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Can video games fix our flaws?

Video game publishers have taken to offering humankind all kinds of ways to improve our deeply-flawed lives ... primarily by offering us a throng of personal trainers, life coaches and gurus dedicated to whipping us into shape. But can video games really fix our flaws?
Image: Personal Trainer Math
Do you have trouble adding up these numbers without counting on your fingers and maybe even your toes? Well then, Nintendo has a game for you. But can "Personal Trainer: Math" live up to its promise and make math "fun again?" Who said math was fun in the first place?Nintendo

I don’t want to sound paranoid or anything, but I'm starting to suspect that Nintendo has secretly hidden some sort of spy camera in my home.

I say this because there are two things in life that I’m especially awful at: math and cooking. And rather suspiciously, Nintendo recently launched two games that seem aimed specifically at me: "Personal Trainer: Math" and "Personal Trainer: Cooking."

I’m telling you, it’s like they know.

They know that I use my fingers and sometimes my toes when faced with solving particularly taxing math problems (problems like: what is 15 plus 7?)

They know that when I say that I’m going to go “cook dinner,” what I really mean is that I’m going to go nuke some macaroni and cheese in the microwave.

I suppose I must not be the only person with these kinds of deficiencies in my cognitive powers and basic survival skills, because in recent months video game publishers have taken to offering humankind all kinds of ways to improve our deeply-flawed lives … primarily by offering us throngs of personal trainers, life coaches and gurus dedicated to fixing our many flaws.

Ubisoft wants to help us shed a few pounds with “My Weight Loss Coach.” It wants to help us improve our vocabulary with “My Word Coach.” And it wants to help us kick that cancerous habit with "My Stop Smoking Coach." Meanwhile, its "Dog Whisperer Game" promises to help us tame our problematic pooches … no kicking involved.

Nintendo, with its “Wii Fit” and “Brain Age” games knows a thing or two about self improvement and has, most recently, launched “Personal Trainer: Cooking” and “Personal Trainer: Math” (both for the Nintendo DS). And — I’m not making this up — they plan to launch “Personal Trainer: Walking” in the near future. Yes … walking.

It seems that video game publishers have discovered that human beings are imperfect creatures. More importantly, they know that we know that we’re imperfect and are desperate to fix the situation. So while I am fairly confident in my ability to put one foot in front of the other, I succumbed to my deep-seated arithmetic and culinary insecurities and decided to find out if Nintendo’s personal math and cooking trainers really could fix my most glaring personal flaws.   

Math is fun again!
Or at least that’s what “Personal Trainer: Math” promises.

I actually shuddered when this game arrived on my doorstep. For as long as I can remember, math has been the bane of my existence. When I was in school, math homework reduced me to tears on a nightly basis. Even as an adult, I get flustered when suddenly confronted with a numbers problem — calculating change at a store, or dividing the restaurant bill among friends.

What did this aversion to numbers get me? A career as a journalist. Sigh.

But after I got over my initial revulsion to “Personal Trainer: Math,” I thought that perhaps Nintendo really might have found "a fun and rewarding way to improve your math abilities." After all, I have enjoyed their “Brain Age” games — games that have turned tackling brain-challenging puzzles and problems into seriously addictive fun.

Like “Brain Age,” “Personal Trainer: Math” presents players with a daily trio of challenges designed to put basic math skills to the test. Here you’re presented with a variety of simple addition, subtraction and multiplication problems. You may be given flash cards with objects that you have to count. You may have to complete a sentence such as: (blank) is 7 plus 5. All of this you have to do as quickly as you can as the game rates your speed and accuracy, increasing the difficulty and tracking your improvement over time.

When you’re not being tested, you can try your hand at the “100-Cell” math method, a technique that has you add, subtract, or multiply numbers in a 10-by-10 grid.

But here’s what I want to know: Where’s the part where they make math, you know, “fun”? Day after day, this game had me doing nothing but tedious arithmetic problems over and over. Yes, I did get a bit faster at coming up with the correct answers. But the problem is, I don’t want to keep playing. With “Brain Age,” the activities were diverse and interesting enough to keep me coming back. But with “Personal Trainer: Math,” the prospect of running through a new set of multiplication tables day in and day out just isn’t compelling.

Perhaps they need to sell a peripheral that goes with “Personal Trainer: Math.” It’s called a “M.O.M.” — a device that makes you do your math homework every night under threat of being sent to your room without dinner.

Speaking of dinner…
The last time I tried to make dinner for my husband, I concocted a tofu dish that looked like something you’d find on the sidewalk outside a bar after a particularly drunken Friday night. He choked it down and tried to act appreciative. But later, he admitted that it tasted as good as it looked.

So you should have seen the look on his face when I told him I was going to cook dinner for him again … this time under the guidance of a video game. Panic. Horror. I believe he briefly considered divorce.

Image: Personal Trainer Cooking

But “Personal Trainer: Cooking” is no “Cooking Mama.” That is, it’s not a game. Instead, it’s an interactive cook book that streamlines and simplifies the process of selecting and cooking a dish. And much to my surprise — and my husband’s — it works.

“Cooking” comes with 245 recipes from around the world. It also includes numerous tips on how to do things like julienne carrots (I had no idea what “julienning” was) and videos demonstrating things like preparing squid (yeeeuck).

But most importantly, it gently holds your hand through the process of selecting a recipe, purchasing the ingredients and cooking them up.

Using the game’s fantastic recipe selection process, I was able to find a main dish to cook by asking it to give me “easy” recipes that took less than 30 minutes to cook and used meat as a main ingredient. Based on my requirements, it narrowed the recipes down to five, from which I chose the sautéed lamb chop recipe (based solely on the fact that it sounded the simplest to prepare). The game then compiled a shopping list for me.

With ingredients at the ready, “Personal Trainer: Cooking” then walked me through the cooking process, giving me easy-to-follow verbal and written instructions. Since it has a voice command function, I was able to tell it to repeat instructions as I needed without putting my greasy hands on my DS.

My husband took one bite of my chops and actually said, “Wow, I would eat this again.” And I’m almost positive he wasn’t just saying that to be nice.

I can’t say that “Personal Trainer: Cooking” has inspired me to take up a ladle and become a regular in our kitchen. But I can say that it’s proven to me (and my husband) that I can cook a meal that doesn’t look and taste like barf. And that’s saying something.