brain. It's okay, though – Dr. Kawashima tells me going back and forth between levels is good stimulation for my brain. That's a relief.
Exercise: Devilish Reading
Read a sentence out loud (the microphone will know if you don't) and remember the underlined word. After you've read a few sentences out loud, write down the underlined word from each.
This one doesn't seem too taxing at first, but its difficulty is subtle. The trick is to remember the underlined words without letting the unnecessary words clog your memory. For example, it's easy to forget the underlined word in favor of a more interesting word. Devilish Reading was particularly tough for me, as I like to memorize things by repeating them out loud, something this exercise prevents you from doing.
You also have to be very mindful of writing recognition here. The game mistook my U for a V, causing me to fail the exercise once. You're given ample time to write down each word, so there's no need to rush.
Exercise: Devilish Shapes
Similar to Devilish Calculations 1-Back. A shape is displayed on the screen, followed by another shape. My job is to remember the shape that came before the one currently on the screen.
I do fairly well at this, maybe because it reminds me of that one scene from Ghostbusters. The shapes are deliberately designed to be difficult to remember, so I start naming them as best I can. This one looks like a mask, that one looks like a jar, etc. Eventually I have to remember the previous two shapes and then the previous three. As seems to be my running theme, three is when my brain ceases to function. I'm starting to think that I'll never surpass this challenge in any of the exercises.
In a last ditch effort, I decide to try my hand at Devilish Calculations again. Dr. Kawashima knows I left off at 3-Back last time, so that's where I start today. Once again, my brain fizzles and it drops me to 2-Back. I go around this circle twice – clear 2-Back, fail 3-Back, clear 2-Back. This time, however, when I play 3-Back, something happens. I still don't clear it, but I score 74 percent, high enough to stay at the same level. On my next try, I score 76 percent. On my next, above 80 percent. I never reach the 85 percent needed to go up a level, but I'm definitely improving.
I spent a few more days with Concentration Training, but the thrust of every exercise is pretty clear: cram as many simultaneous pieces of information into your brain as possible. Whether it's tracking numbered balls under cups or solving equations, the principle is the same.
I can see some clear improvement in different games, even after only ten days or so. I've pretty effectively broken my 3-Back block, and have graduated to keeping track of four bits of information in most exercises. It's up for debate whether I'm actually improving my brain function or just getting better at these specific tasks, but it certainly feels taxing. In fact, it's actually stressful, to the point that I almost want to avoid it altogether. Like most things that are good for you, however, I usually start to enjoy it once I buckle down and try. Besides, even if all I'm doing is coming up with mental tricks to make these games easier, that means I'm adapting my brain to suit new tasks, right? That seems like a worthwhile skill.
Brain Age: Concentration Training is a little hard to quantify in the critical sense, as it's more of a motivational tool for self-improvement than a form of entertainment. Even compared to the original Brain Age, Concentration Training is much more demanding, and players shouldn't expect to breeze through exercises and watch their training grade skyrocket. Getting better only rewards you with more difficult training, so those looking for a blissful feeling of mastery may be disappointed. If, however, you used the original Brain Age primarily as a portable Sudoku machine, you'll be happy to know that Concentration Training also includes several types of Solitaire.
Oh, and if you couldn't sit through this whole review without scrolling down to check the score, this might be the perfect game for you.
This review is based on an eShop download of Brain Age: Concentration Training, provided by Nintendo.
Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.