GUEST AUTHOR: Robert Glashüttner
We often assume that brainy games first and foremost have to be intellectually challenging. That you have to twist and intertwine your synapses and think hard before you are able to solve anything. While those complicated tasks might be an adequate challenge for some people, a lot of us are left overloaded and alienated - especially when we are trying to relax. The usual response to a challenge that is too tough is to give up and feel a little clumsy at best. This is far from motivating despite the fact that you don't learn anything by a puzzle that is just too hard or too tiring to finish. That is why we also like casual games which are easy going, social and just fun. Think of Where's Waldo or Sudoku puzzles in the newspaper that you enjoy solving while having a cup of coffee in the morning.
We should embrace the fact that logically very challenging games like "The Witness" or also smaller indie titles like "Stephen's Sausage Roll", both of which came out earlier this year, are in no way a standard for Mind Games.
Instead, they are a very specific form. Just think of videogames that also present non-trivial puzzles like the two mentioned but also incorporate more creative possibilities for you to be able to solve a specific problem. Like the "Portal" series. In "Portal" it's not just about finding a solution for an abstract problem but also playing with the whole environment, recognizing visual cues and also being able to skillfully translate the idea into reality. Because, let's face it: Those portals can let you travel very fast.
Therefore, in many cases you also need to stay cool headed and move quickly to get to the next room. These skill elements are a welcomed distraction from the often dry process of trying to come up with a solution just by cognitive overload.
But Mind Games can skip the "solve this problem" template altogether. In many games it's not about single challenges that you have to overcome but a goal that you have to achieve. Think about it: There is almost no game where you can just brute-force your way to the top or to the finish line without coming up with a strategy or a memorization of certain objects that you encounter in-game. You don't become good at a racing game just by driving flawlessly but by knowing the race tracks very well. You outwit your opponent in a strategy game like "Starcraft" not just by building and commanding your units quickly. You have to know the map, the race of your enemy and you need a lot of intel to know what he or she is up to so you know what your reaction should be like.
Memorizing things in a space and strategic play is also extremely important if you want to be good at card games like "Hearthstone": Knowing the cards alone hardly nets you many wins. You need to know how the cards work together and the right time to play them out to get an edge over your opponent.
So Mind Games are about being smart and working with visual input. But that's not all.
Think of music! Granted, there are fewer games that are mainly based around sound and music. But those of us who have hopped on "Dance Dance Revolution" dance mats or played rhythm games like "Guitar Hero", "Rock Band" or "Amplitude" know that musical intelligence is something that shouldn't be underestimated. The website AudioGames.net lists over 550 games that can be played without any visual input whatsoever. But with standard videogames, audio can be considered low priority, you think? - Wrong: In January 2016, a blind man finished "The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time" without any help but a good audio system. Yes, it took him about five years, but it's still bears a strong testimony to the importance of game audio.
Are Mind Games confined to the digital game space? Of course not. Games like Chess, GO or Crossword are the classics of the classics, and they have existed for a long time without the need of a computational device. What are they if not flawless Mind Games?
Modern examples of analogue Mind Games would be real-world mind challenges like Escape Rooms which pop up all over the world for some years now. You can also find a lot of interesting stuff in hybrid games that take place in the analogue and the digital world at the same time: Augmented Reality Games like "Ingress".
And not to forget board games with classic titles like Master Mind, Abalone and also language games like Scrabble.
Sometimes, Mind Games can also be more playful and contemplative than challenging and competitive. For example: Sitting down and solving a jigsaw puzzle is not only a visual and mental exercise. It's also about being patient and reflective, being able to leave the puzzle, take a break and come back to it later.
Games that don't force us to make quick decisions or aren't constrained by a timer have a quality of their own. Ever sat on a Minesweeper, Mahjongg or Solitaire session over a few days? Nobody says you can't take as much time and as many breaks as you need.
So, obviously, Mind Games are everywhere: In the digital and physical realm, across different genres and in form of a vast variety of challenges, triggering different sensory organs in often very creative, unusual ways. Mind Games are not for a certain audience.
Instead, every person just needs to find his or her type of Mind Game. Because getting challenged and coming up with solutions is just part of human nature. No one just wants to sit around and do nothing. And even when we think we are not achieving or doing anything, we are just unaware of how much stuff our mind is processing at this exact moment in time.
About the author
Robert Glashüttner is a senior editor at public station ORF Radio FM4. He writes about video game culture and new media.