Where's My Flying Car?

Where's My Flying Car?
Shark Bone or Snake Oil?

Erin Hoffman | 9 Jan 2007 07:03
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Lurking beneath the roaring advance of technology and the ever-glitter of the American Dream's advance into a Roddenberryesque stratosphere are a series of frightening statistics: 4.5 million Americans currently have Alzheimer's disease, a number that has doubled since 1980 and is projected to reach 11.3-16 million by 2050. One in 10 Americans have a family member that suffers dementia; one in three knows someone who has the disease. It is referred to by medical professionals as "a demographic time bomb" and an escalating epidemic that the American health care infrastructure is not prepared to face. Government funds are pouring into neurological research, and in the meantime doctors are rallying to preach prevention to their patients in the form of rigorous dietary maintenance and exercise - both physical and mental.

The overwhelming success of Nintendo's Brain Age and Big Brain Academy represents a never-before-seen phenomenon entering game development: consumers purchasing games not out of desire, but out of perceived need. The chill of anxiety that simmers beneath such purchases brings an air of reality to a business formerly concerned only with entertainment. While studies have shown the utility of games in healthcare - and in fact a growing industry conference addresses specifically this - there has long been a lamented gap between commercial software development and the medical community. But that gap, however unsteadily, is beginning to close.

Now joining the fight against cognitive atrophy is one of game design's brightest, Noah Falstein, whose road to the greater good passed through LucasArts and Dreamworks Interactive, and still continues through what he calls "pure-entertainment" games via his private consulting firm. His recent alliance with Quixit, a shiny new company out to save our minds, represents a unique synthesis of neurological research and game design that combines verified scientific process with the growth and support potential of an online community - and then makes it fun.

Games on the Brain
Falstein has long been involved with the serious games initiative, a branch of game development specifically aimed at applying game development principles and process to real-world challenges.

"I firmly believe that working on pure-entertainment games is a noble calling, too; I don't want to minimize that. But making games that are designed to entertain while simultaneously achieving another purpose (like brain training) is a very challenging design exercise, and it's been interesting purely on that level as well."

For a designer whose work in the field includes such beloved and legendary titles as Secret of Monkey Island, his notions of game development's potential are concepts to watch. "I really enjoy games that are aimed at pure entertainment, too, and as a freelancer I mix my work with both entertainment-only and serious games. But I do think that the field of serious games is likely to grow faster than other types of games - perhaps even eclipsing entertainment-only titles some day. So I'm committed to working in this area. But if I've learned one thing from a career in the game industry, it's to stay agile and to embrace change, so I hesitate to make blanket predictions about where it is going. It's one of the new game fields to watch."

And the science of fun itself - game design - is no stranger to neurological structure and function.

"Understanding how the brain works is very important to game designers. Nearly all the high-level game designers I know are at least interested in the field of brain research, and many know quite a lot about brain function. I've found that understanding how different kinds of decision making are done by different parts of the brain has influenced my understanding and designs of entertainment games, pacing them to use a mix of different brain function over time. The great designs of people like Wil Wright, Shigeru Miyamoto and Sid Meier have been exemplifying these principles for years."

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