Get Smarter: 26 Apps & Video Games to Sharpen Your Mind

Despite the popular mythology that video games “rot your brain,” the truth is quite the opposite. With the right application, PC, or console game, you could improve your decision-making, attention, and quick thinking skills, all while enjoying yourself. This list provides a good starting point for anyone looking to get smarter with the power of technology.

Get Smarter: 26 Apps & Video Games to Sharpen Your Mind
 

Games are vitamins for your brain.

Despite the popular mythology that video games “rot your brain,” the truth is quite the opposite. Games improve cognition.

Dedicated video games, such as those on the Xbox, Playstation, Switch, and Steam, aren’t the only option for virtual mental stimulation either—loads of brain training applications are available on your smartphone, just a couple of taps away. With the right application, PC, or console game, you could improve your decision-making, attention, and quick thinking, all while having a blast.

If you’re looking for that perfect brain-boosting game, you’re in good hands. As a Digital Simulation and Game Design student at Shawnee State University in southern Ohio, I’m an avid gamer who follows the industry. I’ve got you covered for gaming and application info.

This list provides a good starting point for anyone looking to get smarter with the power of their phone, computer, or console.

Brain-Boosting Applications

Lumosity

Boosts: Memory, Reaction Time, Logic, Analytics, Mathematics, Language, Spatial Awareness, Attention, Flexibility, Planning

Platform: iOS or Android

Base Cost: Free

Premium Cost: $11.99 a month (Grants additional tracking and information)

Out of all the brain training applications on the iOS and Android app stores, Lumosity is probably the most well-known and popular. It boasts that over 100 million people have downloaded and used it, and the app is highly reviewed and scored on both platforms. The main meat of the application’s brain-training regimen is its 50+ minigames, which are each geared toward improving a specific cognitive function: memory, speed, logic, problem-solving, math, language, and more. After an initial test to determine a user’s baseline, Lumosity will rate the facets of the user’s cognition, which allows a user to determine what minigames would be best for patching up their cognitive weaknesses. It may have you fitting objects into a packed suitcase, delivering the correct bags to guests at a hotel, or placing tiles according to an ever-changing set of rules.

Elevate

Boosts: Memory, Comprehension, Logic, Analytics, Mathematics, Language, Attention, Listening, Speaking

Platform: iOS or Android

Base Cost: Free (Subscribes by default, but a free version is available)

Premium Cost: $4.99 a month (Grants full version of the app)

While Elevate doesn’t have quite the popularity and number of downloads as Lumosity, it scores higher in ratings and was also awarded Apple’s App of the Year 2014 on the App Store and is an Editor’s Choice on the Play Store. Much like Lumosity, Elevate uses minigames to help users improve specific cognitive skills, with each minigame designed to boost a particular skill. These minigames are primarily geared around interpreting words and numbers. The app also rates the user’s cognition through five categories: Writing, Listening, Speaking, Reading, and Math, with an overall score calculated by averaging the five categories.

Peak

Boosts: Memory, Logic, Analytics, Language, Attention, Flexibility, Planning, Coordination, Creativity, Emotion Control

Platform: iOS or Android

Base Cost: Free

Premium Cost: $4.99

Peak is another brain-training application that relies on minigames to do most of its cognitive training. The selection is slightly smaller than Lumosity and Elevate, with about 40+ games offered. To balance this out, Peak offers a selection of unique features. For example, the Peak app comes with a built in virtual coach, which is designed to suggest challenges, keep track of improvements, and showcase avenues of improvement. The app also offers “Advanced Training Plans” which focus heavily on improving a particular skill. To top it all off, Peak even allows a few of its games to be played on the Apple Watch, which reveals the app maker’s attention to detail.

CogniFit

Boosts: Memory, Logic, Analytics, Mathematics, Language, Attention, Planning, Coordination

Platform: iOS or Android

Base Cost: Free

Premium Cost: $19.99 a month

CogniFit offers similar benefits and brain-training exercises to the other apps mentioned above, but it stands out by offering tests and training designed to assess and reverse the cognitive deficits caused by specific cognitive maladies such as Insomnia, ADD/ADHD, Memory Loss, and more. CogniFit claims to be closely associated with and used by medical experts, such as neuroscientists, researchers, and medical professionals. In addition, users can compare their cognitive scores against other users, and the app monitors and encourages routine check-ins. CogniFit, the company behind the app, was founded in 1999, making it one of the first companies to develop brain-training strategies.

Happify

Boosts: Emotion Control, Mindfulness, Coping Skills

Platform: iOS or Android

Base Cost: Free

Premium Cost: $14.99 a month

What sets Happify apart from the rest of the brain-training applications is its focus on emotion control. It’s all well and good to feel sharper and smarter, but training yourself to maintain a positive mood and cope better with the stresses and worries that life throws at you is just as rewarding, if not more so. Happify’s activities and games have been sorted into several “tracks,” which are focused on combating a specific source of negativity or improving a facet of your life. Each track has its own progress report, specific goals, and targeted activities to ensure improvement.

Personal Zen

Boosts: Emotion Control, Stress Relief

Platform: iOS

Base Cost: Free (for now)

Premium Cost: $12.99

It’s all too easy to focus on the negative. Negativity bias is a real phenomenon, and it can cause your mind to become hung up on relatively unimportant issues, making it harder to appreciate your positive moments and successes. Personal Zen is designed to circumvent your brain’s negativity bias and help you to relax, allowing for a better appreciation of life in general. In Personal Zen, you are instructed to trace the path left by a “sprite” with a smiling face with your finger, while avoiding the path left by an angry sprite. Tracing this path requires focus and attention, which helps to tune out negativity. It’s a simple app, but by directing your attention towards a positive task, you can train your brain to feel better.

Sudoku.com

Boosts: Logic, Analytics, Mathematics, Planning

Platform: iOS or Android

Base Cost: Free

Ad-Free Cost: $4.99

Sudoku is well known for its stimulating effects on the mind, and this application makes it more accessible than ever. It’s a classic rules and deduction numbers game—you are given a partially filled 9 by 9 grid of numbers 1 through 9, and must fill in the grid so that no two numbers are reused in a row or column on the grid. You also can’t reuse any numbers within the 9 sections that the grid is divided into. This application also comes with some additional features, such as number hints, mistake checking, a notes section to keep track of possible numbers, statistics tracking, and special events and challenges. If you ever need some brain exercise, Sudoku.com will be able to provide.

Complex Digital Board Games

Lords of Waterdeep

Boosts: Logic, Analytics, Planning, Risk Assessment, Optimization, Forethought, Allocation

Platform: iOS or Android

Base Cost: $3.99

Expansion Costs: $1.99

While most games would prefer to put players in the shoes of adventurers who complete quests in the name of fortune and glory, Lords of Waterdeep takes place higher up the chain of command. As one of the hidden Lords of Waterdeep, it is your job to place your agents to recruit adventurers and ensure that quests get completed, a job complicated by other Lords of Waterdeep who are also trying to do the same thing first. By expanding your influence throughout the city and reaping quest rewards, you might gain an edge against them, but they are just as capable of turning the tide as you. At the end of the game, each lord’s hidden character card is revealed to augment their winnings based on certain conditions, encouraging long-term planning and strategy. In a game of power grabs and resource management, it’s the cleverest plans that lead to victory.

Race for the Galaxy

Boosts: Logic, Analytics, Spatial Awareness, Planning, Risk Assessment, Optimization, Forethought, Allocation

Platform: iOS or Android

Base Cost: $6.99

Expansion Costs: $3.99

In Race for the Galaxy, you control an up-and-coming galactic civilization pitted against several other growing civilizations in a bid to become technologically and socially advanced enough to gain control of the entire galaxy. The gameplay is pretty simple: you play cards that make it easier for you to play more cards or get resources, which can be turned into points that determine the game’s winner. What makes Race for the Galaxy so mechanically interesting is its “phase system.” Each phase only allows certain actions to take place. At the start of each round, each player chooses the phases they want to happen, but if a phase doesn’t get picked, then it doesn’t happen. Will you choose a particular phase to ensure that it happens that round, or will you choose another phase because you think someone else is gunning for it as well? In Race for the Galaxy, the options and approaches you can take to win are nearly limitless.

Terraforming Mars

Boosts: Logic, Analytics, Planning, Risk Assessment, Optimization, Forethought, Allocation

Platform: iOS or Android

Base Cost: $8.99

In Terraforming Mars, each of the players controls megacorporations competing to have the greatest impact in, well, terraforming Mars. This is accomplished by bombarding the planet with asteroids to raise the temperature, placing greenery tiles to increase the oxygen level, and tapping aquifers to create oceans. To accomplish this, players buy and play cards, both of which cost money that must be carefully managed. As more cards are played, the players gain greater resource production, abilities, and income. As your engine builds, more and more opportunities become available, allowing your corporation to operate to its fullest potential. While building your corporation, you also must not forget about the game board—location is everything when it comes to placing forests, oceans, cities, and special tiles. Terraforming Mars is a game that really makes you feel like you’re building a better planet, and you’ll need shrewd investments if you want the credit.

Castles of Mad King Ludwig

Boosts: Logic, Analytics, Spatial Awareness, Planning, Risk Assessment, Optimization, Forethought, Allocation

Platform: iOS or Android

Base Cost: $7.99

Mad King Ludwig wants to build his most elaborate and magnificent castle yet, and as one of his building contractors, it’s up to you to satisfy his insane demands before your rivals can! In order to build the castle, players purchase room tiles. The prices for the tiles are set by the Master Builder, who is a different player each round. Once the room tile has been purchased, you must place it in a spot where it not only fits but also compliments each room’s unique role. Every placement counts—a misplaced or wasted tile could spell disaster and disgrace in the eyes of the King. Castles of Mad King Ludwig is guaranteed to make you think, and was one of the Mensa Select awarded board games for 2015.

Video Games for the Mindful

Factorio

Boosts: Logic, Analytics, Spatial Awareness, Planning, Risk Assessment, Optimization, Allocation, Management

Platform: Steam

Base Cost: $30.00

As you could probably guess from the title, Factorio is all about the construction, management, and upkeep of factories and industrial systems. The game starts off by dumping the player character, an engineer, on an alien planet untouched by humans and tasks them with getting the resources and technology required to build an escape rocket. You might start off with a small mining operation, but before long, you’re developing new systems and technologies to improve efficiency and up the scale. By the endgame, your factory complex will be massive and your resources endless, all through the power of your planning and decision making.

Although Factorio hasn’t technically been released yet, you can buy and play it right now through Steam Early Access. The full game is set to be released on August 14, 2020.

TIS-100

Boosts: Logic, Analytics, Computer Language, Planning, Optimization, Abstraction, Coding & Decoding

Platform: Steam) or iPad

Base Cost: $6.99

TIS-100 is probably the closest you can get to learning to program a computer while playing a video game. What makes this game so interesting is that the fictional corrupted computer that the player is ostensibly repairing uses realistic, albeit simplified, computer architecture. Over the course of the game’s 50 puzzles, your understanding of how the TIS-100 “works” and how to work around its limitations will be put to the test. Due to the complexity of TIS-100′s logic and systems, it may not be a game for everyone, but it would serve as an excellent gateway into the interconnected worlds of computer programming, assembly, and architecture.

Baba Is You

Boosts: Logic, Analytics, Flexibility, Planning, Abstraction

Platform: Steam

Base Cost: $14.99

At first glance, Baba Is You looks like just another run-of-the-mill puzzle game. You control a little white sheep creature, the titular Baba, which can push blocks in order to reach its goal, a flag. However, the rules of the game are present in the level as word tiles, and those can be shoved around as well, changing how the world works. With the right pushes, you could allow Baba to walk through walls, turn all the rocks in the level into flags, or even control the flag itself. The game has 200 different levels, each presenting a different spin on the game’s rule-rewriting mechanics and each requiring a unique, outside-the-box solution. Baba is You is charming, creative, and much smarter than it appears.

Return of the Obra Dinn

Boosts: Logic, Analytics, Attention, Flexibility, Deductive Reasoning

Platform: Steam

Base Cost: $19.99

After being lost at sea for four years, the good ship Obra Dinn has returned to port—but as a ghost ship, as all of its passengers and crew are either dead or missing. As an insurance inspector hired by the East India Company, it is up to you to determine what exactly happened to everyone who was on board. Luckily for you, you have been given a special stopwatch called the “Memento Mortem” which allows you to view someone’s final moments by touching their corpse. Those dying moments won’t always reveal everything though, so you will have to piece together clues and details in order to deduce how everything went down. If being a supernatural detective has ever appealed to you, then Return of the Obra Dinn is your game.

Portal & Portal 2

Boosts: Reaction Time, Logic, Analytics, Spatial Awareness, Attention, Flexibility, Planning, Abstraction

Platform: Portal 1 and Portal 2 both available on Steam

Base Costs: $9.99

Both the original Portal and its sequel are widely considered to be among the greatest games of all time. The impact these games have had on the game industry is enormous, and although Portal’s unique mechanics have been replicated in other games since then, none have done a better job of exploring and fleshing out its concepts as the original. In both games, the player is tasked with completing numerous test chambers via the use of a “portal gun” so that they may escape the abandoned “Aperture Science Enrichment Center.” This portal gun allows the player to place two colored portals, which will send the player through the other portal when entered.

While primarily a test of spatial awareness, logic, and puzzle-solving, Portal and its sequel also contain several action sections. These sections may familiarize players with the conventions of faster-paced action games, which are strongly associated with cognitive benefits.

Capitalism Lab

Boosts: Logic, Analytics, Planning, Risk Assessment, Optimization, Allocation, Economics

Platform: Capitalism Lab’s website

Base Costs: $19.99 (Comes bundled with other games)

Capitalism Lab tasks the player with creating and running their own business empire in a simulated city economy. Unlike other business games, which simplify business principles for accessibility reasons, the economy simulated within Capitalism Lab is highly detailed and realistic. In order to keep your business’ doors open, you will have to plan and implement real-world business strategies. That requires managing your business’ materials purchasing, manufacturing, storage, retail strategy, marketing, finances, shares, investments, research, development, and much more. It’s a lot of work, but extremely gratifying when your empire is thriving. Capitalism Lab’s complexity may alienate some players, but it is full of real-world knowledge and applications and is an unmatched game when it comes to economic simulation.

Human Resource Machine & 7 Billion Humans

Boosts: Logic, Analytics, Planning, Optimization, Abstraction, Coding & Decoding

Platform: Human Resource Machine on Steam, 7 Billion Humans on Steam), Human Resource Machine on iOS, 7 Billion Humans on iOS), and Human Resource Machine on Android

Base Cost: $14.99 on Steam, $4.99 on iOS and Android

Want to dip your toes into computer programming, but don’t feel ready to tackle the TIS-100? Human Resource Machine and its sequel, 7 Billion Humans might be more your style. Human Resource Machine simplifies the coding process by representing it in an office environment—you are tasked with correctly sorting boxes from an inbox to an outbox, with the caveat that you don’t directly control your character. Instead, you instruct them on how to act in sorting the boxes, accounting for different box values and exceptions. 7 Billion Humans ups the ante by introducing multiple human characters, which all execute the player’s instructions at once. Together, the two games have about 100 puzzles to solve.

Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training for Nintendo Switch

Boosts: Memory, Reaction Time, Logic, Analytics, Mathematics, Language, Spatial Awareness, Attention, Flexibility, Planning

Platform: Nintendo Switch

Base Cost: $40 (Varies)

Dr Kawahima’s Brain Training for Nintendo Switch is part of the Brain Age series, which debuted on the Nintendo DS in 2005. The Brain Age series can be considered a precursor to modern brain-training applications, as many brain-training applications use techniques and conventions that originally appeared in the first Brain Age game. Like the brain-training apps, Brain Training for Switch is a collection of various puzzle minigames, each designed to test a certain facet of cognition. These minigames are unlocked daily as the game is played, and can be practiced freely. The game also has a “Brain Age Check” mode where three minigames are played in quick succession, and then the player’s “Brain Age” is calculated based on the speed and accuracy of their minigame performance. With Nintendo Switch Online, players can take part in a multiplayer championship mode, in which their minigame times are compared to other players.

Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes

Boosts: Memory, Reaction Time, Logic, Analytics, Mathematics, Language, Spatial Awareness, Attention, Flexibility, Planning, Communication

Platform: Steam, iOS, and Android

Base Cost: $14.99 on Steam, $9.99 on iOS and Android

Unlike most of the games on this list, Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes is a multiplayer-only game, so you’re going to need to rope a friend or two into playing it. This game is specifically designed to test your communication skills—one of the players is tasked with defusing a modular bomb, while the other players assist by reading the first player a bomb-defusing manual. However, the player with the bomb isn’t supposed to be able to see the manual, and vice-versa. What follows is a frantic and fun shouting match as each group of players desperately tries to convey to the others what they’re seeing so that the player with the bomb doesn’t get blown up. Can you keep it together under fire, or will your team’s efforts go up in flames?

Sid Meier’s Civilization 6

Boosts: Logic, Analytics, Spatial Awareness, Planning, Risk Assessment, Optimization, Forethought, Allocation

Platform: Steam or iOS

Base Cost: $59.99 on Steam, $19.99 on iOS (Grants demo period)

Expansion Costs: Varies

Sid Meier’s Civilization 6 is a turn-based strategy game that plays remarkably similar to, and was inspired by, board games. At the start of a match, the player is given control of a fledgling civilization that will have to compete with other player-controlled or AI-controlled civilizations on a hex-based tile board. To increase their civilization’s power, players can build new cities, build improvements on their cities, capture land, gather resources, create more units, research technology, spy on their opponents, and develop their culture and government. There are multiple ways to achieve victory in Civilization 6, and all of the player’s improvements can augment and alter their strategies and how they interact with other players. It’s a great way to exercise your on-the-fly strategic thinking.

Into the Breach

Boosts: Logic, Analytics, Planning, Risk Assessment, Optimization, Forethought, Allocation

Platform: Steam

Base Cost: $14.99

Into the Breach is a turn-based strategy game about defending cities and structures from giant monsters with your own giant robots and tanks. Unlike most other strategy games, Into the Breach gives the player unique insight: before you make a move, you are shown exactly what each one of the monsters will do next turn, allowing you to plan accordingly. In each mission, after defending for a certain amount of turns, the monsters will be driven off, and your mechs will become stronger depending on how many monsters they defeated and what you accomplished. Should you eventually fail a mission, you can send one of your mechs and its pilot back in time to the first mission, which restarts the game but retains your upgrades. Into the Breach puts an interesting and thought-provoking spin on the strategy genre.

Darkest Dungeon

Boosts: Logic, Analytics, Planning, Risk Assessment, Forethought, Allocation

Platform: Steam or iOS)

Base Cost: $24.99 on Steam, $4.99 on iOS

Expansion Cost: Varies

Darkest Dungeon begins with you experiencing every gold digger’s dream—inheriting a wealthy estate from a dead relative. Unfortunately, said dead relative unearthed a gateway to somewhere alien and terrible underneath the estate’s manor, and it’s up to you to purge the estate and nearby lands of the criminals, cultists, and abominations that have taken up residence. Well, not personally. Instead, you hire a party of adventurers to do the fighting for you, while you direct their actions and keep them in fighting shape. Adventuring is a mentally and physically taxing job, and your adventurers will be pushed to the brink by the horrors forced upon them. A bad judgment call could result in the death of your whole party, and these heroes die for good. Your own strategies and clever thinking are the only thing keeping your party from going insane, dying, or falling prey to something even worse.

Rocksmith 2014 Remastered

Boosts: Memory, Reaction Time, Attention, Rhythm, Music Skills

Platform: Steam

Base Cost: $29.99

Rocksmith 2014 is more than just your run-of-the-mill rhythm game like Guitar Hero or Beat Saber, as the game is more geared towards actually teaching the player how to play the guitar. With a specialized adapter, a physical electric or bass guitar can be plugged into the player’s computer and used as a controller. The game also provides lessons covering the essentials of playing a guitar, such as how to play riffs, chords, vibrato, bends, slides, accents, and the like. During normal gameplay, the player is shown a visualization of a guitar fretboard and a track that displays the upcoming notes of the song that the player is playing. The player is rated based on the accuracy of their real-world guitar strumming. With a high enough score and some memorization, the player would effectively be able to play the song in real life. Rocksmith is more of a game for aspiring or accomplished musicians, but it’s a great learning experience.

The Witness

Boosts: Logic, Analytics, Abstraction

Platform: Steam or iOS

Base Cost: $39.99 on Steam, $9.99 on iOS

As far as games go, The Witness is remarkably simple. The player is placed on a puzzle-filled island and set free to complete them at their leisure. There is no action, there is no danger, just puzzles. As such, The Witness has such a low barrier to entry that anyone could play it, provided that they like puzzles. Each puzzle is solved by drawing a path through a grid that fulfills certain conditions, such as separating white squares from black squares and ending at a specific place on the path. The island has several different areas, which each present a slightly different spin on the game’s puzzle-solving formula. The Witness may be a little too low-key for some players, but If you’re looking for a puzzle game that will provide you with a unique and relaxing experience, then The Witness is for you.

Kerbal Space Program

Boosts: Logic, Analytics, Spatial Awareness, Planning, Risk Assessment, Optimization, Allocation, Structural Mechanics

Platform: Steam

Base Cost: $39.99 on Steam

Kerbal Space Program is literally rocket science. While the little creatures the player directs and controls to build those rockets may be fantastical, the physics in this game is anything but. There are several modes of play, such as a sandbox mode for free play, a science mode where parts must be researched, and a career mode where money is used to build rockets, but the main draw is the rocket building itself. Using a set of pre-made components, the player can create and launch rockets, airplanes, satellites, and even eventually space stations. Not all of your creations will make it into space or even off the ground, but if your rocket swan-dives unexpectedly it’s still fun to sit back and watch what happens. A sequel to Kerbal Space Program is scheduled for release in 2021, so if you don’t feel like picking up the original, waiting is also an option.

Following is a list of articles supporting the beneficial effects of brain apps and video games.

Video Game Effect Articles

Brain Apps Effect Articles

Board Games Effect Articles

The image above is attributed to the The Kerbal Space Program video game.