Thursday, October 23, 2014

Playing Portal 2 leads to better cognitive performance than playing Lumosity games

So-called "brain games" have proven to be a lucrative market, but the evidence supporting their efficacy in improving cognition remains thin. Now, thanks to researchers at Florida State University, it looks like the evidence is actually mounting against the brain game niche. It turns out, the commercially successfully entertainment game Portal 2 actually proved to be significantly more effective in boosting brain skills than games from the popular brain game service Lumosity.

Portal 2 image from
When I reviewed Lumosity on this site previously, I was definitely skeptical of the efficacy of their games in improving cognition. The research that Lumosity pointed to was scant at best, and the games themselves were often not even as deep or interesting as your typical mobile puzzle game. Still, there was no comparative evidence to draw on to say that Lumosity games were better or worse than any other games in improving mental performance. But now, there is.

"Portal 2 kicks Lumosity's ass," lead researcher Valerie Shute says. Her team's study found that players who played Portal 2 performed significantly better than Lumosity players on all tests administered during the study, which included tests of problem solving, spatial skill, and persistence.

Of course, Shute's study is just one small study, and much research still needs to be done before we can really understand just how and when games can improve our cognitive abilities both in the short term and the long term. But I dare say that this study helps affirm a brainsforgames mantra: stop playing "brain" games and just play smart games!

You can read the original research publication by Professor Shute and her team here:

Monday, October 13, 2014

Play Games, Heal Kids: Extra Life 2014

On October 25, 2014, gamers from across the U.S. and Canada will be playing video games for 24 hours straight to raise money for Children's Miracle Network hospitals as part of the Extra Life gaming marathon.

Every year, over 32 million children are helped by Children's Miracle Network Hospitals. Whether it's a broken bone that needs to be set or long-term treatments for leukemia or birth defects, CMN Hospitals are there to help kids regardless of their family's ability to pay. Extra Life is just one way in which gamers and their friends can step up to help these hospitals continue to provide outstanding care to those who need it most.

This year will mark the third year in a row that yours truly will be participating in Extra Life. You can bookmark this link to my livestream page,, or you come back here to the brainsforgames blog on October 25 starting at 9am CDT to find the live video stream of my gaming marathon.

Last year, my awesome supporters helped me raise $850 for Extra Life, and I'm hoping we can top that this year. The meter on the sidebar to the right of this page shows how far we've got to go. Please consider going to my donation page and making a contribution, or consider contributing to any one of the thousands of gamers who will be participating in Extra Life 2014.

If you can't make a donation to an ExtraLife gamer's pledge drive this year, please try and spread the word and cheer us on. Most of us will be streaming their events on sites like Twitch and Hitbox. Also, be on the lookout of the hashtags #ForTheKids and #ExtraLife on Twitter. Playing video games sounds like it's all in good fun, but 24 hours is tougher than it seems.

We need your support to make ExtraLife 2014 a success. Remember our motto, "for the kids!"

Monday, August 25, 2014

REVIEW: Fighting off darkness with SPARX

Format: Unity, browser, other platforms

Price: Free

Release Date: Beta release currently available, full release mid-2014

Target Age Group: children & teens

Developer: LinkedWellness / University of Aukland

Genre: twitch-click, puzzle
Players may travel to a fantasy world, but they'll learn Cognitive Behavioral Therapy techniques that can make a difference to their lives in this world. 


Two years ago, brainsforgames reported on some promising findings in the British Medical Journal: the team behind the game SPARX had shown that therapy provided through their game been just as effective in treating teens with mild depression as conventional treatments. But this awesome news had one small catch, SPARX seemed to be only available to participants of the study.

Happily, that's changed now and SPARX is headed for a mainstream release before the end of this year. Even better news: there's also currently a freely-available beta version now online at Eager to see what this newest tool in the battle against depression had to offer, I decided to check SPARX out.

The Depressive Spiral
SPARX teaches players the techniques of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which operates on the premise that changing your thoughts and actions will influence how you feel. In theory, it may sound like an easy thing to do, but in practice it can be much harder to recognize and redirect negative thinking more positively. So SPARX sets out to help players stop the downward depressive spiral of negative thinking by teaching them three "thinking skills" and three "doing skills" designed to help players identify their self-defeating thoughts.

SPARX excels in explaining CBT techniques clearly and in providing examples of how these techniques could be easily applied in the course of a player's everyday life. Every level of the game is bookended with a counseling session of sorts with a Guide who explains a new CBT technique and helps players review previously learned techniques. During the levels themselves, players take control of a customized avatar in a generic high-fantasy game world and work their way through various puzzles designed to reinforce the material introduced by the Guide.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Because women are too hard to animate...

There continues to be a shortage of triple-A video game titles made with playable female protagonists and strong female characters despite women making up 45% of the $21 billion gaming market. And while you might think there would be some considerable embarrassment in the industry regarding the gender inequality in video game protagonists, sadly, that seems not to be the case.

Denial runs rampant. Just this past Junes, at the E3 conference, Ubisoft creative director Alex Amancia recently explained why their flagship title, Assassin's Creed Unity, would not have playable female assassins:

"It's double the animations, it's double the voices, all that stuff and double the visual assets, "Amancia explained. "Especially because we have customizable assassins. It was really a lot of extra production work."

Needless to say, many gamers were unimpressed by this "women are too hard to animate" explanation, and several indie developers decided to take matters into their own hands. Maja Celine Maher of +Noor Studios organized the "Women Are Too Hard To Animate" Game Jam as a response (#wathtajam for short), and developers responded by uploading 27 games featuring female protagonists.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Black vomit, foul stenches, and snake pits, oh my! The Fever! has arrived.

The Fever! is here. Or rather, it's over at The Appendix. If you like your history lessons filled with black vomit, mercury pills, life-or-death decisions, fire, family, danger, romance, snake pits, and more, then definitely go check it out! It's 100% free and can be played using any modern web browser. Then, after you've had time to play through a few scenarios, come back to here and leave a comment or tweet to @brainsforgames and let me know what you think.

I wrote the story in an effort to make history accessible and appealing for people who find conventional history lessons to be dry or unrelatable. The scenario is completely grounded in historical fact, and yet there's nothing boring about the adventures of the story's protagonist, the fictional Dr. Brooks. The doctor is is a relatively ordinary man who has little to go on but common sense and his own values and loyalties as he makes life and death decisions when disease ravages the city of Philadelphia in the summer of 1793. He is definitely a man of a different time, but his thoughts and actions are still very much like our own, and I'm hoping players will find it easy to put themselves in the doctor's shoes.

Only time will tell how well the story succeeds, but my hope is that the story proves that interactive fiction presents rich opportunities for engagement in historical learning. More than anything, I believe that that these stories can breath new life into traditional methods of teaching history, but I won't know if I've succeeded without your feedback. Please, tell your friends, tell your teachers, tell anyone who might be interested! And of course, play through The Fever! yourself and share your reactions below.

And if you want to know more about how it all came together, take a look at my post-mortem of sorts, 3 Lessons I Learned Writing A Choose-Your-Own-Historical-Adventure.