Wednesday, January 14, 2015

2014 FB Highlights: Suck It Luminosity

Luminosity's ads are obnoxious and I have always been skeptical of their claims. So this is particularly gratifying.
Here's the ad that set me off. "It just just seems like games, but it's serious brain training." The implication is that through the alchemy of "neuro-plasticity" something as seemingly frivolous as games can be productive. When really, they are more akin to Highlights magazine for adults. Their product actually isn't terrible; but not fun enough that I would take it over something as simple as bejeweled. Play is not what sells them.  They bait the hook of their product with promises like improved reflexes, recall, and critical thinking instead of doing a thing for its own sake. All of those specific benefits are byproducts from playing games.

Even a 'time-waster' like Bejeweled contains a system with tons of variation. Once you've learned that system, you carry it with you, and impose it on reality. Some games make more potent lenses than others (Portal, Braid, and any competitive or strategic game spring to mind). Luminosity's offerings seem more like crossword puzzles. Solve it once, or do your reps and then drop the concept like weights. Check your daily mental health box And look down on the kids who whittle their life away with Minecraft.

The only games I would label as mindless are things like Mafia Wars and other Facebook games circa 2005-2009. Those are monetized Pavlov Response Tests. You click on something every couple of hours. You get fake money. End of story. Ditto traditional slot machines. Contrary to what their presentation implies, you cannot learn to master those reels. Pull lever. Hit buttons. Lose money. it takes a focused effort of inspired cynicism to make a truly mindless game. Luminosity's "do this thing to win mental health!" approach strikes me as very cynical as well. Are you playing a game for itself, or because you hope playing it will give you something?

Even accursed freemium like Clash of Clans and Candy Crush, have at least a modicum of gameplay. And Bejeweled, which is not constrained by timing mechanics, is a lot like Tetris, Lumines, or Meteos. Each of those are repetitious, and you can use them to zone out, but even then they teach you how to think around a central concept (like portals), force you to improvise within the constraints of that system and explore its possibilities.

There are diminishing returns. Somebody who has played tons of arcade puzzle games, or different match-3 games will not get nearly as much mental stimulation as somebody who has never played games before (and that is Bejeweled's target demographic). If you ask somebody who has never played videogames before to complete Portal 2, no shit they are going to do some growing. It'd be like handing your average high school student Infinite Jest and saying "Good luck!"


Garnet said...

Critical reviews of Luminosity that I have read state that a better way to maintain your brain would be to learn a new language or learn to play a musical instrument. Those pursuits would provide more of a tangible return as well.

Sarcasmancer said...

Undoubtedly, Garnet. Acquiring physical skills makes you think, work, and keeps you interesting. Right now I'm working on the very basics of sleight of hand. My fingers are incredibly sore as I type this but its led to some great conversations and I have to be much more aware of my muscles. On occasion games can instill tangible benefit in addition to abstract ones; I actually finally learned how to type by playing MMOs, after three years of feckless Mavis Beacon.