Video games get cerebral

When youth find inspiration in video games where the objective is to steal cars, it’s no wonder that video games get stereotyped as being antisocial and counterproductive.

A small group of developers is trying to bury that stereotype by creating video games that make players better people and the world a better place.

On platforms like social networks, smartphones and web portals, casual/social games that challenge players to work out, solve math problems or cultivate a garden are generating interest among people who have never played video games before.

Rick Davidson and Owen Wiggins worked in other development shops in Vancouver before founding Inspirado Games, which is beta-testing GardenMind, its first game.

“After working on shoot-kill-murder games for a long time or games that got someone sitting in their basement for 20 hours, I became a little bit disillusioned with creating that,” said Davidson. “I’m happy playing those games, but I just don’t want to contribute to that as a developer.”

In GardenMind, which is free to play, gamers cultivate their virtual garden by completing challenges that exercise their cognitive abilities.

For example, they grow flowers and trees by completing language or memory games.

Inspirado plans to generate revenue through micro-transactions, in which players can buy additional tools – a garden gnome, more water – to help grow their garden.

Through its partnership with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), a player’s GardenMind actions or purchases contribute real money to conservation efforts in the real world.

If players want a virtual tiger for their garden, they have to actively protect real tigers through WWF’s Save the Tiger program.

“There’s a lot of people out there who are now exposed to video games who weren’t five years ago through Facebook and other popular social networking sites,” said Davidson, who before video games, worked in the fields of psychology and consumer research.

“Playing a first-person shooter is intimidating, for example, for a woman in her mid-30s who hasn’t grown up in those games. But a game that gets her thinking or working together with her friends, she can get enthused by.”

Vancouver-based Vivity Labs Inc.’s 25 games on its Fit Brains portal, which was launched two years ago, target five major brain areas: memory, problem solving, concentration, visual-spatial and language. Like Inspirado’s GardenMind, Vivity’s social games cost a fraction of what console games cost to create.

Thanks to the ease of digital distribution across the web, mobile and social network platforms, boot-strapped, garage-based development shops are becoming the norm again in the video game sector, after 30 years of dominance by the multimillion-dollar console titles.

With a small amount of startup money, developers can pursue their pet video game projects or interests without having to target the traditional demographics.

That’s helped brain-training games to flourish.

One of Vivity’s Fit Brains titles generated 250,000 Facebook users in its first month.

The company was partly inspired by Nintendo’s Brain Age, which was launched on the Nintendo DS handheld console in 2005.

Based on the studies of a neuroscientist who believed that aging of the mind can be slowed by doing cognitive exercises, Brain Age has been a bestseller in many countries and is considered to have kick-started the brain-game genre.

This spring, Vivity is launching ArooKoo, a game that motivates players to become more active by completing challenges that have them exploring their city.

“We’re tapping into people interested in health and positivity in life,” said Michael Cole, Vivity’s CEO.

Cole, whose background is in digital media, co-founded Vivity with a clinical neuropsychologist.

“A lot of these people may be feeling a little guilty wasting their time playing video games.”

But Brenda Bailey Gershkovitch thinks it’s unfair to judge video games on their positive or negative impact – a subjective metric.

“They’re games. They haven’t been charged with being productive,” she said. “It is like saying watching TV should be productive. Games are about entertainment, although they can be more.”

Vancouver’s Silicon Sisters Interactive, which Bailey Gershkovitch co-founded, is the first female owned and operated video game studio in Canada.

Its first title, School26, which is launching in April, uses empathy to motivate teen girls to make their virtual school a better place.

Bailey Gershkovitch doesn’t think School26 can be categorized as a brain game, but its lessons and scenarios are applicable in the real world.

“For us, it’s really about making a game that totally connects with girls,” said Bailey Gershkovitch. “This game is all about social mechanics.”

“Games have been built in the last 30 years almost entirely by men for men and boys. The original games weren’t designed like that.

“Pac-man wasn’t a gender-specific game. But as we honed in on what people were really into, we became very settled in our genres.”

Davidson believes in the theory of neuroplasticity, which maintains that the brain is elastic and through cognitive exercises will mend or strengthen itself.

“If you’re playing a shooter, it’s going to make you really good at playing a shooter,” he said. “If you’re doing language exercises and problem solving, it’s going to make you stronger at language and problem solving.”

This article was publishing in Business in Vancouver on February 15-21, 2011; issue 1112.