"Brain games" are enjoying an intellectual renaissance.
Videogames with zombies, gunfights, prostitutes, super heroes or explosions usually make the headlines. But the so-called brain game genre is enjoying a quiet success and injecting the industry with a fresh take on what's fun.
The latest batch of brain games, which include puzzles, strategy and casual games, aren't marketed loudly with claims of improving your IQ or memory. That, says industry analyst David Riley of the NPD Group, would be "like telling your kids to eat their veggies," and the games would find a limited audience.
Instead, new releases like "Scribblenauts" and "Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box," feature colourful worlds or entertaining story lines. In such games, solving puzzles is about advancing the game and just having fun. And if you become smarter in the process, so much the better.
"It's almost like an insurance policy. You can't really go wrong playing these games, and it's enjoyable," says Ian Bogost, an associate professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, who researches and designs video games.
A recent Mind Research Network study linked playing puzzle game "Tetris" to improved brain function. The study showed that playing "Tetris" helped improve the areas of the brain responsible for sensory and movement coordination, as well as critical thinking and language.
Still, other researchers say video games are simply a waste of time. But amid all the back-and-forth about the effects of video games on the gray matter, Bogost says the real revolution is happening in the public's perception of games: Consumers are looking beyond violent shooter games, and brain games are helping them feel good again about playing video games.
Sales figures prove this. "Professor Layton and the Curious Village" was the top-selling DS title in the US in the first three weeks after its release in February 2008. To date, it has sold a total of 665,000 units in the US, according to NPD. The puzzle game features the title character and his young sidekick, and together they solve mysteries in Victorian London.
Another recent hit was "LittleBigPlanet" for the PlayStation 3. The game not only allows you to guide your character through various obstacles and levels, but also create and share your own custom levels with an in-game editor. "LittleBigPlanet" was released in October 2008, and has sold 805,000 copies to date in the US, according to NPD.
Meanwhile, the new brain games are also gaining popularity on mobile phones.
Much like Nintendo has brought gaming to the mainstream with its Wii and DS titles, independent developers have brought a slew of clever and addictive puzzle titles to the iPhone. "GeoDefense Swarm," a strategy-action title created by indie developer David Whatley hit the top of the App Store when it was released in mid-September. Another popular iPhone title was "Drop7," described as "Tetris meets Sudoku" and developed by a small outfit called Area/code.
While games with zombies and explosions likely will continue to top the sales charts, the rising popularity of brain games is doing much for people's perceptions and expectations of a videogame.
So, just like the protagonist at the end of a Saturday morning cartoon special who realises that he had the courage, skill and ability all along, people are coming to see games for what they've always been-not just a leisurely distraction, but also an outlet for self-improvement and creative expression.
Says Bogost, "This idea ... that games can do more than we think they can isn't something new, but was there all along."