Research & Development
Playful aging: digital games offer gains for seniors
March 4, 2020
VANCOUVER – A newly released white paper shows that digital games can help to maintain and improve health and quality of life for older adults who face physical, mental and social changes of aging.
“I was surprised to see the wide range of benefits we found and have been reported around playing digital games,” says the paper’s co-author Dr. David Kaufman (pictured), a researcher with AGE-WELL – Canada’s Technology and Aging Network – and a professor in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University (SFU).
“For many seniors, this would be a very good approach to maintain their cognitive and physical abilities, social connectedness and lifelong learning,” said Dr. Kaufman, also an associate member of SFU’s Gerontology Department and Faculty of Health Sciences.
Dr. Kaufman collaborated on the new paper, titled Playful Aging: Digital Games for Older Adults, with SFU colleague Dr. Alice Ireland and Dr. Louise Sauvé, honorary professor in the Faculty of Education at Université TÉLUQ and director of the Centre for Research in LifeLong Learning.
Drs. Kaufman and Sauvé lead an AGE-WELL project to develop digital games that enhance seniors’ lives. The paper summarizes five years of research findings and other related studies from around the world.
The AGE-WELL research team is working with older adults to develop a series of digital, online and virtual reality games to improve social interactions, reduce loneliness and social isolation, and encourage intergenerational gameplay and continued learning.
Take, for example, an Alice in Wonderland-themed digital escape room game, where players collaborate to solve puzzles and accomplish tasks in order to escape from virtual rooms in a limited time.
Other digital games developed by the research team include: SolitaireQuiz, TicTacQuiz and a Bingo quiz game called Live Well, Live Healthy! – all based on games familiar to older adults but with an added bonus of educational content. For example, the Bingo quiz features pop-up questions about nutrition, physical exercise, socialization and disease prevention, which older adults found valuable and relevant.
The white paper also shares evidence that exergames – digital games based on physical movement – may improve physical health including mobility and balance, and appear to be effective for stroke and Parkinson’s rehabilitation, fall prevention, general physical training and encouraging physical activity. AGE-WELL research and other studies report cognitive benefits from digital gameplay, including mental exercise, improved focus, attention, memory and reaction speed, problem solving and reasoning.
Dr. Kaufman cautions that most commercial games on the market are not appropriate for older adults for a variety of reasons – from game content and the size of type on the screen, to steep learning curves and speed of play. Games must be user-friendly and designed with the participation of older adults, he stresses. This ensures the games are accessible, as well as easy to learn and remember. Digital games for older adults should include features such as adjustable levels of difficulty, since there is tremendous variation in older adults’ capabilities.
Despite powerful evidence that digital games can offer benefits for seniors, the white paper authors acknowledge that “today’s digital game industry seems to largely ignore the older adult market.”
This is happening as Canadians over the age of 65 outnumber children for the first time, and older adults are projected to make up about one-quarter of the country’s population by 2036.
Dr. Kaufman believes that the digital gaming industry will catch on to the changing demographics and realize “there is going to be a market for digital games for older adults. Certainly, that’s the next big commercial opportunity.”
How can this impact the lives of older Canadians?
“If digital games become as much a part of the culture as television, which is a passive activity, then seniors will get the benefit of doing something active, physical, cognitive and social. I hope to see digital games become a normal part of entertainment and life for older adults.”