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Brain Training Games for Seniors: Looking for the best brain training app

This arti­cle reports on a series of focus group stud­ies car­ried out at the Sonic Arts Research Cen­tre, Queen’s Uni­ver­sity Belfast, North­ern Ire­land. The aim was to iden­tify the key moti­va­tional fac­tors influ­enc­ing seniors’ engage­ment with mobile brain train­ing tech­nol­ogy in order to inform the design of a brain train­ing tool which is accept­able / enjoy­able to tar­get users.

The result is an iPhone appli­ca­tion named ‘Brain Jog’ which can be down­loaded from here for free. The appli­ca­tion is being used for a fur­ther study to bet­ter under­stand what con­sti­tutes an enjoy­able brain train­ing game expe­ri­ence for seniors and is the first step in a larger study which will inves­ti­gate how effec­tive ‘brain train­ing’ apps can be in pre­vent­ing cog­ni­tive decline / demen­tia. Users over the age of 50 are encour­aged to down­load the free app and take part.

Now more about the present study. Thirty-four par­tic­i­pants aged 50+ took part in four focus groups last­ing approx­i­mately 2 hours each. Each focus group con­sisted of three sub-sessions: an intro­duc­tory ses­sion, a ‘tran­si­tional activ­ity’ where the par­tic­i­pants were given 40 mins hands-on expe­ri­ence with com­mer­cially avail­able brain train­ing soft­ware fol­lowed by a ses­sion in which key ques­tions were asked. Mainly iPhones and iPods were used dur­ing the tran­si­tional activ­ity, although the Nin­tendo DS, pc-based and Internet-based plat­forms were also employed. A range of com­mer­cially avail­able brain train­ing soft­ware was used.

Dur­ing the key ques­tions ses­sion, dis­cus­sions in rela­tion to the brain train­ing games played dur­ing the tran­si­tional activ­ity were steered accord­ing to these main questions:

Are there any aspects in par­tic­u­lar that would moti­vate you play again?

Are there any aspects in par­tic­u­lar that would turn you off play­ing again?

Is there any­thing that could be added to these games that would com­pel you to play them more?

Par­tic­i­pants were also probed with a list of promi­nent moti­va­tional fac­tors dis­cov­ered through a search of the lit­er­a­ture in order to fur­ther stim­u­late the dis­cus­sion accord­ing to the fol­low­ing question:

Which of these moti­va­tions, if any, do peo­ple think would be rea­sons to play if they were fac­tored into computer-based puz­zle games?

Audio from the focus groups was recorded. Dur­ing the analy­sis, rel­e­vant com­ments were coded as either moti­va­tional or de-motivational and fur­ther sub-categorized accord­ing to promi­nent themes such as ‘chal­lenge’ or ‘usabil­ity issues’.


Aris­ing from the cod­ing pro­ce­dure, 237 moti­va­tional com­ments made up 19 moti­va­tional fac­tors and 123 de-motivational com­ments made up 15 de-motivational fac­tors. The rank­ing of the top moti­va­tional / de-motivational fac­tors are shown in the tables below.

Table 1. Rank­ing of moti­va­tional factors

Chal­lenge was the high­est ranked moti­va­tional fac­tor across all focus groups. The major­ity of com­ments value chal­lenge as a means to achievement:

“I find them quite chal­leng­ing. When I fin­ish I think ‘see if I can bet­ter that score’” — (p2, FG1).

The next high­est ranked moti­va­tional fac­tor related to the brain train­ing games’ per­ceived prac­ti­cal ben­e­fits or the need for such:

“It could make you more alert and I think it’s very impor­tant we keep our­selves in a cer­tain con­di­tion” – (p13, FG2).

Table 2. Rank­ing of de-motivational factors

‘Usabil­ity issues’ was the high­est ranked de-motivational fac­tor:

“To me it wasn’t stim­u­lat­ing, it was frus­trat­ing because… no mat­ter what I did, it wouldn’t accept any­thing…” – (p16, FG3).

The next high­est ranked de-motivational fac­tor related to ‘poor com­mu­ni­ca­tion’ from the brain train­ing games usu­ally in the form of poor instruction:

“Instruc­tions — Why keep an eye on the time? No rea­son given. Felt uncer­tain about what to do.” – (p28, FG3).


In terms of the first hour or so of play, users in this age group will be most moti­vated to engage with mobile brain train­ing game tech­nol­ogy when it’s per­ceived as pro­vid­ing a good chal­lenge, of some prac­ti­cal ben­e­fit and is in some way famil­iar. Users will see usabil­ity issues, poor com­mu­ni­ca­tion from the game and games that are inap­pro­pri­ately timed, i.e. too fast, as bar­ri­ers to engagement.

You can help us fur­ther under­stand what con­sti­tutes an enjoy­able puz­zle game expe­ri­ence for seniors by down­load­ing the free iPhone app and par­tic­i­pat­ing in the next study.

– Donal O’Brien is a PhD can­di­date at the Sonic Arts Research Cen­tre in Queen’s Uni­ver­sity Belfast. His work is con­cerned with mobile dig­i­tal game design and eval­u­a­tion for seniors. His main inter­ests are tech­nol­ogy accep­tance, user-centered design, qual­i­ta­tive research and com­puter programming.

Related arti­cle: Are mentally-stimulating activ­i­ties good or bad for the brain? The true story.

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2 Responses

  1. Chris says:

    Brain App on Mac, iPad and iPhone has proven very pop­u­lar, both with seniors and younger players.

  2. John says:

    It’s inter­est­ing to find how mod­ern tech­nol­ogy slowly dis­cov­ers answers to prob­lems, often to prob­lems we didn’t even know existed.

    How­ever even though tech­nol­ogy seems to be pro­vid­ing answers it will be inter­est­ing to see whether the stud­ies actu­ally bear out the results, whether brain train­ing does any­thing more than merely pro­vid­ing entertainment

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