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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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