Neuroscientist Opens Game Cafe, Starts Building Better Brains

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The Brooklyn Strategist is a game cafe run by a neuroscientist who structures games in his afterschool programs by the areas of the brain they develop.

Dr. Jon Freeman was a neuroscientist looking to make a career change when he noticed that after school, his oldest daughter would get sucked into computer screens. He said that she was “drifting into this world of digital isolation.” When did he see her at her best? When she was playing board games. He said this was an “ah-ha moment,” and asked himself, “Could I create a program for afterschool that not only engaged her, but could it generalize and engage other kids? And would other parents see the utility in this sort of thing?”

This was in the dark days of 2010, when the number of game stores had shrunk from 1,200 to 700 across the nation. Dr. Freeman said, “I realized, if I was going to open up a game-based store it would have to be a very different model from what the current game store model is.”

Dr. Freeman moved the emphasis of his store from retail to afterschool activities for local children. But this would not just be a supervised game time at the local game shop. No, Dr. Freeman brought his neuroscience background to bear. “I started the afterschool program based on developmental brain areas. We were going to focus exclusively on one area, and get sequentially more difficult.” For example, “One of the sequences we did started with nonverbal games and then worked its way into verbal games.”

How Do We Know Where Games Stroke the Brain?

Dr. Freeman determined which games worked what part of the brain based on neurological and psychological assessments. When Dr. Freeman started looking at the games he was playing, he saw that many of them asked players to engage in tasks similar to those of neurological and psychological tests. Scientists have already correlated these tests to the sections of the brain they activate using fMRI imagery. Dr. Freeman used the similarity between games and these tests to build his brain-based game program.

And People Are PAID to Run D&D!

While not a part of his original vision for The Brooklyn Strategist, Dr. Freeman has come to include tabletop stalwart Dungeons & Dragons in his program.

Children came to his afterschool program asking to play D&D, and Dr. Freeman demurred at first. However, after a second week of requests, he remembered that one of the best pieces of business advice he received was to listen to his customers. He told the kids they would play D&D next week.

“The kids came back, and half wanted to [play a] sports game and the other half wanted to play D&D, so we split four and four. We started rolling up characters, and by the time we were done, all the kids playing the sports game were hovering over our shoulders. They wanted to play too, so of course I let them in… I gave them a taste of everything, dungeon crawls, monsters, treasures. They ate it up like nobody’s business, and pleaded with me to play the next week.”

More children kept coming to play D&D, and Dr. Freeman said, “The next thing I know I’m hiring more staff to run D&D!”

Games Change Kids’ Lives

Dr. Freeman has seen his programs change children’s lives by helping to identify children with dyslexia and color blindness, and improve their academics.

One child with dyslexia began writing short stories about his D&D character soon after he started playing. Dr. Freeman said it prompted the child’s mother to approach him in tears to say, “What did you guys do? [My son couldn’t] stay focused on writing anything for more than 20 seconds because it’s too challenging and [now] he stays up all night writing stories. And she was just like, ‘Whatever you guys are doing, bottle it, and sell it to me.’”

Dr. Jon Freeman and The Brooklyn Strategist staff are making their corner of the world brighter through gaming. To learn more about their programs, click here!

All images courtesy The Brooklyn Strategist

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