My grandmother did not understand video games. Grandpa was a very technical guy, owned an electronics store and fixed up antique radios (in a bid for the coolest hobby ever), so some of that knowhow must have rubbed off on her. Yet when she looked at our original Nintendo system, I think she saw a Ouija board mixed with some sort of atomic device. I remember handing her one of the controllers (“Is this the remote control?”) once while we were playing Super Mario Bros. and I may as well have handed her a plastic-coated electronic snake, so unnerved by it did she seem.
Today, Grandma has little games on her phone.
A New Paradigm
The two clichés of “video games are for kids” and “the elderly are hopelessly technically enfeebled” are slammed together like a toddler playing with Hot Wheels and forever destroyed with the news that 27% of active gamers in the United States are age fifty or older. Computers in Human Behavior has found that sixty percent of their older adult sample were either regular or occasional gamers on some sort of electronic device. That same study found that non-gaming seniors were more likely to suffer from depression, while those that gamed scored higher for overall well-being and social functioning. The sample of seniors came from senior and religious centers, as well as individuals living alone or with family. There is now a larger study meant to measure “how variables within social computing environments improve older adult cognition, what properties of an environment are critical, and empirically test these properties in interventions with older adults.”
Seniors are also increasing their spending on hobby-related activities: for those aged 65 to 74, “miscellaneous entertainment” is one of the fastest-growing expenditure categories, experiencing a 9.8% growth annually since 1990. This category includes electronic video games. So the next time you see an older loved one squinting at her phone, don’t be ageist—it’s probable she’s not trying to figure out the newfangled texting, but more likely she’s trying to get to the next level of her favorite game.
Leave it to seniors, too, to do it right. The National Senior Wii Bowling League is an example of a widespread and fast-growing pastime. The past season (2015) consisted of over 1,500 bowlers from 310 teams, representing a total of 100 communities across 26 states. Groups are organized into four-person teams that are divided into divisions. The groups play a 7 week schedule followed by a 3-4 week conference playoff. The league is represented by many 55+ communities and senior living groups. Video games are helping the elderly find recreational activities that are compatible with their general state of health, as well as allowing them to be even more social.
These findings challenge the notion that video games are not an art form as valid as film and music. Now that every age, from four to one hundred and four, enjoy gaming, it means that as a nation we are gamers. Hopefully this isn’t the harbinger of when we’re all Matrix’d into computers, but rather a future where we are all happy, active and alert, cognitively stimulated both by the world around us and the worlds we can hold in our hands.
That probably means, too, grandma can kick your butt at Wii Bowling. Yeah, let that sink in. Maybe show her Mario Kart, so you can have a couple of weeks of being better than her at something, before she catches up to you there, too. Don’t think grandma won’t throw blue shells at you. She’ll cackle while she does it.
UC San Francisco is home to some frankly radical scientists who have designed a special 3D video game for older citizens, and are now reporting they have found a way to reverse some of the effects of aging on the brain. The game, called NeuroRacer is designed to improve cognitive control. It’s a simple game, not exactly what we’d think of as recreational games (although I’d argue that playing Mass Effect improves my cognitive functions SO GET OFF MY CASE MOM). Seniors drive a race car around a track that twists and turns while a lot of different signage goes by; they are told to look for a specific type and to push a button with the game when they see it, ignoring the other signs. So the nature of the brain multitasking (controlling the car, pressing the button when they see the specific signs) “generates interference with the brain that undermines performance.” But if these seniors played the game enough, eventually participants in the study got better, and within just a month these adults (aged 60 to 85) could perform the test just as well as the younger (adults in their 20s) control group. In fact, their performance surpassed the ability of the 20-year-olds when the younger subjects were playing the game for the first time.
The game is designed to compensate for increased skill in playing it, so as the seniors get better at the game the game gets harder. Now the scientists say that this separates NeuroRacer from other video games, because the game acts like a teacher that prevents people from reaching a state of “autopilot” once they’ve grokked to a skill. But it doesn’t take a PhD in video games (which should totally be a thing) to see that that is pretty much exactly what all video games have in common.
This isn’t to say undermine the wonderful work NeuroRacer and the wonderful people at UCSF, especially when it is made clear that participants also improve in the areas of working memory and sustained attention (they maintain their ability in these games for half a year or so after the training had ended, even if they weren’t still playing). Moreover, it proves that even in the late stages the older adult brain is still very capable of learning, so we can finally put that axiom about old dogs and new tricks to bed. But stating that NeuroRacer fundamentally behaves like most video games is important because that means that there’s a high likelihood that a lot if not most video games could have this same cognitively stimulating effect.
This new avenue for the use of video games (diagnostic and therapeutic tools) is incredibly exciting and useful, and could be a massive benefit for seniors for the permanent future. It’s also just incredibly, ironically nifty that all this time, while deriding us whipper snappers for our video gaming ways, older adults should have been playing right alongside us. When you finally look at the breakdown of age statistics among gamers, we can see that pretty much everyone games now no matter how old they are.
We also need as many things as possible to connect us with our older population. It’s too easy for society to move on without people of a certain age, and we lose that wisdom and experience while its sitting right there in that arm chair waiting to share. So maybe start playing games with your grandpa, youngsters: you might see them as less lame than before, and maybe some of their knowledge and advice will rub off on you, because I can pretty confidently say we need as much of it as we can get.