A few months ago, I wrote a post called “We’re never too old to play games!” It was about my wonderful dad, his loss against a boss fight with frontotemporal dementia, and how games helped him/could have helped him more. We played games together always, from my earliest childhood memories until very close to the end of his life. He would have turned 70 on December 15, and I still miss him (and playing games with him) every day.
So when I was asked to read the following article for a health science reading group I’m in, I read it even though I couldn’t make it to the meeting:
Millington, B. (2011). Use it or lose it: Ageing and the politics of brain training. Leisure Studies, 31(4), 429-446.
This paper reports findings from a qualitative study of promotional websites for three prominent ‘brain games’ – that is, consumer technologies designed to train and improve the brain through challenging cognitive exercises. The study was specifically designed to critically examine how brain training is promoted as a viable endeavour and how brain games are made to intervene in cognitive functioning. The analysis of online promotion revealed three overlapping themes: (1) the deployment of expertise in game marketing to make brain training intelligible; (2) the deployment of risk metrics in game software to ‘screen and intervene’ in cognitive health; and (3) the deployment of ‘third party’ sources to corroborate brain training’s value, especially for older adults. These findings are used as a basis to contend that brain training technologies are simultaneously enabling and constraining. Against the historical practice of seeing ageing and cognitive ‘decline’ as biopolitical threats, brain games imagine seniors as empowered and capable of sustaining their identity work into retirement. At the same time, these products invoke common anxieties surrounding later life and, in keeping with the politics of neoliberalism, exacerbate the pressure on older persons to demonstrate an obvious ‘will to health’ through ongoing consumerism.
If you can’t read that Academicese, don’t worry about it. I’m fluent in it, and although I don’t want to use that language in this post, the study made me think about a lot of things that exist outside the university. The message I took from this article is as follows: getting old can be awesome, but maybe only if you buy these games. A phrase at the end of the article summarized it well:
[W]hen it comes to questions of cognitive health, growing older is a matter of personal risks, to be addressed via choices made in the marketplace.
(subliminal message: buy these specific games.)
And no other games will help you, apparently. That’s the ridiculous part of it. The websites of the “brain games” the author studied – Nintendo’s Brain Age, Vivity Lab’s Fit Brains, and HAPPYneuron – all suggest that their products will help you train your brain to work better, remember more, and avoid the cognitive decline that we all could be at risk for. As watching the effects of my brilliant dad’s disease taught me, cognitive decline associated with the dementias is perhaps one of the most tragic ways to die. But is it really necessary to buy one of these games to fight it?
Research does support the argument for the health benefits of older people playing games. I’ve heard about the Wii being used for bowling in nursing homes. I read a study in which the researchers designed a “music creation” tool using a touch screen for people with dementia, and dementia patients benefited from using it. So I’m not completely dismissing or trashing the makers of these “brain games” at all, I’m just saying that there are a lot of games people could play to help their brain health. Honestly, I believe playing ANY game can benefit our cognitive functioning at any age, from Brain Age to Guild Wars 2 to playing keep-away with a dog.
Millington noted that the marketing of these brain games “exacerbate the pressures on older persons to demonstrate an obvious ‘will to health’ through ongoing consumerism.” Marketing by fear. Also, the ongoing message that “health is work” is wearing me out already, and I’m not a senior yet. It is strange how our society has taken to heart the message that you have to put in a lot of good ol’ fashioned hard work if you want to stay healthy. We could also blame the marketers for this. After all, they sell the idea that indulging in junk food, alcohol, cigarettes, and whatever else is somehow “rewarding yourself” when in fact it’s damaging you. (That’s not to say I don’t enjoy the occasional glass of wine or ice cream – but I’ll be ok since all the games I play will keep me healthy.) But seriously, given all the pressures and constraints on our lives, is it realistic to believe we can *make* ourselves healthy, and that our brains can only remain healthy into old age by buying these games?
It’s unfortunate that we’re not always able to enjoy a healthy lifestyle that will lead us into a fun and relaxing retirement. Too frequently, our lifestyle choices (and, sometimes, genetic predispositions) cause our lives to be filled with chronic disease and too many colds each winter and the need for too many pill bottles when we get old. I live with a chronic illness caused by an autoimmune issue, but I’m taking every step I can to avoid living as a sick person; this means I’m subjected to the “work” of staying healthy. But I wonder if John Lennon could have imagined a society in which we all enjoyed taking care of ourselves – and we all played games, whatever games were fun to us, without worry about how much time they take out of our schedules or whether this is only something boys living in their parents’ basements should do or whether we’d chosen the “right” game to keep our brain active. Enjoyment and happiness are keys to a healthy life. So make sure you enjoy the games you play… every day.
I don’t feel well. I’m gonna go level something. And I’m gonna enjoy myself, dammit!!!
Ding! You’ve leveled up! Please see your local librarian for training.