Ten video game titles engage the brain

In the sci-fi comedy Sleeper, Woody Allen's character, cryogenically frozen since 1973, wakes up in 2173 and discovers that such previously frowned-upon things as cigarettes and hot fudge are good for you.

We haven't quite reached that point here in 2010, but there is evidence to show that video games -- long the bane of many a parent and educator -- do more than just make your thumbs sore, your eyes red and your wallet empty. Many can, in fact, exercise the brain and teach players a thing or two about history, math and other traditional subjects.

Jarrod Wolkowitz, the director of information and data management for STAR GameSchool (, is a strong proponent of using video games as educational tools.

"Video games give kids an almost hands-on learning experience," Wolkowitz said. "If a student finds discussion of something like history boring, a game can help make it come alive. The student can experience history as if he or she were there, talking to virtual historical figures and walking around an almost exact representation of any location at that time. That is much more fun than [simply looking at] stagnant text or pictures."

Here are 10 current and recently released titles that educate as well as entertain:

100 Classic Books

Nintendo DS, $29.99

Subject: Literature

Grade/age level: Middle/high school

While not a game in the technical sense, 100 Classic Books offers hours and hours of "edutainment" and enlightenment, letting users read unabridged works from 40 authors. In addition to 13 books by Charles Dickens and 23 plays from William Shakespeare, the cartridge features classics by such legendary wordsmiths as Jane Austen, George Eliot, Victor Hugo, Edgar Allan Poe and Robert Louis Stevenson. Electronic enhancements include multiple text sizes, optional background music and various search features.

Brain Age 2: More Training in Minutes a Day!

Nintendo DS, $19.99

Subject: Math/reading/brain exercise

Grade/age level: All ages

Like its predecessor, Brain Age 2 offers a series of lightning-fast math and reading exercises designed to enhance brain power by increasing blood flow to the prefrontal cortex. In addition, the cartridge lets gamers solve sudoku puzzles, recite piano songs, play Concentration, engage in a little rock-paper-scissors and more. Many of these mental maneuverings make use of the DS system's special functions, requiring players to speak into the microphone or use the stylus to write on the touch-screen. A great tool for helping keep the brain sharp and focused.

Donkey Kong Jr. Math

Nintendo Wii, 500 Nintendo Points ($5)

Subject: Math

Grade/age level: Ages 8 and up

Downloadable to the Wii via Nintendo's Virtual Console program, Donkey Kong Jr. Math was originally released for the NES way back in 1985, but it holds up well today. The game employs the basic chain- and vine-climbing elements of the arcade classic Donkey Kong Junior (1982), sans enemies to avoid. The challenge comes in the way of answering addition, subtraction, multiplication and division problems. Clearly, at least in this case, monkeys and math make for a good combination.

Easy Piano

Nintendo DS, $39.99

Subject: Music/piano

Grade/age level: All ages

Packaged with a tiny keyboard that plugs into the DS, Easy Piano can be played with said keyboard, or with the stylus and touch screen. The game allows users of all ages (though the keyboard is too small for man-size hands) to play more than 30 pop, jazz and classical songs, including such hits as ABC, Come Away With Me and Material Girl. A digital music coach helps aspiring pianists learn basic music theory (via mini-games), while a composition mode lets players create and save their own tunes.

The History Channel: Civil War -- Secret Missions

PS2, PS3, Xbox 360; $19.99

Subject: History/Civil War

Grade/age level: Middle/high school

Educational titles on the PS3 and Xbox 360 are rare. First-person shooters, on the other hand, are ubiquitous. As an FPS, Secret Missions is a run-of-the-mill entry in the genre, but it does take place during a crucial time in American history. Equipped with such weapons as muskets and cannons, players perform missions based on actual Civil War battles and events. Historically, the game isn't always 100 percent accurate, but at least it will help get kids interested in learning more about Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and other figures of the era.

Horrible Histories: Ruthless Romans

Nintendo DS, $19.99; Nintendo Wii, $29.99

Subject: Ancient history

Grade/age level: Middle/high school

Based on the "Horrible Histories" British book series, Ruthless Romans does a nice job incorporating the fun, humor and educational properties the books are known for, teaching "history with all the nasty bits left in." By interacting with folks, reading lots of text, answering trivia and playing more than 30 mini-games (including painting pictures, collecting items and tracing over drawings), the player competes to become the greatest gladiator of Ancient Rome. A sweeping musical score complements the action.

Konami Kids Playground: Toy Pals Fun With Numbers

PS2, $19.99

Subject: Math

Grade/age level: Preschool

Created by the makers of Dance Dance Revolution, Toy Pals Fun With Numbers uses a smaller, differently marked version of the dance pad to help kids ages 2 to 5 with color, letter, number and shape recognition. By stepping, hopping and lightly jogging on the mat, players get exercise while performing such tasks as matching colors, popping balloons and counting toys. Cute characters (Scratch the Cat, Sniff the Dog and Stan the Bear) and environments (a fun house, a garden and a meadow) help make the game fun.

Learn Geography

Nintendo DS, $19.99

Subject: Geography

Grade/age level: Elementary/middle school

Despite clumsy interfacing and lousy graphics, Learn Geography will indeed help the gamer with the patient parent do what its title suggests. Cast in the role of a male or female student, the player can learn country names, landforms, flag colors, major city names, national landmark locations and other facts about our wonderful world. One caveat: The questions can be difficult, and the controls are a little confusing, so it's helpful to have an adult around to assist during game play.

My Spanish Coach

Nintendo DS, Sony PSP; $29.99

Subject: Language/Spanish

Grade/age level: All ages

Students and businesspeople alike should pick up a copy of My Spanish Coach, a fun and easy way to become rudimentarily familiar with the Latin-derived language. Easy, convenient interfacing provides access to eight fun touchpad mini-games (including multiple-choice, word search and whack-a-mole), each of which can be played at the user's pace. The game offers more than 1,000 lessons, along with voice recognition and an English-to-Spanish dictionary and phrasebook.

Sesame Street: Cookie's Counting Carnival

Nintendo DS, $29.99; Nintendo Wii, $39.99

Subject: Math/counting

Grade/age level: Preschool

Video games starring Sesame Street characters have been around since the days of the Atari 2600. Cookie's Counting Carnival is the latest such title, using carnival mini-games to help preschoolers hone their counting, pattern recognition, and number and shape identification skills. Accompanied by Cookie Monster and Big Bird, kids visit the grandstand, midway, petting zoo, food court and arcade. To help little ones control the action, the Wii version includes a fuzzy character cover for the Wii Remote, while the DS rendition comes with a jumbo click stylus.

Brett Weiss is the author of "Classic Home Video Games, 1972-1984" (McFarland, 2007) and "Classic Home Video Games, 1985-1988" (McFarland, 2009).