Video Games Keep Older Brains Younger
As Microsoft’s motion-controlled Kinect gaming device hits stores, everyone from players to industry analysts are wondering whether the device is a “game changer” (obvious pun, sorry.) The image-sensing, controller-free device combines a camera, depth sensor and microphone to track a player’s body and then accurately reflects that motion on the screen. It can also distinguish between different individuals and respond to voice commands. Of course, it’s still way too early to know Kinect’s impact on the video game industry. But history has shown us that not every new-fangled interface will succeed. So while we wait to see if Kinect will reign, let’s look at some of gaming’s biggest fails.
Mattel Intellivision’s Mystery Keyboard
Unveiled by toy manufacturer Mattel in 1979, the Intellivision got cute by combining the words "intelligent" and "television," and then claimed to have better graphics than its main competitor, the Atari 2600. But it’s what Intellivision didn’t come with that made it infamous: a keyboard. That missing component, featured in commercials but not packaged with the system, promised to increase the Intellivision’s computing capabilities, turning it from a game console into a home computer. But manufacture of the keyboard was delayed so often that even the Federal Trade Commission started fining Mattel. Eventually, 4,000 keyboards were produced, but by then the whole project was canceled and both the world and Mattel had moved on.
Atari Mindlink, 1984
Computers seemed limitless in the mid-80s: Matthew Broderick was using one to start World War 3; Anthony Michael Hall was building a girlfriend with his; and Jeff Bridges went inside one to race neon motorcycles. So of course we'd at least be able to link our brains with one to control video games, right? Enter the Atari Mindlink. The game controller supposedly worked by reading your brain’s muscle movements with infrared sensors, which then transferred those movements to games. The games never worked, people complained of headaches, and the Mindlink was quickly scrapped. Amazingly, however, technology is being used today to help people with disabilities use thoughts to control computers. Electronics firm Emotiv, for example, is developing games and brain-computer interfaces that record electrical activity produced by neurons firing in the brain.
Milton Bradley Vectrex, 1982
Costly ($430 in today's dollars) and unwieldy (unlike other consoles, it came with its own monitor), the Vectrex set itself apart by featuring vector graphics like those found in the popular arcade game “Asteroid!” It actually might not be totally fair to call the Vectrex a flop -- in many ways it was ahead of its time, with a 3-D headset, an advanced Motorola processor, and even a light pen that let players "draw" on the Vectrex monitor. But its release in late 1982 coincided with the Video Game Crash of 1983 and the console quickly faded away. Even today, though, Vectrex homebrewers are out there and the system has a cult following.
Nintendo Power Glove, 1989
Mattel built it. Nintendo licensed it. But it was a young Fred Savage in the movie The Wizard that catapulted the Power Glove into infamy and Internet meme status. The Nintendo-produced movie tried to generate awe about the glove, which was supposed to recreate hand movements in real time. Sure, it looked kind of cool in a cyborg-ish way, but mostly it was a plastic mitten with a controller attached to the forearm that is widely regarded as one of the worst video game blunders of all time.
Apple-Bandai Pippin, 1995
For every iMac and iPhone, there's a Pippin. The multimedia platform was designed by Apple and produced by Japanese firm Bandai in 1995. It was supposed to compete against the likes of the Sega Saturn, the Nintendo 64 and the Sony Playstation. But with a launch cost of $599, and very little software to support it, all the Pippin did was make a bunch of "worst ever" and "biggest tech busts" lists. Including this one. Plus, Pippin (a type of apple, naturally) is just a terrible name for a video game console.
Jason Matthews/flickr and Tim Lambert/flickr
Nintendo Virtual Boy, 1995
The 3-D Virtual Boy console was basically a set of viewfinder-like goggles that sat precariously on a plastic stand. A player would crane his or her head inside and use the wired controller to play monochromatic 3-D games like Mario’s Tennis. So basically it's like taking an eye exam. Only 22 games were released for the console, which is now considered a collector's item. Time heals all video game blunders.
Sega Activator, 1993
You could call it the great-great-grandfather of Kinect. Or you could call it an ugly, plastic octagon of awkward dancing. Instead of reading your real-time body movements and converting them on screen (like Kinect does), the Sega Activator expected players to stand inside the octagon and perform a series of coordinated steps within the device's eight quadrants, which corresponded to a button on a hand-held controller. Also, you had to avoid placing it under overhead lights, ceiling fans, mirrors or metallic ceilings. And couldn't look at it funny or call it names. If you have any doubt why it failed, check out this instructional video.
Gordon P. Hemsley/Wikimedia Commons
Philips CD-i, 1991
The tech graveyard is littered with the corpses of dead or failed file formats, from the Betamax to the mini-disc to the CD-i. The Compact Disk Interactive was the format of choice for the multimedia player released by Philips in 1991. Priced initially at $700 (you mean that’'s it?!), the console was first intended for educational and self-help titles, then gradually housed several video games that are known as some of the worst ever made. In the so-bad-it’s-awesome category are two CD-i Legend of Zelda titles that feature full animation cut scenes so jarringly bad that they’re frequently posted online.
M. Spencer Green, AP
Atari's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial video game, 1982
Manufactured by Atari to capitalize on the enormous success of Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi movie about a loveable lost alien and the boy who found him, this game should have been an easy win. I mean, who wouldn’t want to play the part of Elliot, saving ET from the bad guys, riding your bike up into the sky? Bring it on! But what happened is the cautionary tale for game companies looking to cash in on movie tie-ins: Stay faithful to the movie source and don’t rush the product. Instead of a cool adventure, players got impossible-to-navigate game-play, terrible graphics, and an odd storyline. The company allegedly buried massive unsold and returned copies of the game in a New Mexico landfill.
Getting older often means mental acuity declines. Some studies have pointed to the idea that you can “exercise” the brain to keep the mind sharp. But it’s been hard to pin down what’s happening and how real the effect is.
A team at the University of California San Francisco, led by Adam Gazzaley, associate professor of neurology, physiology and psychiatry, tackled the problem using a video game. They tested a group of older adults with a 3-D driving game that involved hitting a button when the participant saw a specific sign. It turned out that playing the game really did improve a person’s multitasking skills.
The game was relatively simple: a player drove a car on a windy road, using a joystick to control it. When a specific sign popped up, for example, a red octagon like a stop sign, the participant was asked to push a button. If a different sign popped up, she was told to do nothing. If she hit the button at the wrong sign, it counted against her.
The researchers looked at the performance of a group of 16 people aged 60 to 85. They found that just 12 hours of training spread over a month dramatically improved the ability of the individuals in the group to pick out the right signs. Some people even did as well or better than 20-year-olds playing for the first time.
To make sure it was the game that was doing it, the team tested two other similarly sized groups of elderly people. One played a game where only driving or picking the sign was involved, while another didn’t play at all. Neither of the other two groups improved.
One interesting finding was that the improvement in the video game skills also translated to other, unrelated measured of cognitive ability, like being able to watch out for a specific thing in a boring environment and working memory. The benefits lasted six months. On top of that there were very real changes in the brain activity of the participants: game players’ brains showed more and better communication between different brain regions.
All of this lends some credence to the idea of mental exercise, and Gazzaley told a press conference that he hopes this kind of game can become a therapeutic tool.
The findings appear in the latest issue of the journal Nature.
Credit: The Gazzaley Lab