As a general rule, most people want to gain for as little as possible effort. For example, people seem to often buy exercise equipment thinking that it will make exercise easier. They usually find out that is not the case—thus the brisk trade in lightly used exercise equipment and its regularly being buried under clothes. The latest brain training games seem to be offering the same temptation: if a person plays these brain games, she will become smarter. The appeal is, of course, that the games are supposed to fun rather than burdensome—like education tends to be. The obvious questions is whether such games work or not.
On the face of it, the idea that playing these brain games can have positive effects does make some sense. After all, exercising the body improves it—so, by analogy, the same should hold for the brain. The obvious concern is that not everything that people think is exercise actually improves the body. Likewise, the brain games might be like useless exercises for the body: you are doing something, but it is having no effect. To address this matter, the thing to do is to turn to some actual science.
As it stands, the unbiased research seems to show that the current crop of commercial brain training games have no meaningful impact. While people do get better at the games, this is most likely due to familiarity. To use an analogy to another type of video game, doing the same scripted event over and over in a game like World of Warcraft or Deadspace III will cause a person to improve at that specific task. To use a specific example, in Deadspace III the player has to “fly” through a field of debris and avoid being smashed. My friend and I smashed into the debris repeatedly until we finally made it—through familiarity with the process rather than by getting “better.” The same seems to be true of the current brain games and getting better at such a game does not entail that one is smarter or more mentally capable. In light of the existing evidence, spending money on the commercial brain games would be a waste of money—unless one is just playing them for fun.
Interestingly enough, video games of the more “traditional” sort can improve memory and mental skills. This is not surprising—such video games typically place players in challenging environments that often mimic general challenges in the real world. As such, rather than simply focusing on a relatively simple game that is narrowly focused, the gamer is forced to fully engage the general challenge and develop a broader set of capabilities. As such, video games of this sort probably help improve mental abilities in a way analogous to how reality does so. In the case of video games, the challenges will tend to be more challenging and more frequent than what a person would generally encounter in the real world. For example, participating in a World of Warcraft raid involves tracking abilities, maintaining situational awareness, following (or giving) orders, following a strategy and so on. That is, it provides an actual mental workout. So, a person looking for games to make her smarter would be better off getting a gaming console or PC and selecting challenging games. They will probably be much more fun than the brain games and apparently more effective.
I would also like to put in a plug for traditional table top games as well—be they games like Risk or D&D. These games provide enjoyable challenges that seem to have a positive impact on cognitive abilities. Plus, they are social activities—and that is no doubt better for a person than playing brain games online solo.