I asked this question to Alex Colket, who has developed more than 100 brain training games at PlayWithYourMind.com. As an "amateur neuroscientist" and a professional game developer, he has done extensive research into the skills that brain fitness games can develop. Here is a short list of the skills he thinks are most important in brain fitness.
LanguageGames can exercise various aspects of our language skills. Most commonly they target vocabulary (increasing the number of words you know) and retrieval (making it easier for you to access and use them). Other games can help you learn grammar/syntax, while specially designed exercises can help you hone the auditory skills necessary for properly processing spoken language. One of the best ways to develop language skills and improve your brain fitness is to learn a foreign language or review a language that you learned a long time ago.
Problem SolvingMany of the puzzle/strategy games on the market provide excellent opportunities to exercise your problem solving skills. Such games require you develop complex strategies and plan things out in advance, giving your prefrontal cortex a great workout and helping to improve your brain fitness. Sudoku is a popular example of a problem solving game.
MemoryMemory comes in many different forms, some of which are commonly used in games. Working memory, sensory memory & motor memory are often put to work in games as you keep track of objects, locations, events and other information required to successfully play. Other types of memory, like long-term memory are difficult to work into games and brain fitness programs, but luckily, do not change as much as we age.
AttentionAttention is central to just about any game you are playing. In a way, it is a prerequisite to all these other processes as your brain must be alert and ready before you can successfully employ other cognitive functions. Games are excellent tools to keep your mind alert (ready to process new sensory information) and focused (able to pay attention to something specific amidst myriad distractions). Before you even start playing, the mere act of learning how to play gives your attention a workout. Meditation is a non-game, but will do wonders for your attention. If you are looking to improve your score in a game, try some meditation.
Eye-hand coordinationAny game that requires extensive and quick use of your keyboard, mouse, or a game controller/joystick exercises this mental faculty. Processing visual information on the screen and translating it into accurate movements of of your hands and fingers is valuable in developing that necessary link between vision and movement. Be sure to include eye-hand coordination games in your brain fitness program.
Visuospatial SkillsMany games require you to visually manipulate objects in space. Gameplay such as this is invaluable in developing strong spatial skills and giving your mind the ability to mentally rearrange and organize things without having to physically do it. This can help with visualizing maps, following directions and picturing objects in your mind.
Time SensationTracking the duration of time is another skill that is often put to use in games. Knowing how much time has elapsed since an event occurred - or how long it will be until something happens - is an under-appreciated but very important aspect of brain fitness that can be improved by playing games.
Multi-TaskingAs our lives become increasingly hectic and multi-dimensional, the ability to multi-task becomes more and more important. Many games provide a great workout for this skill as they require you to juggle multiple activities at once. Being good at multi-tasking is an essential skill, but you should try single-tasking to be more productive and efficient.
Processing SpeedAn important aspect of intelligence and brain fitness is the ability to interpret and act on information quickly. Generally, a faster brain means a sharper and better-organized mind. Games are an ideal vehicle to increase your processing speed as many of them require you to think and act with great speed. Many computer or web-based games can help develop your brain's processing speed by feeding screens and information to you progressively faster.
Pattern RecognitionThe ability to identify a complex arrangement of sensory information and properly categorize it is a valuable real life skill that is often exercised in games. Pattern recognition games typically give you the first few elements of a series and ask you to figure out the next item.
Alex Colket. Play With Your Mind
The Sharp Brains Guide to Brain Fitness by Alvaro Fernandez and Elkhonon Goldberg